I’ve spent most of my career focused on people development in the workplace. I have lots of facts and figures that prove the ROI and lots of tools for what that support looks like. It’s always been important to me, but never more so than it is today. I want to help heal the world. I want to help the disenfranchised find their voice and be heard. I want to help people with different beliefs and opinions sit down with each other and have a real conversation where they truly connect at a human level. I want to help create better parents, better schools, better churches and better communities.
There are all sorts of ways I can contribute, but the one that has the most impact is helping organizations better support and care for their employees. I know at first glance that may sound kind of crazy, but hear me out. I believe, as Abraham Maslow did, that when you support people in the workplace and help them to become not only better workers, but better people, it has a ripple effect. Healthy workers who feel good about themselves and their contribution, take that good feeling home with them. They become better spouses, better parents and better citizens. As Maslow said in Maslow on Management – “Proper management of the work lives of human beings, of the way in which they earn a living, can improve the world and in this sense be a utopian or revolutionary technique.”
Maslow believed so strongly in the role of the organization that he suggested companies who didn’t take their responsibilities seriously were getting a free ride from the taxpayers.
“Any company that restricts its goals purely to its own profits, its own production and its own sales is getting a kind of free ride from me and other taxpayers. I help pay for the schools and the police department and the fire department and the health department and everything else in order to keep the society healthy, which in turn supplies high-level workers and managers to such companies at little expense to them. I feel they should, in order to be fair, make more returns to the society than they are making – that is in terms of producing good citizens, people who because of their good work situation can themselves be benevolent, charitable, kind, altruistic, etc. in the community.”
Companies often give lots of money and support to charities which is wonderful, but what if they spent a similar amount of time, energy and money taking care of the people in their employ? In Everybody Matters, Bob Chapman, CEO of Barry Wehmiller, talks about how taking care of people in your organization does far more for the wellbeing of the community and the world around you than contributions to charity.
“So many American businesses destroy lives every day, but we make a lot of money, and then we feel really good when we write a check to the United Way for $1 million. But I believe we are creating the need for the United Way in the first place by destroying the lives of the people who create the wealth that enables us to give. I believe the greatest charity is what we could do at work every day to take care of the people entrusted to us.”
Wow! I encourage you to reflect on that for a few minutes and to think about what you can do in your organization today, tomorrow and next week, to take better care of the people around you. I’ll write more about specific cultural elements and practices in the weeks to come, but for now I want to leave you a brief look at the elements of an organization that truly cares for and supports its people.
An unshakable faith in people’s capacity. At the heart of truly human support is a deep-seated belief that people are inherently good, capable and driven by more than money. It is the “sane leadership” that Margaret Wheatley so eloquently describes in Who Do We Choose to Be?
“Sane leadership is the unshakeable faith in people’s capacity to be generous, creative and kind. It is the commitment to create the conditions for these capacities to blossom, protected from the external environment. It is the deep knowing that, even in the most dire circumstances, more becomes possible as people engage together with compassion and discernment, self-determining their way forward.”
It’s not just the belief, it’s also the commitment to make the changes that support the belief. Although most leaders say they believe people are inherently good and capable, management practices often reflect just the opposite. Power and decision-making remain concentrated at the top, there is limited communication and information sharing and strict rules and policies control virtually every aspect of work life. All these seemingly innocuous practices and behaviors reflect a lack of trust in people’s abilities and judgement.
If you believe people are inherently good, capable and self-motivated, you must demonstrate that commitment, not only through your own behavior and actions but also in the day-to-day practices of your organization. Committed leaders drive change to ensure values are actualized.
Support for all aspects of a person. For many of us, we’re one person at work and another outside of work. Our lives, thoughts and behaviors are compartmentalized. We don’t dare talk about our real feelings, our politics or our spirituality at work. Most of us don’t even talk about our families or our lives outside of work. It takes a lot of energy to maintain separate lives. Imagine if we didn’t have to do that and we could bring our whole selves to work every day.
Truly human support means creating an environment that supports all aspects of a person – physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. People are inspired and supported to not only do good work, but also to be good people. Marc Gafni believes that “businesses can be the great cathedrals of spirit, places in which meaning can be created, in which mutuality begins to happen, and the force in the world fulfilling the values of the great spiritual traditions: trust, intimacy, a shared vision, cooperation, collaboration, friendship and love.” I agree.
Support for inner work. We support and reward people for their outer work – what they produce, achieve or deliver. We talk about productivity and results and we’re constantly pushing people to do more. What if we spent an equal amount of time encouraging, supporting and rewarding people for their inner work – helping them self-examine, deal with insecurities, learn to forgive, love and choose better thoughts.
What if, in addition to assessing employees against traditional performance goals, we also looked at personal growth metrics, how much they helped other people in the organization and how much they contributed to improving the culture?
There are many who would argue that the workplace is not the place for this inner work or personal development. My response to that, is if not here, then where? We spend a huge amount of time working, and even when we’re not working, we spend a huge amount of their time thinking about work. Work is a part of our identity and it is through our work that we express who we are, what we believe, what we value and how we see the world.
We are all wired to grow psychologically. Companies can benefit themselves, the individual, the individual’s families, the community and the world if they encourage and support that growth.
Fifty years ago Maslow predicted a world in which “human potential will be the primary source of competitive advantage in almost every industry, every organization and every institution.” It’s taken awhile, but I’d like to think we’re on our way to making that vision a reality.