Humanizing Workplace Relationships – People Aren’t Tasks

“For me, my role is about unleashing what people already have inside them that are maybe suppressed in most work environment.”                Tony Hseih, Zappos CEO
Is the “modern” workplace designed for people?
Are the systems created for work designed to maximize productivity and profit or human well-being?
Who factors in the real cost of human labor when analyzing productivity and profits?
What do most managers believe they are managing?  
I have far more questions than I have answers on this topic. In fact, I think we’re now on new terrain when it comes to redefining the meaning of work in a global “supply chain” world.  While it may seem absurd that in one part of the world children are still working in coal mines; while in another, companies like Google have installed, Chief Culture Officers, this is the new “normal.”
It all seems a bit crazy – sort of upside down, doesn’t it?  On one end of the spectrum some companies haven’t even gotten the Henry Ford message, while at the other end, a company like Patagonia is advising customers to resole their old shoes before they consider buying new ones.
In her address at the Barnard College 2010 commencement, actor Meryl Streep captured the essence of the times we now live in, “There is no ‘normal.’ There’s only change, and resistance to it, and then more change.”
Design Mind blogger, Tim Leberecht, writes about the nascent movement among some “business leaders who are talking about the “Human Age” and claiming that capitalism is being replaced by “talentism,” defined as access to talent as a key resource and differentiator.”  According to Leberecht, “Many companies have embarked on initiatives to unleash their human potential. Those are big words and noble ambitions and naturally they seem worth striving for.”
But back here on Earth, I’m hearing lots of stories about workplace cultures that aren’t envisioning a glorious new Human Age in the workplace; rather we are talking to employees who don’t even believe they have five minutes to have a non-task oriented conversation with a co-worker.   One manager recently shared, “I’d like to foster stronger bonds and closer relationships, not only because I know that’s what’s needed to build collaboration, but because it would feel better.”
While there are many factors that drive the norms that shape today’s workplace (key among them being the atrophied legacy of command and control models of organization)  the hard reality is the structure of most organizations simply isn’t set up  to optimize human potential.  Tim Leberecht points out, “There appears to be a fundamental chasm between individual human behavior – which is expansive and multidimensional, ranging from the rational to the wildly irrational, sentimental and unpredictable – and the design of organizations, rational, practical, results oriented and engineered to perform consistently.”
Despite the small, emerging visionary organization or bold leader that truly gets that business as usual is about to be over in the near future; most senior leaders are still remarkably ignorant of the basics of human dynamics.  Even more telling is the general lack of awareness of group dynamics that most managers of people have.
The belief that work is and should be a function of solely “rational” processes is still the dominant theme that underpins the foundation of how work is organized.
Even the typical change initiative introduced by well-meaning organizational leaders suffers from high rates of failure because of the importance that society and business continue to place on being “logical” and “rational.”  Writing on the limits of rationality, Covert Processes at Work author, Robert Marshak identifies three reasons why change efforts fail:

  • Most change agents rely primarily on rational approaches to foster organizational change
  • Most change initiatives actually involve significant non-rational dynamics and processes
  • Most change agents still insist on operating as if organizational change is a rational process

The over-reliance on the belief that most organizational processes are solely rational ignores what Marshak calls the covert processes that undermine most work and consequently workplace relationships. Marshak defines these processes as “any hidden or unconscious dynamic”. These are the beliefs and feelings that underlie people’s behavior. They affect what we do, even though we may not be aware of them.
It’s important to note that these dynamics stem from three sources: the internal (these are the personal processes that each individual brings to the workplace culture) the interpersonal (these are the dynamics generated by interactions between people) and the structural (these are the processes shaped by organizational norms, policies, rules, etc).  The interplay of these three processes shapes workplace relationships. And while the power of culture unequivocally impels the nature of workplace relations, there is a significant role individuals can play in the choices they make in relating to others in the workplace.
Make no mistake – the mantra to HUMANIZE the workplace and UNLEASH HUMAN POTENTIAL is simply not the responsibility of organizational architects and leadership – it is as much about how each person engages their colleagues in the process of work.  After all, a culture is an aggregate of tiny, everyday gestures, comments and actions that form day-to-day work life.

To Humanize – Stay Human

“When we change the way we communicate, we change the society.” 

Clay Shirkey, Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations

People are not tasks. I’m still surprised when I meet people in the workplace who don’t believe that people are the most important part of their jobs.  Sadly, the people are a means to my end meme still dominates. Granted, many people are disengaged, burnt out and disempowered – whatever the word du jour is – and can’t summon up the energy to deal with diverse personalities and needs and intense organizational pressures and demands.
Conversely, this suffering is a symptom of the de-humanization process. An over reliance on the rational (we’re here to work!) and on emotions that don’t feed the human spirit (anxiety, mistrust, resentment, frustration) all contribute to the  sense of exhaustion and disillusionment  that many employees feel.
Your business needs are not the same as your personal needs. Another symptom of the de-humanized work environment are chronically unmet needs. This is often completely out of our conscious awareness.  In my work, I often ask clients in group settings to identify what they need to work optimally. Commonly, what I hear in return are the lists of things the organization or team needs to get the job done.  This suggests that workers are often totally divorced from their own internal drives and desires.  We’re particularly out of touch with our psychological needs.
Typically, universal human needs are not identified to us as children so we adopt a set of usually unsuccessful strategies that are a poor substitute to satisfying our real needs.  For example, I hear many people in the workplace saying they need more work-life balance (well at least that’s a start from identifying corporate needs as ones’ own).
The term work-life balance sounds (particularly in a public setting) a lot better (within organizational norms) than saying – I need more sleep or I need some quiet time to rest my mind.  To humanize, we must acknowledge our humanness and stop acting as if we are automatons who can keep moving, thinking and producing (optimally) for 12 hours a day.
One of my favorite quotes regarding human needs in the workplace comes from author and founder of Nonviolent Communication, Marshall Rosenberg, whose reminder that, “People who are in touch with their needs do not make good slaves” should be placed on every work station in the global workplace.
Cynicism is the enemy of humanization. Personally, I find cynicism exhausting. Cynicism’s not chic or cool, it’s debilitating. It devalues contribution, creativity and sincerity. Ultimately, it is an unsuccessful defense mechanism against disappointment and despair.  Dropping our cynicism doesn’t have to mean we lose our discernment, in fact, I believe the lens of cynicism clouds our ability to perceive clearly.  I have to believe that treating others humanely, with caring, respect, empathy and consideration of their needs, matters.  When I act this way, I contribute to the generation of more humanity within my workplace.
Innovation is not Humanization.  In his Harvard Business Review article, Please, Can We All Stop Innovating,” author Bill Taylor asks, “So what if we all stopped trying to “innovate” — and started trying to have fun and really do something new? And what if we set ourselves a more basic (and more authentic) set of challenges as we look to the future? What difference are we trying to make in our field? What do we care about?  How can we reimagine the sense of what’s possible?
I pose these questions to you. Don’t you want more humanization in the workplace? We’re probably in agreement that most organizations aren’t ready to release their grip of power over the processes they think they control, right? So what are you willing to do? What’s needed in your workplace relationships? Are you willing to take the first steps?
Wherever you are within an organization, you can take steps towards creating a more humanized workplace.
Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment, subscribe, share, like and tweet this article. It’s appreciated.
Louise Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication Consultants
Join our mailing list and receive our monthly newsletter and occasional mailings


  1. John Wenger says:

    Another great post, Louise, I especially like this one. You and I seem to resonate to similar themes at similar times, as that word “cynicism” has been bouncing around my head of late. It has just come to my attention recently the number of times I have heard, “That wouldn’t work,” “They wouldn’t be interested in that,” “We have to tell them we’ll help them lift profits; they’ll be scared by anything that seems too radical,” “That’s not mainstream so it wouldn’t sell.” Draining and demoralising. Time for an update! If we don’t start doing what used to be called “daring” and start caring for people, it will never happen. I’m planting my flag in the sand next to yours and saying it’s time for more humanity.

    • John, Good to hear from you.
      Very pleased you appreciate this post. Yes, we’re often on the same wave length. Your comments and examples regarding
      the “draining and demoralizing” effects of cynicism on people and organizations (not to mention entire societies) illustrate the perils of staying this course. After all,
      cynicism is rooted in fear, which you’ve written about so well in a recent article – – which I urge
      readers of this blog to read.
      Cynicism, which sometimes poses as “rationality” to those who point to what doesn’t work as evidence, ultimately produces stagnation and paralysis – something
      that we see happening all over the world in many forms. And it is a simple “rational” fact that we will never “unleash human potential” unless we dig ourselves
      out from all this cautionary self-protection.
      On a macro level, I do believe that because we are in the midst of massive societal change, cynicism seems the safe go-to place, but paradoxically this will
      never produce what we need to rise successfully to the changes and challenges we face.
      Glad to partner with another flag bearer!

  2. hgveitch says:

    Sjo Louise. You managed to capture a lot of my thoughts in beautiful arguments.I agree that the hidden dynamics are the key to re-humanize the workplace. If only we could expand the message that being human is fun and no mystery at all. That allowing ourselves to being human at work as you described it, will actually satisfy “man’s search for meaning” and thus also increase not only productivity but also the quality of productivity.

    • Hi Herman,
      Thanks you for the comment. I think you’ve captured the essence when you point to “mans’ search for meaning.” There is a very interesting new study
      out that shows that when employees are given work tasks that help others in the process their productivity levels not only increase but they
      report much greater satisfaction aka meaning…..
      And by the way, your term “allowing” ourselves to be human at work – is the key. We don’t need work assignments to do it. It’s a moment to moment choice despite the cultural

  3. av8Dr.Martin says:

    Louise, I am always amazed and captivated by the depth and breadth of your commentary. I not only serve under the same flag of Humanistic Identification (O’Connell, 1965), but I waved it for 22 years as a leader in the United States Air Force. I was introduced to humanistic leadership as a young Non-Commissioned Officer in leadership school. It was there, that I learned many truths about caring for those in one’s charge. It was there also, that I was introduced (through video presentation) to Dr. Layne Longfellow and Abraham H. Maslow, who opened my eyes, ears, heart and mind to the importance of the human element in organizations.
    It has been nearly 15 years since I retired from the Air Force. Now I serve as a leader in the corporate world of Aerospace, and as an academic. I have elected to continue serving under the flag of humanness, as I share my knowledge and experiences with those in my charge in the workplace, and in the classroom; these young people are our future leaders, and as such, deserve to be enlightened and treated as people, and not as tasks. I accept the challenge willingly, and without reservation, and welcome those who serve under the same banner to join forces and seek to make leadership synonymous with humanness. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, I really enjoy reading your comments, and welcome you and those who wish to learn more, to visit my Blog:
    Maslow, A. H. (1965). Eupsychian management: A journal. Homewood, IL: Richard D. Irwin, Inc. and The Dorsey Press.
    Maslow, A. H., Stephens, D. C., & Heil, G. (1998). Maslow on management. New York, NY: Wiley.
    O’Connell, W. (1965). Humanistic identification: A new translation for Gemeinschaftsgefühl. Journal of Individual Psychology, 21, 44-47.

    • Hi Bobby,
      Thanks for your generous comment and appreciation.
      I like the concept of flying the flag for humanness – a rich image. I, too, was very influenced by Maslow’s work, which is timeless. Unless we
      recognize, identify, respect and fulfill our own universal human needs, we will not be able to rise to the challenges we face at every level of society.
      Maslow understood that learning about, understanding and fulfilling our needs was the essential “task” of evolving our humanity.
      Thanks again for your insights and the references to your work and others.

  4. Karen Hirsch says:

    Louise, I am once again so grateful for your enormous need for and love of learning and capacity to distill what you learn in highly compelling ways. What follows I know you agree with. Still I feel a need to write this. About “cynicism”, I believe that rather than it being an “enemy”, it is many times a “strategy” (a la Nonviolent Communication) – both conscious and unconscious – arising from a yearning for protection against emotions that for many are understandably too painful to experience: despair, hopelessness and, yes, deep fear. I personally find that the more I can be curiosity and sincerely do my best to “listen deeply” to what various emotions are saying, the more any emotion reveals its deeper intention. I am not at all minimizing the impact on our beloved world of increasingly widespread “cynicism”. I do believe that listening with a sincere desire to understand what our emotions are “saying” and why – perhaps especially to emotions that we don’t like or approve of – opens us to many dimensions of understanding And is beautiful practice for bringing this quality of intention to many other aspects of life.
    With huge admiration,

    • Dear Karen,
      I really appreciate the depth and thoughtfulness of your comment.
      And I am sure you know that I believe, as you do, that every emotion reveals a deeper intention.
      Your wise words are a reminder that we’re always capable of learning something that moves us to the next level of experience.

  5. Fantastic! Love it! Spot on!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.