A Workplace that Works

We go to work each day to earn a living so we can make a life for ourselves and our loved ones. But we don’t sign up to be humiliated, to be ignored, to be betrayed. We sign up for the workforce at 18 or maybe 21 to contribute, to do something we enjoy, or at least don’t mind, to make a difference in some way.

We all come to our jobs, no matter how humble or lofty, believing that if we show up and do what we are hired to do, if we work hard and perform well, then we will make a difference, we will provide value to our customers, to our community, maybe even to the world. We don’t, as my colleague puts it, show up trying to wreck the place. We show up to contribute.

In Washington State government, we work for Washingtonians. As public servants, we do our best despite systems and processes built up over time that sometimes make delivering value very hard. But we keep trying and improving. And in recent years, under Governor Jay Inslee, and under Governor Christine Gregoire before him, we have pursued a massive effort to adopt a Lean culture and methods in government. By all accounts we are making headway, though we still have a long way to go. Sustainable system change takes time and endurance.

At the Department of Enterprises Services we too are pursuing this Lean transformation. We define Lean as a human centered philosophy of work that creates a culture of curiosity, collaboration, and care so that we deliver better value to Washingtonians and make public services a deeply gratifying experience. This human centered way of working runs through our six-year history as an organization, and motivates us to pursue better ways of working that treat customers and team members with deep care and respect.

Each of us in the workforce will be fortunate if at some point we work with a leader and a team who are human focused. Supportive and affirming leaders who care about us as people, who let us know we belong and that our contributions matter, are too rare. When we have this, we are psychologically safe to be ourselves, to speak up, to bring our best, to share ideas, to tell the truth about how the work is going. In essence, we are loved, a strangely radical, but accurate word. And when this happens, we tend to do amazing work. We are committed. We go the extra mile. We are creative and innovative. We serve customers well.

And we take seriously our commitment to our team and customers. We aren’t obligated; our feet aren’t held to the proverbial fire. They don’t have to be. Our commitment creates a powerful sense of mutual responsibility that delivers value for customers and has the back of our team members. When that happens, exceptional results are possible. How do I know this? I’ve seen it again and again. And I've been hearing this as I interview people, nearly 44 so far, and their stories bear this out. When people feel loved and safe, not afraid, they make their best and highest contributions.

But.

But if we are not so fortunate to have a workplace grounded in love and committed to rooting out fear, well then we all lose. Individuals lose confidence, clarity, and commitment. Teams lose shared understanding, engagement, and trust. And organizations lose ideas, productivity, and loyalty. Rather than mutual responsibility, we are obligated by intimidation-based compliance and the most negative kind of accountability.

You know what I mean. You are made to account for yourself and if you mess up, you take the blame. Accountability is punitive and fear-focused. Everyone ends up protecting themselves. When fear is the norm, we all lose.

The stories shared with me demonstrate these two extremes of love and fear. These stories are so compelling, and their insights so crucial to building human-centered workplaces, that I’ve committed myself to their telling. I am committed to creating a discussion to better understand the implications of love and fear in the workplace, and to foster a community to advance a more human-centered philosophy of work.

This will mean provoking new ideas, facing some discomfort, and lots of dialogue so that we can better understand what it means to make work more human. It means exploring what it actually looks like in practice, day to day, to be a human-centered leader or team. Because a more human workplace results in value for customers and meaningful work for employees. That is a workplace that works.