Being Human-Centered

What does it really mean to be human-centered? As my last post pointed out, those words may raise questions, confuse or worry some people.

So a few weeks ago, about 30 public servants gathered in Olympia to explore this question. What follows is a summary of their advice for leaders and teams for how to put humanity at the center of our work ... with a few illustrations thrown in for good measure. First...

Be genuine. Being human-centered starts with being authentic, whether you're a leader or other team member. Stop the impression management. Don’t try to act some part. Instead be real. Admit mistakes. Own your feelings. Confess when you don’t know. Bring it when you do. Be a full person.

Give time. We need time with each other. We need to schedule time with team members for communication and connection. And we also need to be ready to give time when it's not scheduled. 

We run into sensitive issues that need attention. We need urgent advice. Or we have a victory to celebrate or a funny moment to share. These things are unscheduled. And while issues and advice seem most relevant to business, rejoicing and humor may be just as important. These moments strengthen our connections with each other and our commitment to the team. And when the pressure is on, strong connections and commitment help us to have tough conversations and take on big challenges.

Pay attention. When that unplanned request for time happens, whenever possible, stop what you are doing and pay attention. Put down your device. Take your hands off the keyboard. Turn your chair away from the screen. Look the person fully in the face. If you can’t give your attention at that moment, explain your desire to focus and set a time to do that ASAP.

And when the time comes…

Listen well.  Listen to understand. Listen without defending or explaining or solutioning. Listen without preparing your response. Listen to learn.

At Enterprise Services, we are teaching all team members to listen to understand, one business area at a time. We are learning to listen to customers to discover what they need to be fully satisfied. And team members are learning to listen to each other to create a fully satisfied team. This listening embodies deep respect for the humanity of our customers and team members. We are just beginning this journey, but we are beginning to see a shift in those areas as they take this on.

And team members trained in listening tell us they are using their new listening skills when they parent and volunteer and coach. They listen better to their partners and friends. The agency’s human-centered commitment doesn't just hold the potential to create a human-centered workplace but homes and communities too.

Create safety. Make it safe for your team to try, to maybe mess up, to learn, and to grow. Meet people where they are at. Help out, if you are experienced, by guiding others to understand the bigger picture and to learn how to approach things. This important investment takes patience but can have ripple effects.

When I worked at the University of Washington Tacoma, Ysabel Trinidad, was Vice Chancellor for Administrative Services. She had a really big plate and a lot on it … facilities, finance, campus safety, human resources, and more, for a rapidly growing campus. But on Friday afternoons, she’d sit down in my office to talk. She'd talk through our current challenges. By thinking out loud, she imparted principled ways of approaching these challenges. An incredibly smart business woman, she helped me understand the larger system, forces at play, and factors to consider. And by helping me learn, she showed me first hand the value of investing in people.

Be aware. Of yourself. Of others. To be aware of yourself seek feedback. You have to really pursue it to actually get it, and then intentionally receive it, reflect, and learn. To be aware of others, be curious. Observe, ask questions, and listen. Then be humbled by the fact that your experiences and perspectives are not the same as others. That will help you to…

Relish differences. Embrace the fact that humans are varied, complex and infinitely fascinating! Appreciate each person's innate value. Acknowledge those with different backgrounds, experiences, cultures, styles, skills, and views. Accept and make welcome those differences. Help people, especially those with a different experience or view from the group, to be comfortable bringing themselves fully to the team. Make it the norm to welcome differences. 

Express honor. Giving such honor comes from a deep belief that each and every person is worthy of respect. Find out what others mean by honor and respect, then “do to others as they would want you to do” (not as you would want to do.) That’s true honor.

“And remember,” this amazing group of public servants in Olympia said, “We are people. We are not just role-fillers, or resources, or machines. And our customers are people too. They are not numbers or forms or files. They have lives and stories and needs.”

When you put humans at the center good things happen. Team members are more loyal, committed, and creative. They are glad to be at work, and they do better work. And customers, Washingtonians, are treated with respect. They receive better value, better services, and a better state to live in. 

Next time: What happens when we don’t put people at the center? (Spoiler alert: It’s not good.)