When Humans Aren't the Center

Every organization answers a common set of questions.

·       What product mix will we offer customers?

·       What policies will guide us?

·       How will we be organized?

·       How will we ensure financial health?

·       How will we do the work?

·       Who will do the work? Who are our customers anyway?

And in every organization, ultimately one of these, the product, policies, power, profit, or people, rises to the top as primary and influences all the rest. This primary thing is most valued by the organization. It is given attention and deference.

At MakeWorkMoreHuman.com, we strongly believe that people should be prime.  In fact, we can’t really imagine wanting to put anything else at the center of work. Maybe you can’t either.

But the reality is that every day in many of our organizations and teams, something else besides people is considered most important. And when any of those other things take center stage, the consequences are usually not so good for people. 

Consider these examples of when product, policy, power, or profit are at the center…

The Product-Centered Organization

While every organization offers products and services, some organizations are product-centered. Everything orients around the product they offer rather than the people the product serves.

Take for example, a facilities management company whose product, their building, is their primary focus. Policies are designed with consideration for the building rather than for the business needs of tenants. For example, hand-lettered signs are not allowed in the lobby because these detract from the aesthetic of the building. Never mind the cost and inconvenience to tenants who might need to communicate with people coming to the building for events. It is also a huge clue that much of the art in the building is about the building itself, rather than tenants or customers.

The Policy-Centered Organization

Government organizations are often policy-centered, even though our government is “of, by, and for the people.”

Lawmakers pass legislation that risk-averse government agencies are tasked with implementing. These policies can create burdensome rules and costly requirements that adversely impact people. Processes become convoluted and wasteful in service of policy. Power becomes concentrated in policy and its enforcement, and the cost of implementing policy decreases financial health. In short policy can become more important than the people the original law was intended to serve.

The Power-Centered Organization

In an organization that is power-centered, certain positions garner significantly more respect than others. Examples abound in most every sector of the economy, but some are especially prone to hierarchy.

In healthcare, it can be difficult for an administrative assistant, technician, or nurse to speak up about a problem or to contradict a highly educated and respected physician. This hesitance can lead disastrous consequences for patients. To overcome this power imbalance Edgar Schein advocates in “Humble Inquiry” that those with power ask questions that demonstrate interest in others to foster respectful and collegial relationships with all team members. Showing basic respect for all team members no matter their place in the hierarchy opens up communication and collaboration, leading to better results. 

The Profit-Centered Organization

Every organization must be concerned with financial health, but some organizations are what we will call profit-centered, putting financial outcomes ahead of people. Now certainly every organization must meet its financial obligations to remain in operation. But a focus on profit without a deeper motivation of service can have ugly impacts. 

Take as an example the addiction treatment clinic where my friend worked. While the clinic ostensibly existed to treat those struggling with opioid addiction, the owners of this particular clinic were in business to profit from this crisis. The owners invested little to make their facility welcoming. The paint was drab, the furniture uncomfortable and sparse, the artwork minimal. Coffee or tea for clients was deemed too expensive, and the facility was chronically understaffed degrading the quality of clinical services. The experience of patients struggling with shame, fear, and worthlessness was a secondary concern to profitability.

Extreme Consequences

In some cases, the consequences of not putting humanity in the center of our work can be severe, leading to grave harm, even death, as a participant in a recent Human Workplace Meet Up discussion pointed. For example, for generations, powerful cigarette companies literally put their product, policies, and profits ahead of human lives leading to the death of 480,000 people in the US each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Other organizations consistently make choices based on a product, policy, profit, or power focus that result in pollution, extinction, discrimination, violence, subjugation, and other terrible impacts to people and the planet we depend on.

The Human-Centered Organization

In contrast to all of these, a human-centered organization considers their primary concern to be people, and this clarity infuses all other organizational decisions.

Their approach to their product, policies, power, and profit optimizes outcomes for customers and team members. Each of these elements is a vehicle to ultimately serve the needs and best interests of people, not the other way around. In terms of making work more human, such an organization increases love in the world, which might look like more care, respect, health, growth, or trust, and decreases fear, which might look like less indifference, alienation, abuse, callousness, or insignificance. What we put at the center matters. 

What about your organization or work? Are people the center or something else? What are the consequences of that? What could you do to begin to shift that?

What's at Our Center? A Team Conversation Guide to the Heart of our Work

Want to explore this concept with your team? Here’s a simple guide to get you started.

Part 1: Explore Examples

Instructions: Individually, think of a time when you were a customer of an organization that you experienced as NOT being human-centered.

·       What was the product or service offered?

·       Based on your experience as a customer, what do you think was at the center of that organization? What made you think that?

·       Depending on what you noticed, how did that focus impact…

o   Their product?

o   Their policies?

o   Their power?

o   Their profit?

o   The people – team members or customers?

·       Take turns in pairs or in the group sharing your example and answers to these questions.

·       What do you notice from your examples about the impact on people when something else is at the center of an organization?

Part 2: Reflect on Your Work

Now consider what is at the center of YOUR work? Not what you want to be at the center, but the reality of what is at the center. Makes some notes about how that focus impacts the following:

·       The product or services you offer?

·       The policies you uphold?

·       Power in your organization - who's got it and who doesn't?

·       Your profit or financial health?

·       The people you work with and the customers you serve?

As a group, discuss what you see at the center of your work or your organization? What impacts do you notice?

If you were to put humans at the center of your work (or strengthen that focus), what would the impacts be? How can you do that?