Why do we make the workplace so hard on ourselves?

People are struggling in most workplaces. Read the latest business news, research, or blogs, and talk with almost anyone who works, and you’ll hear the same themes: Struggles with disengagement, poor well-being, lack of diversity and inclusion, burnout, conflict, bullying and harassment, unethical behavior, poor performance, challenges to creativity, and lack of problem solving.

Yes, these are barriers that must be overcome to achieve business results, but they are also outcomes themselves. These organizational and social outcomes are produced by the systems we’ve created. And too often we are miserable in them.

So what the heck are we doing to ourselves? And wouldn’t it make sense to do something else?

We all want to create value at work, and we want the systems in which we work to value us. And we want those systems to not make it so difficult - and to maybe even make it easier - to do the work and sense we are appreciated.

But today’s workplaces frequently attempt to wring performance out of us, to direct our every move, or to bully us into performance. The threat that we can be replaced looms. This is true at all levels. Never mind the actual long term costs of replacing someone. Those costs, though generally known, are remote from the immediate pressure to perform. So instead many organizations focus on short term impacts with little concern for the long term.

But when has it been any better? Puritan work ethics, command and control leadership, and fear-based motivation have been prevalent forever it seems. Truth is the workplace has never been consistently great, with a few rare exceptions, even with all our attention to and investment in management science, organizational behavior, labor reforms, and leadership development.

It is past time to reconsider the fundamental thinking that forms the foundation for the modern workplace. It is time to question our assumptions and create better workplace systems for ourselves. Those workplaces should be aligned with what we know about how people perform and flourish.

This should start with a clear commitment to deeply respecting people. This respect doesn’t mean just being polite or professional. This respect means holding human beings in the highest regard. When we take that commitment to humanity seriously, then we must ask ourselves tough questions and be willing to embrace new answers.

If we hold the humanity of our customers with the highest regard, then how can we truly understand and pay attention to what they need and want? Once we know what they expect, if we truly respect our customers then we pursue improving our products and services for them. And we will grapple with how to build sustainable systems to make sure that we keep listening and responding meaningfully?

For agencies that run the business of government day to day, this is critical. We have promises to keep and even if our authorizing environment is in conflict or unpredictable, we must hold steady and focus on improving the delivery of value to customers. 

And likewise, if we deeply regard the humanity of each one of our team members, then how will we demonstrate that high regard? How can we better pay attention to the needs and expectations of team members? How do we lower barriers to welcome diverse contributions and to foster collaboration? And are we taking seriously and ensuring physically safety? Are we building sustainable systems to make sure we keep improving the workplace experience as the source of our brilliance and creativity for customers?  

At A Human Workplace, on this blog, in our workshops, and at our gatherings, we are questioning the old norms and exploring how to align what we know about human beings with our actions in the workplace systems we create for ourselves. This means decreasing fear and indifference. It means increasing love. It means re-activating the empathy we learned to suppress when we came of age. It means creating greater diversity and inclusion so all are welcome and fully participating. It means designing new work processes smartly and improving existing work processes to not waste the time and contributions of team members. It means rooting out bullying and harassment. It means learning to be a human-centered leader and creating human-centered teams.

And it means exploring new research about what it is to be human and applying those insights to the workplace. At A Human Workplace: Olympia last week, we explored research into one of our fundamental human experiences: Awe. Sounds suspiciously woo-woo, doesn't it? Think again. The experience of awe is linked to outcomes that address critical business challenges and human needs. Tomorrow read how A Human Workplace: Olympia explored the science of awe.