“Hey, at least you have a job.”
“How do I know if you’re working if I can’t see you?”
“Oh, that’s been a problem for years. Not much we can do about it.”
“We’ve tried that before. It didn’t work.”
“Sorry, that idea would never fly around here.”
“That’s just how we’ve always done it.”
“You can’t do that without taking it up the chain of command.”
If, by reading these phrases, you conjured the faces of real people from your past, it’s likely you left work feeling discouraged and depleted. At a point you can’t quite pin down, you stopped investing emotionally in your job. You found few reasons to exert extra effort. Then you grew tired of trading a paycheck for minimal effort and marginal results. So you waved goodbye and let out a big sigh of disappointment knowing company leaders never knew how much more you could have contributed had your potential not been buried under layers of bureaucracy, complacency and control.
Why is this scenario of untapped potential all too familiar? One explanation is that many organizations have become overly focused on profits, power and pleasing shareholders. As a result, they’ve become controlling, rigid and resistant to change. In short, they’re less human. Yet, the leaders of these less-than-human workplaces blame their people for their problems. They fail to see how the systems, structures, mindsets and unwritten rules they created and perpetuate are the real culprits.
Gary Hamel and Michele Zanini make the case in their book, “Humanocracy: Creating Organizations as Amazing as the People Inside Them,” that most individuals have the capacity for creativity, high performance, innovation, passion and resilience. But many organizations don’t.
Like the polluted air we breathe, too many of us have become accustomed to the sluggish bureaucratic structures, ineffective command-and-control leadership styles and inflexible systems that surround us. We can no longer see how these elements combine to suffocate our organizations.
Ironically, if organizational success is what we’re after, the remedy is to focus less on profits and market share and more on people. People drive organizational success. Without people and the high levels of effort and energy they choose to give — or not — organizations fail. People must come first so profits have a fighting chance to follow.
To put people first, we must first change what we care about, invest in and measure. Consider these suggestions:
Value employee health and well-being over the bottom line.
Ensure everyone feels seen and heard by recognizing their contributions and seeking their input.
Seek truth rather than sooth yourself with denial.
Create change before you have to.
Find ways to measure the strength and quality of relationships inside and outside your organization.
Take responsibility for the effects of your decisions on people’s lives rather seek out temporary gains.
Practice humility and compassion.
Invest in developing your team.
Celebrate mistakes born of thoughtful risk-taking.
Craft guiding principles that empower good judgment rather than reams of rules designed to control.
When we put people first in these ways, they feel valued. When people feel valued, they engage. When they engage, they take care of customers. When they take care of customers, customers are happy. And when customers are happy, our organizations thrive.
In other words, putting people first isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s also a good business strategy.
As you reflect on the organizations you’ve worked for or led, think about whether you’ve heard any of these responses:
“Hey, let’s talk about what needs to change so this job suits you better.”
“I trust you to get the job done.”
“Thanks for having the courage to bring this issue to our attention.”
“While we’ve tried it before, maybe this time will be different.”
“Great idea. What are your thoughts about next steps?”
“Let’s look at this more closely to see if it’s still the best way.”
“Go for it.”
If these phrases sound familiar, you’ve likely worked for — or currently work for — a people-first organization. If not, read my column over the next few months. With a new set of beliefs and collection of tools, you can be part of a construction crew that builds a people-first organization of your own.