Where's the humanity in organisations?

August 4, 2006

There’s a great thought provoking post at Anecdote that asks the question – are organisations losing their humanity? I’m going to re-post Andrew’s piece here with my own thoughts to follow:

For some time now we have wondered whether organisations may be starting to lose their humanity. Maybe its a good question whether they ever had it, but the “Time is money” metaphor predominant in business today seems to have a lot to answer for. Tick Tock. To busy to spend time in dialogue. To busy to explore, we need to know the outcome. “How are you today” – “Busy”. To busy. Time is money.
And then, what about the “no asshole” rule suggested recently by Harvard professor, Bob Sutton.
Don’t hire assholes regardless of their earning potential and if someone has developed into one, help them see the light or get rid of them.
Its interesting and ironic that things have gotten so bad that we need to become more mindful of assholes and asshole behaviour in organisations.
And all this is not without cost. Organisations should care. As Leon Gettler a senior business journalist and blogger at The Age has found:
Workplace bullying is estimated to cost Australian business in excess of $3 billion a year and employers could be liable under a stack of laws, including Occupational Health and Safety, discrimination and workers’ compensation.
So, I wonder, are organisations losing their humanity? What do you think?

I think organisations were and continue to be “humane” places – however, the discourse has been changed in the past 10 years with as Andrew rightly points out, increased legislation to protect organisations from being liable for what in many cases is ordinary behaviour. I think we have to move to a situation where we recognise, that to be human means bumping into each other, pissing each other off, falling in love etc – we do those things and we recover from them. If we teach people that the only way in which humane behaviour can be expressed is as a negative, potentially litigious and costly endeavour is it any wonder that we’re becoming more “inhumane” – the rule then becomes – do not show your humanity here – it is dangerous.
Not withstanding serious infringements (which should be dealt with under existing laws anyway) a lot of what ends up in formal processes is ordinary behaviour which generally has at its root one of three issues (each one leads to the other if they are not attended to)
I am hurt
I am disappointed
I am angry
Let’s start listening to those conversations first and putting in place mechanisms for attending to them before any formal processes get underway. We need a “before” process which looks at the systemic issues behind behaviour that is deemed to be “inhumane” – I don’t believe that people come to work having made a firm decision that this is how they will be at work today – there is always a more sophisticated picture and legal processes, while important sometimes, rarely deliver a win-win for anyone. They really are the end game. The processes I’ve designed (with brave and risk taking clients!) have done that – allowed room for the feelings to be vented, looked at individual and systemic responsibility and allowed everyone to contribute to a better solution. But I also know that those clients were unusual – it’s not everyone who is able to unpack the emotional environment in which they are working and then wonder what their contribution to that is. But I’m hopeful…so longs as organisations are networks of people – they will always be humane!

4 People reacted on this

  1. Large organizations lost their humanity when ‘Personnel’ departments were replaced with ‘HR’ Human Relations departments. If you think about it, all business, is a form of human interaction, and for a business to categorize humanity into a narrow area of the business only dealing with salaries issues, and dehumanize all other interactions in the business, what would you expect. Most large corporations believe that business is one large calculation, cogs and wheels. Managers come to believe that people don’t matter in getting the job done, that personal contributions, human contributions don’t matter.

  2. Mmm I’m not so sure I agree with all of that Branedy – what’s useful about having departments that do that? It means that the difficult conversations are “outsourced” or “insourced” within organisations and as a result general management can be about the good news only. I don’t believe this is one way traffic…

  3. Annette,
    With the goal of repeatability (some say the McDonaldization) of business and that these forms of of behavior get rewarded, something has to lose out. That typically is the human aspect. Humans tend not to be so go at repeating processes exactly – there is always a degree of error. Check out our reproduction system and the variances that occur at the most basic functions. Some of the fallout has been people feeling less empowered (they literially give up their power) and feel victimized. Tie that with the goverments view on social programs (entitlement) and the result is basically that we are dehumanizing ourselves – because people give up their “power.”
    With that said I totally agree with the concept of first seek to understand and this is done by getting together and talking it out. Amazing what two open minds can accomplish.

  4. Dave – I’ll go some of the distance with you on that example – providing you’re talking about a mechanised 19th century model of production. In a knowledge economy, predicated on the values of creativity and innovation there’s nothing to be gained from precisely repeated actions…that’s what computers are for…I think some of the reasons why organisations are losing their humanity is because the rhetoric of valuing creativity doesn’t align with the processes to deliver it and the fall back position is to outsource and split off the very stuff that makes it happen – humanity!

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