I recently came across a Harvard Business Review blog by Rasmus Hougaard, Jacqueline Carter, and Vince Brewerton. The title of the blog was Why do so many managers forget they’re human beings? and one of the quotes in the blog was by Javier Pladevall, CEO of Volkswagen Audi Retail in Spain. He is quoted as saying “Leadership today is about unlearning management and relearning being human.”

This blog caused me to wonder about the quality of life in our organizations. Is it life-giving, or does it diminish life and the people in it? Does it give life to you and your colleagues? Do you feel that your organization and the managers in it see you as a human being? Is the relationship you have as managers and employees one that is essentially human? Are you treated with the dignity that human beings deserve?

We often have conversations about work with friends and colleagues – during and after work. Some of us have worked in toxic environments, where we know our organization is making us sick by working there. Some of us have been lucky enough to work in great organizations that affirm our life. In these environments, we are recognized and treated as a human being. These work environments are known for their productivity and positive energy.

Have you reflected on how well your organization provides nutrients that support life in your organization? Do you look forward to going to work on Monday morning? I have been lucky enough to work in some great organizations over time. In these places, I look forward to going to work 9 days out of 10. The other hallmark of a great workplace is that they recognize and use my unique skills and capacities. When I can bring my abilities to the workplace, I feel affirmed and valuable and that raises the quality of my life and the quality of life in the organization.

“Suck it Up!”

Not all organizations are healthy and life-affirming places to work. Many of us have heard the phrase “suck it up” when we push back on an unreasonable request. The act of “sucking it up” requires us to literally suck in our breath, tighten our muscles, and stop breathing. We know we are working in an organization that thinks of itself as an object and the people in it as tools to accomplish the goals that the top leadership set. Treating each other as if we aren’t human violates the relationship between us. When we see an employee or colleague as a tool to get something done, we create a series of unintended consequences that ripple through our relationships, our organizations, and our ability to be productive.

The alternative is to breathe life into our organization. We can’t live without breathing. Air is essential to being alive! Metaphorically, does your organization give you the ability to breathe? Our leadership and management frameworks have been developed in the 19th and 20th centuries. This was a time when we used machines as models for building organizations. Many of these original designs had assumptions embedded in them that thought of the organization as a non-living object and by extension treated the human beings in the organization as objects or as a number. This unexamined framework didn’t nourish the employees or the organizational culture. Many employees experienced work as “sucking the life out of them.”

Remembering our Humanity

That was why Javier’s quote struck me when I read it. What if our strategic imperative as a leader is to relearn being human and incorporate our humanness into our leadership? His assumption that management needs to be unlearned suggests that the assumptions behind much of our management theory are not about life! When we think of our employees as if they aren’t human, we can justify decisions that hurt them. We can use power over others because using power over an object isn’t an abuse of the relationship. For example, I don’t need to ask permission to move my coffee cup (an object), or spend time getting its agreement to be moved. But these attitudes create an excessive cost to our organizations.

The behaviors associated with not acknowledging the humanness of the other person has led us to act in ways that cause pain in our workplaces. Using power over others to serve our own interests, damage relationships in our workplaces. The stories from the #metoo movement are an example of how long “power over” behaviors stay with the person who is on the receiving end of that behavior. Over time, our workplaces become toxic and unhealthy, which drive productivity down and oddly, tends to reinforce the use of power over others and relationship abuse – so things get worse, not better.

So many things depend on the quality of the relationships we develop in our workplaces. In my consulting practice, I have learned that organizational learning flows through relationships. If we want our organizations to be more innovative, the quality of our relationships matter. Change also flows through relationships. If we trust each other, we are predisposed to cooperate and actively participate in organizational change. Positive energy is increased in organizations that support authentic relationships between employees, colleagues, managers, and leaders.

So, the quality of life that exists in our organizations can be measured, in part, by the quality of our relationships. Are we treated as living human beings? Do we expect managers and leaders to treat each other and employees well? Do we respect the basic humanness that exists in all of us?

Dr. Kathleen E. Allen writes a blog on leadership and organizations that describes a new paradigm of leadership that is based in lessons from nature and living systems. She is the author of Leading from the Roots: Nature Inspired Leadership Lessons for Today’s World (available for pre-order on Amazon) and President of Allen and Associates, a consulting firm that specializes in leadership, innovation, and organizational change. You can sign up for her blog on her website: www.kathleenallen.net

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