I was intrigued by a 2018 Harvard Business Review blog by Rasmus Hougaard, Jacqueline Carter, and Vince Brewerton.  Entitled Why do so many managers forget they’re human beings? the blog included a quote by Javier Pladevall, CEO of Volkswagen Audi Retail in Spain who said “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? Do you feel that your organization and its managers see you as a human being? Is the relationship between managers and employees human? In other words, 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, however, have been lucky enough to work in great organizations that are life-affirming. In these healthier work environments, we are recognized and treated as human beings. It’s not a coincidence these environments are also known for high degrees of productivity and positive energy.

Have you reflected on how well your organization provides life-supporting nutrients 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, and in these places, I look forward to going to work nine days out of ten. I feel appreciated for my unique skills and capacities.

When I can bring my abilities to the workplace, I feel affirmed and valuable. That raises the quality of my life – and 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” makes us suck in our breath (literally!), tighten our muscles, and stop breathing. This is one sign that we’re working in an organization that considers itself an object,  and its employees as tools with the purpose of accomplishing the goals set by leadership.  Treating each other as if we aren’t human violates our relationships. When we see an employee or colleague merely as a “tool” to get something done, we create a series of unintended consequences that ripple through our relationships, our organizations, and our productivity.

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 were 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 embedded assumptions that regarded the organization as a non-living object. By extension humans as objects or even as numbers. Left unexamined, this traditional framework didn’t nourish the employees or the organizational culture. Many employees experienced work as “sucking the life out of them.”

Remembering our Humanity

The premise of Leading from the Roots: Nature Inspired Leadership Lessons for Today’s World is that our organizations are living systems that can evolve and grow to become more generous by how they organize themselves, how they treat people, and how they contribute to our communities and world. That’s probably why Javier’s quote struck me so profoundly.

What if as leaders we make it our strategic imperative to relearn being human and to incorporate our humanness into our leadership? In the HBR blog, Javier suggests that the assumptions behind much of our management theory are not about life.  When we think of our employees as tools, we can make decisions that hurt them. We can justify power over others because using power over an object isn’t an abuse of the relationship.

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 matters. Change 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.

The quality of life that exists in our organizations can be measured in part by the quality of our relationships. Take a moment to ask yourself these questions about your workplace:

  • Are we treated like human beings?
  • Do we expect managers and leaders to treat each other and employees well?
  • Do we respect the basic humanity that exists in all of us?

 Want more on this subject? Watch Dr. Kathleen Allen’s 2020 TEDx Talk on using nature’s principles to create more productive workplaces.