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What does it REALLY mean to be human at work?

Updated: May 30, 2023

When I tell people about my mission to make the workplace more human, I often get one of two responses; “good luck with that one” or “that is so needed right now”.

Both make me more determined than ever to push ahead with what I believe in. I sometimes imagine myself at the end of my career like Liam Neeson at the end of ‘Schindlers List’ breaking down and declaring “I could have got more, I could have got more”. Each time I work with an organisation or an individual looking at how they can express their human-ness, I think ‘‘that’s one more’’ and we will get to the much-needed tipping point, where being human is the norm in organisations.

So, what does being human at work really involve? In my last article, I talked about burnout and how we need to look deeply at the causes within our organisations and not just fix symptoms. This can sometimes feel overwhelming in itself so my start point is always to ask simply ‘’as a human being, what does being human mean to you?” Time after time the same needs and themes emerge.

I’ve always found it strange that we feel the need to park these basic human needs at the door of the office in order to be ‘professional’ How many of us feel that we have to put on a mask and coat of armour in order to survive the workplace in fear of revealing that we are a human being with imperfections, limitations and vulnerabilities. How exhausting it all I can be!

Below I have examined some of these simple human needs we have in life and how they translate directly to the workplace. Please let me know if you disagree with any of them or if I have missed something…

Connecting with others

We are social creatures by nature and whilst we sometimes need time alone, it’s in our DNA to want to belong to the tribe. Shakespeare likened being banished from our tribe as a fate worse than death! We are not designed to spend too much time in isolation (though monks may disagree!). Social media connects us yet in some ways we feel more disconnected than ever, sitting in our grey cubicle or plugged in at home, not spending enough time with our loved ones. We need physical presence and the power of touch to connect us (with our permission of course!). I think we all feel less of a sense of community than we used to – I grew up in the 70’s and knew everyone on our street! Why are TV programmes like ‘DIY SOS Build and ‘Call The Midwife’ so popular? – I think because we are all seeking the sense of community we have lost to some extent.

Similar in the work place, often the only interaction is in meetings (and we all know how much fun they can be!) As a user of co-working spaces, I visited one campus recently which was literally full of people connected in to their devices with headphones – not really conducive to truly connecting! We need to provide more opportunity in workplaces for people and ideas to collide, an environment where it’s ok to chat and socialise and I’m not talking about just designing break-out spaces here, I’m talking about leaders encouraging and role modelling this on a daily basis.

Feeling loved

How many of can say we don’t want this? Love is at the core of feeling human. We have love to give and we need love (in whatever form) to thrive in life. Yet it’s almost a dirty word in the workplace. I’m not talking of romantic love here but what we all need to feel this to know that we matter and are appreciated.

A colleague of mine ran a leadership programme for a big corporate in the US. Its’ official theme was ‘authenticity and emotional intelligence’. At the end of the week, one of the senior Directors approached her and said “I’ve realised what this course is about” “Oh yes?” “She replied” and with a big smile on his face the guy answered; “It’s about love”. If she had introduced it in that way at the beginning of the week she might have been met with cynicism and protest “What’s this got to do with work?!”

I do see some cultures where love is more present and visceral but I also see far more than I’d like to of its opponent, fear. Cultures of fear where people are afraid to make mistakes, afraid to admit they are feeling overloaded, afraid of reporting bullying, afraid of saying what they really think. People are literally afraid of losing their jobs in the current climate or of not reaching their (over) stretched targets to keep share-holders topped up. Fear is so destructive and contagious and I think it’s one of the biggest threats to the workplace we need to deal with.

Having a purpose

Why do we do what we do? Simon Sinek talks in his latest book about ‘Finding your Why?’ I think this is really key. Over and above paying bills, rent or mortgages there is usually a reason why people have chosen the work they do, whether it’s helping people, working with numbers, building something…Yet we all lose sight of this and sometimes in business where profit sometimes appears the only reason why, yet is was created initially by peoples’ passions. IKEA is a great example of where it’s possible to instil the founders’ passion across a multi-national organisation and we are now seeing the smart ones really connect to this way of thinking.

Getting on with folk

Can we communicate with ease and have the ability to understand others? As Stephen Covey famously said, ‘seek first to understand and then to be understood’ With the pressures of life how often do we get stuck in our own way of seeing the world and get frustrated and cross with those who do not see it the same way? I know I do this at times and the I then only end up cross with myself.

Empathic communication is vital if we are to minimise and diffuse conflict in a tribe or between tribes. Paying attention not just to what is being said but how it is being said and facing any uncomfortable elephants in the room is essential otherwise resentment sets in and this can spread if we are not careful.

We spend so much time agreeing values but then not necessarily living them each day. Isn’t it more important to think about how we behave each day, particularly in how we communicate? Some of the more progressive companies I work with have a set of principles guiding behaviour instead such as; be kind; be civil; always be your true self, which are much more practical and effective.

The other thing is language. We have developed so many clichés there are now bingo games to catch people out! Why don’t we simplify things and say what we really mean rather than hide behind all our jargon? A friend of mine works as a global media director for a large fragrance brand and often feels more meaningful work would get done if her appointed agencies stopped hiding behind their word-armour. I totally agree.

Being trusted and trusting others

This is a biggie. Most relationships break down when trust is lost. Trust is breaking down in society; politicians, banks, councils, to name a few have all lost some of our confidence in recent years. Working with our colleagues and leaders in such close proximity and interaction every day requires trust in order for us all to get on and to make good decisions.

I was once asked by an MD to find out why his team were demotivated and not performing. So, I listened to them and discovered that they didn’t feel trusted. An email had gone out to them six months previously restricting their lunchtime based on one person being seen arriving late back one day (turns out she’d been out with an important client). So, the email sent out at message of “you cannot be trusted” In other words “you are not going to be treated like adults” – the response from the team was “ok we have lost respect for you and we will not behave like adults”.

Do you agree that it makes total sense that in order for us to thrive and be our best selves, that these needs are met as part of our daily experience and not just a few hours on a weekend or holiday times? If we feel they are aren’t, we far more likely to be happier, engaged and if that’s the case we are going to perform better which means employers thrive too.

I think there is a simple shorthand to remembering our humanity at work when the pressure is on and old habits take hold and here it is…Who are we being while we are doing what we are doing? See what answers come… Helpful, kind, inspiring, or blocking, insecure, angry and then observe how this impacts.

Of course, nobody expects us to be perfect all of the time, that’s what make us really human.! I often hear talk now of ‘bringing your whole-self to work’ I’m a complete advocate of this as it allows us to express our humanity and make sure our work doesn’t miss out on all that we can be. But it’s also important to ensure that we are mindful that equally our gremlins might want to take control so we all learn to manage these better, particularly when under pressure

We are all leaders in our own way whether we lead teams or ourselves and it’s up to us to all take responsibility to create a work environment that we want to try and impact (even if subconsciously) on those around us who resist. We need to all drive this change!

One last thought…

Human doing or being? We need to rest and reboot in a world that constantly tells us that unless we have 100 emails in our inbox or in back to backs all week, we are not being productive.

We know now from neuroscience that this is not the best way to treat our brains and the any eustress (which gets us out of bed) can quickly turn into distress (the stuff inside us that clouds who we really are and make us feel like crap!)

So, I’d love you to reflect – How human do you feel at work every day? What about those you lead? How do you know? What needs to be different? Where do you want to get to and how will you get there? Simples? Not easy but it doesn’t need to be over complicated either – we just need to approach it all as who we really are- human beings!

Thanks for reading!

David Liversage

An experienced people and culture professional and fellow human being, working with organisations to help them build more human centred workplaces.


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