‘Remember your humanity. Forget the rest…’ – Bertrand Russell
In the world of organisational change, there are two things we hear all the time. Firstly, that change is inevitable, that organisations are, in fact, changing all the time. Secondly, that most change initiatives fail. If we put these together then it seems our organisations are constantly failing to change. Seems about right.
Change is necessary. But change is also difficult, so we don’t do it unless we have to. Covid-19 provides a powerful example of a necessary change. We had no choice but to respond to the virus as a global community both directly and systemically.
We had no choice but to respond to the virus because, if we didn’t, untold millions would have died. And respond we did, with all the altruism, innovation, compassion, collaboration and community-mindedness that defines what being human means and what we are capable of when we respond to a crisis with our humanity.
We also had to respond systemically because the crisis forced us to confront things that have been in urgent need of change for some time. In our economy, for example, we are confronted with the paradox that those of us that are providing ‘essential services’ are actually amongst the most poorly paid in our society and that poverty creates health inequalities as much as economic ones. Socially, we confronted the truth that racism continues to scar, fragment and undermine our social cohesion. Politically, we discovered that some world leaders were not up to the task while others met the systemic challenge successfully. The difference between leading in a crisis successfully and unsuccessfully depends on the ability of a leader to combine a human-centred approach with expertise in managing complex systems.
I think there is a key lesson in all of this for the work of change in our organisations: we will only change our organisations successfully if the purpose underpinning those changes is to make the organisation more human. Why? Because we have learned that our humanity is the only thing that matters.
In the teeth of this global pandemic, we avoided millions and millions more people dying because we reached for our particularly human gifts. We built a global community on a foundation of compassion, connection, collaboration and learning. We applied our humanity to work for each other, to care for each other, to save each other. We all became the meaning and the purpose.
Being separated from friends, family and colleagues by the restrictions only served to reinforce the blurring of those categories, as we realised how vitally important we are to each other.
It turns out that the most important transactions that take place are human-to-human transactions. These are the exchanges that matter beyond all others. But we lost sight of that somehow in our organisations. Perhaps because we lost sight of ourselves in our work, and in doing so we lost sight of each other, in the office, in the factory, and in the workplace.
We forgot some things that are unshakably true. We forgot that all organisations – large, small, everywhere – are simply groups of people working in service to other groups of people. That’s it.
We forgot that all organisations are just full of people with feelings, stories, relationships, hopes, dreams, and soul – not employees, professionals, numbers, targets, or units. People aren’t assets of an organisation, they are the organisation. We don’t work for an organisation, we work for each other. That is the human thing we reignited in this pandemic: For. Each. Other.
If you think I am wrong, try this. Imagine you want to show someone – let’s say an alien entirely unfamiliar with the world – your organisation. What do you show them? The buildings? The factory floor? The products? The services? The desks? The computers? The accounts? These things are just used or created by the organisation, they aren’t the organisation itself. The only thing you could show them that is real is your colleagues – the people and their relationships with each other. That is all there is. Organisations only exist because of the relationships between the people that work together. And organisations are created and recreated every day in their interactions, conversations, laughter, tears, hopes and fears.
But the shame of it is that we have either forgotten or ignored that deep truth. And we have not only failed to create organisations that are places where our humanity can thrive and grow, we have intentionally built organisations that squeeze out our humanity in service to some flawed ideas of efficiency through control. This means that when we are trying to change our organisations, we continue to squeeze out the humanity from the process, and are surprised and disappointed when it doesn’t work.
If you are working on some kind of change process right now, whether it be an improvement, culture change initiative, efficiency drive, or restructure, then ask yourself a simple question: Will this change make this organisation more human?
If the answer is ‘no’ or ‘not sure’, I guarantee that whatever you are trying to do won’t work in the way you want or expect it to.
Here’s some other questions that I think are important for our organisations right now in facing unprecedented changes:
What is the highest purpose to which your organisation aspires?
I don’t mean your mission statement, your budget objective for the year, or some generalised stuff about delighting customers, I mean the highest purpose – the most profound, the most meaningful. Because that is where the humanity in your organisation is and that is how it can flourish.
Where is the moral centre of your organisation?
What is it that you believe in unshakably as a community? When you boil down all the ‘values’ statements and lists of preferred behaviours, what do they have to say about your moral stance? What is your organisation’s core commitment to each other and to the world? How does your organisation lead in the world? This is vital because the thing that sucks all the humanity out of the workplace is the lack of moral centre. We can’t reach for our highest purpose with behaviours that exhibit the worst of humanity; we need to be at our best. Our organisations need to be the best examples of how we treat each other. Get that right and the adaptive, innovative, change-orientated, high-performing culture that every organisation needs right now will emerge and be unstoppable.
We created our organisations to serve humanity, to be places where human purposes were central and where people can thrive. If any organisation isn’t doing that then we have the power to change them if we choose to. We have the power to reshape how our organisations work, to reshape how the world works, to help humanity thrive.
The key lesson from the pandemic is that it is our humanity that saved us. Let’s put our humanity to work in service to all of us and change our organisations for the better by making them more human.
It is the only change strategy that will work. And the only change that counts.
Grahame Broadbelt is Global Head of Communications and R&D at Impact.