Trevor Johnson is a Senior Consultant at Impact Americas
What is a human-centred organisation?
A human-centred organisation is one that puts people at the heart of everything it does. It understands that people aren’t an asset to an organisation – they are the organisation. And it treats these people as diverse human beings with unique experiences, perspectives, and goals – not as numbers, units, or job titles.
A human-centred organisation creates an environment in which people can flourish. It places priority on purpose and meaning, and the need to provide value to people – all people, not just customers. It understands its interconnection with and interdependence on wider systems – social, environmental, and economic – and takes responsibility for the impact it has on those systems. It builds cultures of learning, agility, and trust, in which diverse individuals can collaborate and innovation can take place.
Do we still need them?
In 2021 we published our white paper outlining the need for human-centred organisations, and explained how to go about transforming your organisation into one. Several years later, this call to action is more relevant than ever before. Our recent research revealed a worrying lack of human-centred behaviour:
- Only 29% said team-working relationships are mostly positive in their workplace
- Only 28% said their organisation is committed to its strategic objectives
- And only 25% said their organisation encourages people to be themselves in the workplace
This data is even more impactful when you consider that these are the perspectives of senior leaders.
What these results highlight is that the majority of people experience poor relationships, lack of purpose and direction, and a lack of psychological safety within their organisations. These results are not surprising given the recent news reports about strikes, mass redundancies, and workers reporting dehumanising conditions. Clearly, there is still a long way to go before organisations that put people first are the norm.
Moving forward with a human-centred approach
In our research, four distinct challenges emerged as being of concern for leaders today: increasing disruption and change, hybrid working, wellbeing, and the climate crisis. Here’s how a human-centred business practice can help to navigate each of them:
1. Increasing disruption and change
We live in a time of ever increasing uncertainty, volatility, and threat. For 40% of those we surveyed, economic market pressures, including recession, politics, and supply chains were their biggest challenges. The organisations that will survive these times – and learn how to thrive in them – are human-centred ones who emphasise purpose and agility. In a market where consumers and employees alike are placing greater emphasis on ethical operations, organisations need to have a strong, meaningful purpose. This purpose should reflect the organisation’s moral centre and values, and it should speak powerfully to its humanity. Without a unified human purpose for people to get behind and drive forward together, an organisation will not survive the chaos and multi-level challenges of our time.
Navigating these tumultuous times also requires agility, which is greatly enhanced when an organisation embeds continuous learning in its culture. Positioning learning as a key competency makes an organisation dynamic and innovative. When obstacles emerge, these organisations are ready with a unified workforce of diverse individuals with the knowledge and skills to respond with speed and agility.
2. Hybrid working
Hybrid working is now top of the agenda for many leaders, with 35% of our survey respondents citing hybrid management as a new requirement, and 39% stating that flexible working has also become a new requirement for them.
Flexible and hybrid working options have redefined the way work is done and greatly benefitted wellbeing. But is it still possible to be human-centred when an organisation is made up of individuals dispersed across geographies and time zones? How can managers be human-centred when they rarely, if ever, spend time with their people in person?
A human-centred approach is vital for a hybrid context. Those in hybrid roles can struggle to define their boundaries and balance personal and professional lives. Virtual work may allow people to work from anywhere, but it can also mean that work follows them everywhere. Human-centred people management means taking on the role of gatekeeper and guide: providing the permission and support to help people find their balance, make purposeful choices about what works for them, and protect their energy. This requires essential human skills: dialogue, enquiry, and most importantly, empathy.
But building empathy through a computer screen is also not straightforward. The key is a mindful approach. Be mindful of the biases and perspectives you bring to a situation, as well as those of others around you. Be aware of what is going on for others and what the bigger picture might be. Brush up on your self-awareness and noticing skills, and reflect on how you instinctively respond to different points of view.
The topic of wellbeing has been around for a while but has risen up the agenda post-pandemic, with 33% of leaders saying that managing employee wellbeing is a requirement that has changed.
Wellbeing requires more than a one-size-fits-all approach. It’s about recognising that different people need different conditions to thrive and allowing them the flexibility to choose the path that best supports them and their needs – all this while still providing support and structure.
Unsurprisingly, many of the pillars of a human-centred approach – trust, purpose, empathy – are foundational to human wellbeing. Leaders are increasingly realising that spending money on initiatives will not yield increased wellbeing if they are still requiring team members to conform to rigid policies, structures, and hierarchies. Instead, leaders need to create organisations that provide space for human beings to be, well, human.
Put people at the centre of your strategy and culture. Develop leaders with advanced listening and empathy skills. Create cultures of psychological safety and learning. The rest will follow.
4. The climate crisis
With consumers and employees putting pressure on business leaders to respond to and lead on the climate crisis, it’s no surprise that 34% of leaders said that environmental responsibility was one of their biggest challenges.
A human-centred perspective is uniquely suited to this challenge because it requires that we let go of solely profit-driven ways of doing business. Global warming, biodiversity loss and pollution are all consequences of extractive, individualist, and hierarchical modes of behaviour – why would we try and fix them with the same approach? Instead, we need to adopt a systems-based mindset.
The events of the last few years have reminded us of the deep interconnectedness of the living world. No organisation is an island. Rather, every organisation exists within economic, environmental, and social systems. Accordingly, human-centred organisations see the relationship between what is happening inside and outside the organisation and take responsibility for what those impacts are.
Ultimately, an organisation with an internal ecology of positive, values-based human relationships should mirror this in the way it treats its customers, the communities and societies it is part of, and the natural world it exists within. The climate crisis confronts us with issues that are systemic and complex, resulting from a long history of careless practices. These urgent challenges can only be solved by organisations who are prepared to think and act systemically, and to adopt a truly human, relational approach.
The challenges facing business leaders now urgently call for a human-centred approach. They require leaders that foster learning and collaboration, leaders that value relationships, leaders that can think systemically, and leaders that are able to connect with their people as individuals – with individual needs.
The foundation of all of this is that organisations are only ever as successful as the humans and human relationships within them. Today, more than ever, it is clear that only a human-centred approach will liberate our potential.