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Thought leadership

Human-centred organisations

We will only change our organisations successfully if the purpose underpinning those changes is to make the organisation more human.

Highway from above

What they are, why we need them and how to be one

The past couple of years has taught us two important lessons. The first is that radical change at scale and speed is possible. The second is that the thing that is most important to all of us is each other, our relationships, and our humanity.

These two lessons arrive at a time when we desperately need many more organisations to step up and act as forces for good in the world. The triple challenges of climate heating, biodiversity loss and deepening global inequality demand attention and action at speed and scale. Our organisations are on the front line of our response.

Start by asking this question: what is the organisation actually trying to do?

A human-centred organisation puts humanity at the heart of its purpose. It recognises that the organisation is simply a group of people working in service to another group of people. If that isn’t clear in the organisation’s stated purpose, then that is where the change needs to start. If the organisation, whether public, private or voluntary, doesn’t think that it is in service to humanity in some way, then it has lost any grip on the wider meaning driving its existence. The only reason to ever start an organisation is to create value by serving society. 

No organisation is an island. Every organisation is intrinsically dependent for their success on the wider social, economic and environmental context, on both local and global scales. Human-centric organisations reflect this by working to positively and actively shape the social, economic and environmental ecologies they are part of.

They see no boundary between what is happening inside and outside the organisation; instead, they see only relationships, interconnection and interdependence. This isn’t about strengthening corporate social responsibility, green practices, new initiatives or charitable giving. It is about the fundamental understanding that all organisations need to work in a way that actively strengthens the fabric of our shared systems. How organisations handle the ecology of relationships internally should mirror how they contribute to the collective ecology of relationships externally.

How we treat employees should mirror how we treat customers and clients, which in turn, should mirror how we treat each other, how we treat the natural world, and how we contribute to the battle against climate heating.

The concept of a ‘learning organisation’ was popularised by Peter Senge in his seminal book, 'The Fifth Discipline: The art and practice of a learning organisation'. Senge talked about the need for five interconnected ‘disciplines’, including the ability to think and act systemically – the vital ‘fifth discipline’.

Although the ideas within the book were very popular, somehow, they failed to transform our organisations in the way that Senge suggested. However, the concept of a learning organisation remains hugely relevant, especially when discussing the need for organisations to be more human-centric in what they do and how they do it.

Perhaps one of the reasons why Senge’s work hasn’t been widely adopted is that, in reality, all organisations are already learning organisations. All organisations are learning all the time, but in most cases, the focus of that learning is to reinforce what we think we already know, and to strengthen our commitment to our mental models of how the world works and to our organisations’ identities.

Human-centred leaders and managers focus their attention, skills and practice on two integrated areas:

  • Leading and managing new learning
  • Leading and managing people

Of these two, we might feel that the latter is obvious, but it is not. The practice of leading and managing people is difficult and is often done badly or not at all. Leadership and management are integrated because in human-centred organisations, all leaders have to manage people and all managers have to lead people.

The difference relates entirely to focus, scale and impact. A leader in the C-suite has a wide focus: the implications of her leadership reach across a broad and wide scale, and the impact of her decisions are high, but she still has to manage her team, relationships with peers and internal and external stakeholders. A first-line manager still needs to take leadership decisions, but their focus is on the direct management of a team and the immediate operations that the team is working on. In this sense, we see leadership and management as being on a continuum rather than entirely separate concepts. 

Ar Impact, we understand leadership not as a person or a position in a hierarchy but as a special and vital form of action. Leadership action must come from anywhere and everywhere. In the context of human-centred organisations, the leadership and management action we are interested in relates to action with people. 

Human-centred organisations do change differently. They start by acknowledging three key things:

  • Firstly, that meaningful change in an organisation means a change to the work or the way that the work is done. Changing anything else (the colour of the walls, who gets the new corner office etc.) isn’t meaningful.
  • The second thing to acknowledge is that the people who are currently doing the work that is the focus of the change initiative should lead the process of changing that work.
  • Finally, it’s vital to understand that learning something new is at the core of changing anything in the organisation. No learning, no change.


All successful relationships are built on a foundation of trust, and this is essential for any organisation to work effectively. Mistrust in a workplace is a predictor of high turnover rates, poor performance, and low levels of productivity and employee satisfaction. Human-centred organisations pay deep, expert attention to the building and maintenance of trust in their organisations.

There is a wealth of research exploring the issue of trust in organisations, with many models and frameworks designed to help organisations build it. Many of these studies name the following factors in helping to build and maintain trust in organisations:

  • Co-dependency, with managers and employees depending on each other to get the job don
  • Mutual respect
  • High levels of engagement, particularly in decision-making
  • Open communication
  • Fairness, particularly in appraisals
  • Being part of a high-performing team
  • Delegation of responsibility
  • Equality in the distribution of resources
  • A focus on relationship-building

Explore more of our content on the topic of human-centred change and organisations. 


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