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The two principles and three practices of building human-centred organisations

The two principles and three practices of building human-centred organisations
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“Work is about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.” – Studs Terkel, Working, 1974 

The pandemic has confronted us with both the fragility and strength of the human condition. But it has also taught us that we can respond with courage, fortitude, compassion; and that we have the ability to change, to transform our lives into something we had barely previously imagined.  

For me, the greatest gift of the pandemic (for there is always light even in our darkest days) is that it forced us to consider what was really important to us: each other. Not seeing our friends, families and colleagues helped us to understand that the most important things in our lives are our human relationships. 

This is a profound realisation: profound in the sense that we have not only discovered something important, but also that we have rediscovered something that was lost to us, or that had become clouded. This realisation becomes even more meaningful alongside our new awareness of our ability to change. 

This new understanding provides the context for the idea that all organisations should be much more human-centred. We are confronting the truth that all our organisations, in every part of the world, in every sector, of every size and shape are simply groups of people working in service to other groups of people. It’s the human-to-human interaction that brings meaning and value to their work. But this isn’t reflected in the everyday experience of many employees. Too many organisations have dehumanised themselves, either deliberately in the name of efficiency, profit or exploitation, or unconsciously, as purpose and meaning become crushed beneath to-do lists, deadlines and targets. 

The world is not full of human-centric organisations, but it needs to be. Because if our organisations are not serving us, if they are not helping us to secure a future for 9 billion people, if they are not places where we can all flourish, and if the experience of working in them is a ‘Monday through Friday sort of dying’, then we are collectively failing. We created our organisations to serve us; not so we could serve them. Our organisations are us; they are all just groups of people. Too often organisations seem faceless, relentless, remote, immutable, frustrating, soulless and worse. But we now know that fundamental change is possible, and we can change our organisations so they are fit for human purposes and human flourishing.  

So how do we go about making this change? Here are two principles and three key practices that we could adopt to build human-centred organisations. 

  • Principle 1: Ecology is everything. No organisation is an island. Every organisation is intrinsically dependent on their wider social, economic and environmental context, on both local and global scales. The pandemic reminded us of the deep, systemic interconnectedness of life on our planet, and human-centric organisations reflect this by actively shaping 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 interdependency. This isn’t about 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, because there is no other way. How organisations handle the ecology of relationships internally should mirror how they contribute to the collective ecology of relationships externally.  
  • Principle 2: Commit to becoming a learning organisation. Organisations only thrive when their people thrive; organisations only grow if their people grow. People thrive when they are learning, growing and achieving, and when they are able to challenge expectations and be creative and innovative, but for far too long organisations have failed to appreciate this. The more we deny the humanity of our organisations, the more we see robots instead of people, numbers instead of hearts, and assets and liabilities instead of hopes and dreams. The more we reduce our organisations to machines, the more learning becomes instrumentalised – only relevant if it relates to the specific needs of a specific job. We need to free learning from this narrow, inhuman view and build human capability more generally, to help liberate potential. This is in every organisation’s interest, because if people develop, then the organisation develops. But it is also in service to the wider social, economic and environmental ecologies in which humans flourish. Human centred organisations are learning organisations.  

Understanding the core principles of ecology and learning provides the basis for a movement towards human-centrism. Here are three suggested practices that will help you apply this approach to your workplace in a practical, accessible way.  

  • Practice 1: Focus on the quality of human-to-human exchanges. A growing body of evidence suggests that the performance management systems we use are not fit for purpose (see a recent survey from Gartner as an example), as they are based on a reductionist and instrumentalist view of how to encourage and support people. Paradoxically, this approach reduces performance, which, in turn, leads to a tightening of the performance management systems, which then leads to worsening performance. Leaders need to provide their people with an expert balance of challenge and support. Expert challenge is the complex process of helping people to set goals that encourage them to grow; expert support is the complex process of helping them to achieve those goals in a way that means they believe these achievements were their own. This isn’t easy. But it’s these human-centred capabilities that distinguish a world-class leader from the rest. A human-centric organisation focuses on transforming the quality of human-to-human exchanges so that the whole people system is designed to provide expert challenge and support to everyone.  
  • Practice 2: See the person not the job. Hierarchies can be useful for connecting expertise with responsibility, but many organisations now conflate someone’s position in a hierarchy with who they believe that person is. This is damaging, entrenches prejudice, and impedes identifying and liberating potential. This matters because to conflate a person with a job is to dehumanise them. A human-centred organisation sees whole human beings at work, it sees potential everywhere, it nurtures ambitions, and creates pathways for all. Principle #2, which declares the need for learning organisations, shows us that we need to make learning opportunities available for all, irrespective of where they are in a hierarchy or what the learning demands of their current job are. Seeing the person rather than the job releases L&D departments from reductive attempts to define a learning curriculum or a training input that will deliver improved performance within the narrow confines of a job description. Grow the person; performance will follow.  

Here’s a short video from a Danish TV company that shows an experiential method for seeing a person, rather than their label, job or position in a hierarchy. 

  • Practice 3: Build and nurture trust. If the movement to fill the world with more human-centric organisations is to succeed, it will need to be built on a foundation of trust. Fundamentally, all human relationships are about trust, and society can only function if trust is high. In business, there is a strong correlation between high levels of trust and high-performance environments. We can’t learn from, be led by, or work for someone we don’t trust. Edelman have been tracking global trust for several years and publish an annual barometer. This year, trust is in significant decline. Much of the decline relates to what Edelman calls ‘Information Bankruptcy’, which describes the way we are collectively struggling to find trustworthy sources of information. Edelman confirm that the public expects business leaders to also be leaders in society. A human-centred organisation creates the conditions for high levels of trust. This starts with senior leaders taking responsibility and telling the truth, and it continues with transparent, open communications systems that foster understanding and build trust in data and information. Finally, it is delivered through everyday interactions that foster psychological safety. Human-centric organisations place a premium on trust and create systems that nurture it as a foundational element of effective human relationships. 

By understanding these two principles and applying them in your organisation through these three practices, we can all begin to transform our organisations into places built for human flourishing. Now more than ever, we urgently need to fill the world with human-centred organisations: organisations that operate ecologically and free learning from instrumentalism, that see people rather than job roles, that are experts in human-to-human interaction, that nurture trust as a key practice, and that ultimately, make them worth working for.  

Grahame Broadbelt is a communications and R&D expert.