Making Humanity a Leadership Priority

A few months after I had my daughter, I asked a female senior leader how she balanced family obligations with a demanding work schedule.

“Closely guard how much information you share with people at work when you take time out for family stuff,” she said. “Don’t let it look like being a mom is getting in the way of your job.”

I was so disheartened. Even in an apparently progressive and innovative company, parents with young children were being asked to pretend they don’t have lives and priorities outside of work.

In order to assimilate into the corporate culture we had to leave the most important parts of ourselves in the lobby. This created significant emotional and practical strain.

This is just one example of how employees suffer when an organization’s culture – its spoken and unspoken expectations and norms – demands homogeneity. Despite years of well-intentioned Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) programs and plenty of talk about bringing your whole self to work, companies are still haunted by bias and unreasonable expectations that limits the opportunities for employees who are challenging these cultural norms.

All of this leads me to ask two questions. First, does it matter? And, if so, how do we fix it?


Yes, inclusive culture should be a leadership priority

We all know employee engagement and culture are important to the bottom line. Gallup noted in a 2012 report that “Work units in the top quartile in employee engagement outperformed bottom-quartile units by 10% on customer ratings, 22% in profitability, and 21% in productivity.”

Our experience supports this. The most successful organizations that we’ve worked with have been led by executives who create a culture in which everyone feels like they are welcome – that they belong.

More specifically, those cultures all had common characteristics: openness, creativity and freedom from judgement.

When leaders consciously try to create an open culture, it results in a dynamic where people are free to speak up, to push back and challenge authority. Leaders who create cultures of openness foster curiosity, celebrate failure, and know that feedback and debate lead to better outcomes.

We’ve also seen leaders in every sphere, from banking to healthcare, succeed when they strive to foster a creative culture. Creativity is often seen as a defining trait of the marketing department, but we would argue that any team can approach their work creatively. When creativity is central to the culture, ideas for new and better ways of doing things are welcome, and everyone is empowered to bring fresh thinking to their work.

From our perspective, freedom from judgement is both the most important element to bring to a culture, and the hardest nut to crack. When we asked our clients to describe scenarios in which they couldn’t bring their full selves to work, the sense of being judged was central to every one of them. Employees felt their colleagues devalued them for having priorities outside of work; they felt pressure to wear certain clothing in order to fit in; they restrained their commentary in meetings so as to not rock the boat.

These are all fear-based actions. Famed shame researcher Brené Brown states, “the opposite of belonging is fitting in.” When we see employees going out of their way to fit in – rather than show up more fully – it’s a signal that they do not feel truly welcome as they are.

We describe cultures that are rich with openness, creativity and freedom from judgement as human cultures – places where anyone can collaborate and do their best work because they are, as author and Harvard professor Amy Edmondson puts it, “psychologically safe.”


Creating a more human-focused workplace

So how do we make humanity in the workplace more pervasive? D&I programs are often, unfortunately, spot solutions at best – knee-jerk responses to the latest cultural assessment or buzzworthy idea. Often they serve only to add more complexity into the system.

Clearly there are no easy answers, but we believe that organizations need to get back to the basics – to create a culture in which employees connect with each other on a deeply human level.

A good place to start is asking leaders to put humanity at the top of their list of desirable leadership characteristics. They have to walk the talk on this one. It is all about role modeling the behaviors you want to see in your culture.

Here are some ways that you can start:

Practice vulnerability by asking for feedback and admitting mistakes. That means taking down your armor and opening yourself up to connect authentically with your people.

Empathetically listen to your people. Ask for their input and care enough to really hear what they have to say.

Build connections with your people by taking time to get to know them, investing in team-building activities or creating flexibility and space in their workday to forge connections with each other.

Employ a learning mindset and curiosity, instead of blame and judgement, to better understand a situation and create psychological safety for your teams.

Small changes in the way you show up and how you respond to your employees will create a more welcoming, inclusive and productive workplace.

But beyond this, we believe that leaders who embrace humanity will be on the right side of history. When we look back ten or 20 years from now, we will celebrate the executives who succeeded by caring for their people on a deeply human level.


Layla Kajer is co-founder of The Narrative House | Email us to continue the conversation