5 Key Principles to Rehumanize our Workplaces and Communities

Our world is rapidly changing and becoming increasingly complex. There is an acronym used to describe this reality – VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous). Although VUCA originated from the U.S. Army War College, it is widely used today in the business world. Essentially, we are living and working in a world where disruption is the new norm. And while this disruption can bring innovation and growth, it also poses tremendous challenges.

You see, as human beings, we are hardwired to seek out familiarity and comfort. So the inherent characteristics a VUCA world brings triggers us in all kinds of unproductive ways. We don’t start each day wanting to look stupid, disconnected or ineffective. Most of us want to look smart, capable and helpful. However, we also don’t like to be vulnerable where we’re exposed to risk, uncertainty and emotional exposure. In fact, we learn relatively early in life how to manage and avoid interpersonal risks where we might look ignorant, incompetent or disruptive.

Researcher and bestselling author, Brené Brown, describes this as “armoring up”; much like medieval soldiers would put on armor to protect themselves during a battle, we put on invisible armor to hide our inadequacies and flaws, protect ourselves and avoid looking bad. The problem is that it leads to disconnection, silos and keeps us (and organizations) from thriving. Add in the disruption of living and working in a VUCA world, and our instinct to armor up only gets worse. Then put a bunch of us together in a workplace, team, family or community group and we end up with a mess where we stop treating one another as valued human beings.

Given this, it is critical that we intentionally create human, psychologically safe environments where we can take risks, lay down our armor and are comfortable expressing and being ourselves; where we can share concerns and mistakes without fear of embarrassment or retribution. Enter 5 key principles that can help us do just that.

5 Key Re-Humanizing Principles

These five key principles that are essential to creating thriving, future-ready and human workplaces and communities:

1. Build a Lighthouse.

Much like a lighthouse can help cut through the fog and provide clarity for where to go, having a clear purpose and core values (on both an organizational and individual level) can help to do the same. It can provide calm in the VUCA storm and passion to keep forging ahead. Think about the strong, courageous students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Their lives changed forever on February 15, 2018 when they survived one of the deadliest school shootings in U. S. history. Rather than sitting back and waiting for Congress to do something about gun violence, these teenagers stood up and spoke up. They built a lighthouse and provided a compelling, clear vision for a gun violence-free future. They rallied people across the country, bringing high visibility and eloquent speeches into the mainstream so that their friends’ lives were not lost in vain. They got the attention of political leaders, and their incredible display of leadership even made the cover of Time Magazine. They started from the ground up and built momentum for positive change.

When people feel connected to a purpose or cause, they step into being a leader. So why would we think that things would be any different inside an organization or any other group? When we do the work to have clarity of purpose and core values to anchor us and light our way in the darkest of times, we operate from energy and passion. Building a lighthouse also helps to create a sense of connection and belonging – key parts of our DNA as human beings.

2. Create Fearless Environments.

The VUCA world inherently brings some discomfort, as it demands we do things differently. However, we can only adapt and grow when we feel safe taking the risks required to do transformative work. Intentionally creating psychologically safe spaces in our teams, families, and other groups makes it less risky for us to take off our masks and armor so we can show up as our full, authentic selves and be vulnerable enough (i.e., let ourselves be fully seen) to take risks and grow.

I have found that it’s possible to transform organizations by focusing on one team at a time. And it makes sense given that psychological safety resides at the team level. One of our core programs is called Developing a Leadership Mindset (DALM). It’s designed to be delivered for in-tact teams. Over the course of six sessions (with practical application exercises in between sessions), people start with self work and are equipped with a common language and skills to move from self-protection to self-reflection and collaboration. They then learn how to truly listen, how to leverage conflict as a productive conduit for collaboration and change, and co-create their own guiding principles for their team culture.

A couple of years ago we administered DALM to an infusion clinic team. They were plagued with back-stabbing, bickering, turnover, communication issues and more. Not surprisingly, their team had one of the lowest scores on the annual employee engagement survey within the entire health system. We created a fearless environment for them to enter into the work DALM invited them to do. And boy did they do the work – and has kept it going through the present day. In fact, just recently their team had the second highest score across the entire organization on the employee engagement survey. In their own words:

“Our group was struggling to function as a healthy team. Admittedly, there was some apprehension about the Developing a Leadership Mindset program. With our facilitator’s assistance, we were able to recognize and breakdown our own behaviors and barriers, resulting in an ability to appreciate and utilize each other’s talents and strengths. This new way of thinking has ultimately led to tremendous growth, collaboration, and improved communication. We are very proud of our team and we are grateful for the assistance in this lasting change.”

3.Wade in the Messy Middle.

Change involving humans is complex and evokes discomfort (which is why we must create fearless environments). It requires us to have the courage to embrace our humanity, be imperfect and allow ourselves to be vulnerable – to be seen fully as we are (as opposed to who others think we are or how we want others to see us). Growth happens at the edge of our comfort zone, so there is tremendous value in letting ourselves embrace the discomfort and be in the middle of the mess; it’s the only way to transform and be equipped to thrive in a VUCA world.

Here’s the thing, we all have stories we hold – about ourselves, others and how things work. The question is whether these stories serve us well. Much of the time, these stories are self-limiting and stem from our Ego – our inner voice that craves acceptance and approval and leads us to please, perform, pretend and self-protect. These stories originate during childhood. And at the root of most of these self-limiting stories is usually something about not being “enough”: not smart enough, lovable enough, strong enough or good enough. And when not enough is in the driver’s seat, we show up guarded, in self-protection mode and are limited in being able to navigate through adaptive challenges.

Growing up as the youngest of five girls in an over-achieving family shaped my stories and assumptions. For a variety of reasons, I created a huge internal narrative of not being enough – in most areas of my life. My meaning-making system interpreted pretty much everything as another “validation” that I wasn’t enough or a need to prove to myself and others that I was enough. So I thought if I became the best I could at everything, that somehow it would fill this void and prove to myself and others that I was loveable. I assumed that my value didn’t come from who I was but from what I accomplished.

Fast forward to being a working adult, and this pattern only got worse. I was constantly overachieving to have my leaders like me and praise me. I was trying to do it all to receive accolades and feel enough. My friends even had this ongoing “joke” about me being Wonder Woman. The truth is, for years I prided myself in the amazement people expressed about how I managed to somehow do it all. But it had its cost. At one point it nearly eroded my marriage. And more times than I can count my body has finally had to step in to stop me with illness or injury before I’d slow down long enough to listen, reflect and re-prioritize my life. On the outside I was highly successful; on the inside I was exhausted!

After years of this cycle repeating itself, I finally hit the pause button and started doing the transformative developmental work necessary to change my inner-narrative and meaning-making system. It was hard, messy, painful and invaluable in allowing me to reconnect with and show up with more of my authentic self, embrace my humanity and imperfections, create meaningful connections with others and operate with purpose.

The exponential rate of change in a VUCA world demands that we are able to effectively navigate adaptive change. In their book, Leadership on the Line, Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky state why understanding and being able to navigate adaptive challenges is so critical to our future success.

“Without learning new ways – changing attitudes, values and behaviors – people cannot make the adaptive leap necessary to thrive in the new environment.”

As I’ve seen the power of supporting others in doing the work to rewrite their inner narrative, I’ve become an even greater advocate for the importance of wading in the messy middle. We need to move from self-protection to self-reflection and then do the uncomfortable, yet transformative, work to rewrite our inner narratives. We can’t fast-forward development.

4. Show up as a leader.

Leadership is a BEHAVIOR, not a title or role. Every single one of us has the potential and opportunity to choose to show up as a leader – to do the courageous, difficult work required to show up authentically human, become a better version of ourselves and create a space for others to do the same. And when we do, amazing change can happen. I’ve seen countless people show up as leaders, move past self-limiting dialogue and influence positive change within their workplaces and communities. It’s truly inspiring!

In our new book, Rehumanizing the Workplace, we define leadership as “maximizing our positive impact on the world by becoming our best, fully authentic selves and supporting those around us to break past barriers and step into their greatness.”

Building thriving workplaces and communities that can weather the VUCA storms demands courageous leaders. In fact, Brené Brown says that “you shift a culture by creating a critical mass of courageous leaders.” In their book, Leadership On the Line, Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky suggest that the opportunity for leadership stands before us every day in various ways. And every day we must decide whether or not to put our contribution out there, or keep it to ourselves to avoid upsetting anyone.

Thriving in this VUCA world requires a great amount of new learning, engaging ourselves and others in adjusting our unrealistic expectations and promoting our resourcefulness. With the rapid rate of change we face daily, we can’t afford to stay comfortable and wait for someone else “more qualified” to “fix” the problem.

5. Find your tribe.

As human beings, we’re hard-wired for connection. We also want to feel seen and heard and know our contributions matter. Rehumanizing our workplaces and communities never has, and never will, be a solo journey. It takes a village of people committed to a clear, compelling vision to build a thriving workplace. Besides, we know that people only tend to support what they’ve helped to create. So start building authentic relationships with other people. Collaborate to build a lighthouse and expand from there. Leverage that energy and relationships to build a diverse community; when you do, you’ll start to build momentum. Don’t try to go it alone!

These 5 Key Rehumanizing Principles are the core of our book, Rehumanizing the Workplace – which is loaded with tips for how you can apply the principles and show up as a leader in your life to influence positive change. I hope you’ll read it and would love to hear from you what you’re noticing as you put these principles into practice! In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the following:

  • Where are you seeing these Rehumanizing Principles at play, and what difference do you think it makes?
  • Where are there opportunities where these principles could make a positive difference?
  • How are you showing up as a leader in your life?

Never dull your sparkle!


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