Being Human at Work

“We need to basically reset everything so that winning is actually leading with your whole self. We need a whole, complete re-imagining of user experience, winning, and culture that’s human-centric. Instead of just numbers.”

– Nancy Lublin


My partner Dan wrote a post for Medium a few years ago called 
Wholeness, Not Happiness. In it, he notes how pushing and optimizing for happiness at work is to ignore all the other parts of being human, therefore feels fake and insincere. Does happiness just equate to free lunch, the keg, unlimited vacation, and all the perkiest perks of the startup world? Whatever happiness may come from that is fleeting, much like trying to fill the emptiness in your life with brand names and more things (which we know doesn’t work).

In a not so distant past life, I worked at a hip little startup in my hip little town running operations. Though we were not a Google-sized company, I had listed many of the accoutrements of a “cool workplace culture” in our benefits package materials. Everything from the indoor garden and handcrafted office space, to the keg, and massage days. On Fridays, when the ice cream truck rolled through the alley, we got ice cream sandwiches. We had bike rides. We had happy hours. We had outings. We had gym passes. We won awards for having such a great workplace culture. Folks wanted to work at our company.

Yet, sitting in the HR seat at the time, I knew we were not all exactly happy. But we weren’t really talking about that.

Somewhere between the office keg and kanban, a very important piece of our company was missing–the element of human wholeness. Being at work, and feeling as not-happy as I would often feel, created quite the cognitive dissonance. If I work at the coolest company, I should be happy, right? But I wasn’t. Every day, when I would come into work, I felt like I was leaving the best parts of me at the door. And, there were days I felt like I couldn’t bring all of me into the office as if there wasn’t room for talking about the dissatisfying things that didn’t fit into the image of our perceived culture. Doing that day in and day out made for a rough-feeling gig when despite my very ergonomic workspace. This is, I suppose, an example of what Parker Palmer calls living a divided life. It felt only mostly human, but not fully human. It didn’t take too long before the stress of that dissonance began to take a toll on my health and wellbeing.

In the words of poet Nayyirah Waheed:

you can not
remain
a
war
between
what you say (who you really are).
and
what you should say (who you pretend to be).
your mouth was not designed to eat itself.

— split

For a lot of us, we feel most divided at work. Yet, becoming an actualized human requires defragmenting yourself from all of the things we’ve divided ourselves from. While the heart of every chief happiness officer is in the right place in the mythos of the cool office cultures of startup-land, we must remember what really makes us feel better when we’re working are the same things that make us feel better as humans. We need to feel safety and belonging. And, we need to feel like we can be fully ourselves in order to feel those things and to thrive. Without that, people can feel alone and unsupported (there’s nothing happy about that).

Dan writes:

“Happiness is just one part of our existence, wholeness is to embrace all that is within us. It’s to embrace our shadow qualities, to embrace our self-doubt, fear, anxiety, as well as the brightness, joy, and curiosity. It is all welcome. To welcome and embrace our wholeness, is to welcome and embrace all that makes us human. It is to allow our employees, and ourselves the full human experience. It is to allow ourselves to be human at work.”

Office lunches and massage days are not going to make up for all the parts of the human being systems that aren’t working well. Far beyond the list of perks, your company culture is the whole feeling tone of your organization and how it behaves. Edgar Schein notes that “culture is the deeper level of basic assumptions and beliefs that are shared by members of an organization, that operate unconsciously and define in a basic ‘taken for granted’ fashion an organization’s view of itself and its environment.” More often than not, culture starts with the company’s leader and the shadow they cast over the organization.

How do we move towards a more authentic and human style of leadership? How can our companies and workplaces support the human experience more fully? If the most important resources we have at our organizations are our people, what makes us gloss over this keystone principle of wholeness?  

“The challenge of optimizing for wholeness,” wrote my partner Dan, “is that it can be downright terrifying. Wholeness requires acknowledging some of the more difficult parts of being human, particularly things that make people uncomfortable.”

How does your company handle bias, inclusion and diversity issues? How do you handle hiring and firing? How do you handle the tough conversations–are they welcomed or avoided? Do your employees feel safe at work, or are there trust issues?  Is your company emotionally literate? Are you able, as a company to name the bigger dissatisfactions that linger and feel like elephants in the room? All of these issues require the skill sets of being human and embracing our humanity. If these moments in a workplace environment aren’t handled with attention and care, that list of company perks won’t fix that. And, these issues cannot be relegated to performance metrics.

As Jerry notes in this podcast conversation with Nancy Lublin, CEO of Crisis Text Line, “What we’re really talking about is the moments of being human. And actually making it safe to be human in a workplace, and making it safe to be human in our lives. Stop treating everything below the mind as a meat bag that’s just out there to carry everything around. We’re flesh and blood. We are whole humans.”

How do we optimize for wholeness? What would it mean to our company cultures if our companies were human-centric in this world of chat bots, OKRs, and KPIs? If you stripped away the benefits and perks of your organization, would the company you are left with be the company your employees would want to work for?