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Humanizing Work: What It Is & Why You Can’t Win Without It

Humanizing Work

Humanizing work.

It’s sort of crazy that it’s even a “thing,” isn’t it?

We’re human. We work together as humans. What’s there to humanize?

Well, a lot.

Let’s start with how we got into the predicament we’re in and why you absolutely want to humanize your workplace if you’re serious about realizing your people’s and your organization’s full potential.

Of course, we’ll also have a look at what humanizing work means and entails.

How Humanizing Work Became a Thing

Throughout the ages, at least after private property and coins were invented, work has hardly ever been about humans.

It was about keeping the ruling classes and business owners comfortable and away from dirty, menial, and otherwise unpleasant work.

Workers were the instruments to achieve that.

And make no mistake about it — if the “haves” could have fulfilled their desires without needing (to put up with) laborers, they would have jumped at the chance.

Luckily, for the workers, any available tools and machines were manually operated, and powered by human and non-human animals. Physical power was the measure of what could be done and put a limit on what the “haves” could extract from the “have-nots”.

That all changed with the Industrial Revolution.


How the Industrial Revolution Started a Disturbing Process

The first non-living-being powered machines were productive beyond belief. They could produce more in their economic lifetime than an army of living workers could.

Machines became the measure of what was possible.

But they were expensive, enormously so.

So, humans retained but one job: keep the machines going. Often regardless of risk to life and limb.

And workers had little choice but to accept it, if they wanted a roof over their heads and bread on the table. As the sad fact was that the introduction of these machines had made droves of laborers redundant.

Over time, people, employers and workers alike, stopped questioning this state of affairs.

And then…

Things went further downhill.

What Scientific Management Promised and Delivered

Mr. Taylor came along.

Taylor was one of the first to apply scientific methods to study how work got done in an effort to make production as efficient as possible. He became known as the father of scientific management, or Taylorism.

He believed that a lack of standardization in the jobs to be done led to unnecessary inefficiencies. And that a lack of involvement by plant managers led to workers who were unmotivated to work as quickly or efficiently as possible.

He concluded that plant managers should get involved in identifying the most efficient way to do every job that needed doing (including human movements!) and provide their workers with the tools and training to perform those jobs exactly like that. He also concluded that workers needed to be motivated by performance-based incentives.

Taylor’s obsessive focus on efficiency made humans subservient to “the most efficient way” to do any of them. Add to that monitoring, instructing, and supervising workers to keep them working at maximum efficiency and the stage is set for a dysfunctional and dystopian workplace.

How Industrial Management Beguiled the World of Knowledge Work

Mr. Taylor influenced many of the management theories to emerge in the early 20th century.

When knowledge and information became the third wave to revolutionize work, knowledge workers didn’t escape this “scientific” drive for productivity maximization.

Managers and management theory developers kept looking for ways to measure their efficiency and productivity, despite failing miserably at almost every turn.

All of these management methods also kept alive the idea that individuals should accept and adapt to the company’s systems and policies for the good of the company, the security of their paycheck, and the progression of their careers.

Everything was geared toward maximizing profits at the expense of individual wants and needs. The latter only received consideration when someone was perceived to be of such high value to the company that the risk of losing them posed a threat to the company’s profitability. It often led to an enormous disparity in how that someone and their colleagues were treated, increasing the dysfunction already present.

“Leaving your emotions at the door,” is perhaps the most blatant expression of this desire to mold human workers into effective resources.

The idea being that human frailties should be mitigated and repressed as much as possible to get them to behave as rationally and efficiently as possible.

Why Humanizing Work Is Crucial for Your Succes

Scientific and other management approaches born from the 20th century have failed over and over, and over.

And they’re still failing today.

They’re failing the people doing the work and the companies they work for.


Because those human frailties — those pesky emotions and everything that comes with them — are an indivisible part of every one of us.

And we’re much better for them. They are the very things that allow humans to make great leaps and propel a company, humanity even, forward.

Creativity, problem solving, and innovation, rely on the human brain being in an optimal state for the kind of thinking that requires. A state devoid of anxiety, fear, worry, uncomfortable emotions, etc. In other words, a state without flight or fight responses.

A beautiful state as Buddhists call it.

Humanizing work recognizes that.


Turning the Tables

We’re finally turning the tables on the damaging legacy of the industrial revolution and our management methods’ drive to turn humans into flesh-and-blood machines, robots, devoid of everything that is incorrectly assumed to stand in the way of productivity.

We’re finally — albeit kicking and screaming — realizing that asking humans to forget that they’re human when they get to work, is an excellent way to stop people and organizations of achieving what they have in them to achieve if only we get out of their way.

We’re finally realizing that supporting humans to thrive — capitalizing on all the glory in all their frailties, is what we need to get the best results.

And, let’s not forget this, we’re finally realizing that we need all hands on deck with all their talents accessible to each and everyone to solve the problems we humans have created for the planet that’s our only home. Which it will be for a long time to come. Despite what a couple of billionaire CEOs are dreaming up and of (and trying to outdo each other in the process instead of joining forces).

What Are the Origins of Humanizing Work?

I’m not sure there is a person or school of thought you can point to as the source of humanizing work as a concept.

I see three major developments that have contributed to recognizing it as the way forward:

1. Recognizing that the way we were managing wasn’t bringing us the desired outcomes, or not to the extent we thought was possible (see everything above).

2. The development of other management practices such as Kanban, Lean, and Scrum (done right). And new ways of organizing companies such as Teal, Sociocracy, and Holacracy. They kick started a re-appreciation of what humans need to power the engine of creativity, innovation, and change. And they showed that when you entrust your people to walk your talk with regard to taking advantage of opportunities, quality and customer value and service, magic starts to happen.

3. Evidence from research in psychology, cognition, and neurology that a brain in fight-or-flight mode concentrates on survival and loses access to its capacity for creativity, innovation, and change. To access those, you need to make a brain feel safe and challenged enough but not too much to get into flow.

What Is Humanizing Work — What Does It Entail?

Humanizing work means what it sounds like: making work and the place where work gets done, more humane.

That doesn’t tell you much, does it?

What, exactly, does it mean to make work and the workplace more humane?

• It means recognizing and treating your people as humans first, resources second.

• It means putting your people first.

• It means believing and trusting that people want to do a good job and you get the best results if you get out of their way and trust them to get on with it.

• It means appreciating that people can only give you their best efforts when they feel safe and secure from physical, emotional, and mental threats.

• It means understanding reciprocity: that trust begets trust, that the opposite of trust is fear, and that acting out fear (of missing out, being taken for a ride) begets fear and gets you exactly what you feared in the first place.

• It means grasping that managing isn’t leading, that you manage work and lead people, and that it’s only the respect of the led that creates leaders.

• It means treating your people as unique, individual human beings, with unique, individual wants and needs, who need unique, individual support to give you the benefit of their best efforts.

• It means suiting work and the workplace to people, not the other way around.

• It means getting the point that humanizing work is your first step on the way to embracing diversity, ensuring equity, and effecting inclusion, which is your best bet for creating astonishing results.

• It means accepting that high performance and those astonishing results don’t come from measuring and managing, but from enticing, encouraging, and appreciating.

• It means understanding human nature and growing a culture that lets humans thrive, so that your organization can thrive.

Ultimately, humanizing work requires constant, continual, continuous attention — keeping at it. Humanizing work is a process, not a project. There is no finish line, no point where you can say “There. We’ve humanized work. Now we can switch to something else.”

The number of companies “getting it” is growing.

Here are a few examples to inspire you.

5 Companies That “Get” It

1. The Virgin Empire

Who doesn’t know Richard Branson, the flamboyant self-made billionaire?

But how many people know that Richard Branson built the many Virgin companies on the philosophy “employees come first”?

Or that he believes that this is the reason for his astronomical success?

In his mind it’s simple.

When you take care of your employees, they’ll take care of your customers.

You’ll see this reflected everywhere you can find Richard Branson’s hand.

Pick any of the Virgin companies, read any of the pages on their culture and values.

You’ll quickly realize that Richard Branson and the companies he built have breathed humanizing work from day one — all the way back in 1972 when Richard Branson founded Virgin Records with Simon Draper, Nik Powel, and Tom Newman.

To get you going, here are a few statements from Virgin culture pages.

Virgin Atlantic

• Our people are a passionate lot, united in creating something really special and something different.

• “I’m often asked what it is that makes Virgin different. The simple answer is – our people. If it weren’t for a bunch of well trained, motivated and, above all, happy people doing their bit, we’d have never launched a record label, never mind a fleet of 747s.”
— Sir Richard Branson – adventure as a culture (Yes, written by Sir Richard Branson)

• Life should be an adventure and as we spend most of it at work, it follows that work should be fun too.

• Giving people choices empowers them to make great decisions. Through initiatives like working from home, unlimited leave, integrated technology, and wellbeing in the workplace – we treat our employees like the capable adults they are.

• It’s really important to recognize that people are individual and everyone has different needs.

• Virgin is the antithesis of corporate culture – I even carry a pair of scissors around with me to cut the ties off unwitting businessmen.

• Simple things such as getting rid of a dress code and playing music in the office can do huge things for staff morale.

And this page from their stories shows it’s not just Sir Richard: Be yourself a culture of belonging at Virgin Atlantic.

2. Semco

When Ricardo Semler took over from his father he quickly became a phenomenon.

And he still is.

Semco is perhaps the best known example of a company throwing out old management methods and thriving.

And Ricardo Semler may well be the CEO who put humanizing work firmly and squarely on the map. By showing the way, sticking to his guns ideas, and creating a success story that up till now has no equal.

In the first few days after taking over (and note that he was just 21 at the time), he dismissed 75% of senior executives.

He did away with job titles.

No one is in charge at Semco.

People set their own schedules.

People decide their own salaries and select other compensation from an 11-option menu.

People choose their own managers and evaluate them twice a year. Results are public.

No one has to sit through any meeting. Participation is all voluntary. If no one shows up to your meeting, take it to mean that it was untimely or deemed unimportant.

Semco’s only policy is to have no policies.

Instead, it offers a 21-page “Survival Manual” as an introduction to its culture.

Ricardo Semler himself encourages everyone to keep challenging assumptions and keep asking “Why?” Sort of like the 5 Whys method taken from root cause analysis to interrogating the status quo.

Many perhaps thought that this couldn’t last, that Ricardo Semler would soon find reality a lot more obstinate than his idealism, that he’d come to his senses.

Far from it.

Ricardo Semler persisted and Semco is still hugely successful today.

Over the last decade they’ve increased sales by 600% and profitability by 500%. And they’ve done so in Brazil, a country plagued with a rough economy!

But please, please, don’t copy them!

Why not? Read this: “Why Semco Doesn’t Want Your Company To Be Like Semco.”

3. Alcoa

Alcoa, one of the largest companies in the USA, started on a path of humanization back in 1987 when Paul O’Neill took over as CEO.

He made safety his, and the company’s, prime priority.

His aim?

Oh, just a reduction of workplace injuries to zero.

Zero. Not two a year, or one a year. No. Zero.

Quite an ambition when you realize the environment required to produce all kinds of aluminum products.

He relentlessly prioritized human safety and walked his talk — summarily dismissing adjutants that weren’t.

It made Paul O’Neill a legend.

During his reign, lost work days due to injury or illness dropped from 1.86 to just 0.2 per 100 employees.

Not just that.

During his reign, Alcoa also became the top performer in the Dow Jones.

Like Ricardo Semler, he showed that prioritizing the safety and well being of the people that work for you, puts in motion all kinds of human processes that ultimately improve your bottom line beyond imagination.

And Alcoa still gets it if Glassdoor reviews are anything to go by:


4. Buurtzorg

Buurtzorg (neighborhood care) is a Dutch health care organization with 14000+ people working for them in 1000+ teams providing help to the sick and elderly so they can live as autonomously as possible in their own homes.

Performance management? Performance control by managers?


Buurtzorg no longer has managers. All teams are self-managing.

Key indicators are monitored centrally and continually. These include the number of customers, productivity (in terms of billability of contracted hours), client satisfaction ratings, and … employee satisfaction ratings.

More importantly perhaps, everything is transparent: everyone can see how every team is doing. Both in comparison to each other and a national benchmark.

The public (well, internally public) league tables create awareness and a peer review system that affords everyone equal opportunities to adjust.

It works much better than top-down “control” — which actually is no control at all, but that’s another article…

Since doing away with managers and measuring what really matters, Buurtzorg consistently outperforms its competitors on client and employee satisfaction rates.

5. Starbucks

Starbucks is well known for its culture of inclusion.

They accept their people as they are. Although all baristas wear the same kind of apron, they can all express their personal style freely through their hair style and color (yes, crazy vibrant colors too), visible tattoos, piercings, etc.

And Starbucks understands the power of language.

They don’t speak of the people that work with them as employees, but as partners.

You may understand a partnership to be different from an employer-employee relationship, and you’d be right. But calling their workers partners is not about the contract. It’s about recognition. It’s Starbucks’ way of signaling how much their partners contribute to the success of the company.

Another example of how Starbucks humanizes work is the training it offers.

Baristas don’t just learn how to prepare all those different coffee variations.

They also receive training in stress management and dealing with angry customers. Since that training was instigated, employee turnover has decreased and customer satisfaction increased.

Another illustration of how Starbucks prioritizes its people is how it also teaches baristas to visualize their aprons as a barrier. A barrier between them and the customers. A barrier that prevents any abuse reaching and affecting them personally.

Turn Those Tables: Start & Keep Humanizing Work!

Yes, it’s crazy that humanizing work is even a thing.

But there you have it.

We have allowed — mistaken — beliefs about what makes our companies and organizations successful to dehumanize the people that work in them.

It’s time to turn those tables.
It’s time to start and keep humanizing work.
It’s time to put humans first and everything else second.

Celebrating your people, helping them thrive, is the way to unleash everything they’re capable of.

And with AIs and what they’re capable of on the rise, having thriving humans in your organization will become the single most crucial differentiator for your company.

So, turn those tables. Humanize work!


Marjan Venema

Marjan Venema

With 30+ years in all corners of software development, Marjan's specialty is writing engaging copy that takes the terror out of tech: making complicated and complex topics easy to understand and consume.

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