Towards a more humane workplace

If you want to mistreat someone, it helps to think of them as something other than human. And so, unfortunately, you’ll notice the same tactics used at work as in some of the greatest atrocities against humanity.

Yet there’s hope – and evidence – that the social platforms firms are now introducing will make your firm a more humane place.

De-humanizing tactics

“Humanize”, by Jamie Notter and Maddie Grant, makes the compelling case that the mechanistic, industrial model has influenced us to treat each other more like cogs at work than like people. And Seth Godin echoed this in a recent blog post.

But the industrial model has only exacerbated what seems to be a natural tendency.

Some fascinating studies show how easy it is to create an environment where people mistreat each other. For example, the “Robbers’ Cave” experiment, involving 22 eleven-year-old boys in a 3-week summer camp, showed how easily we can be divided into arbitrary groups and drawn into conflict with each other.

And a study by Albert Bandura (popularized in “Influencer”) showed how subjects in a “training experiment” would deliver significantly different levels of electrical shock depending on a single one-word label applied to the unseen “trainees” (Literally: “They seem nice.” versus “They seem like animals.”)

Bandura found this kind of dehumanizing labeling is one of four strategies – moral justification, dehumanization, minimizing, and displacing responsibility – that “allow individuals to act in ways that are clearly disconnected from their moral compass.”

A self-evident truth

A photo by iO Tillett Wright as part of

A photo by iO Tillett Wright as part of

One example of combatting this tendency to label and dehumanize was presented by the artist iO Tillett Wright who recently spoke about gender diversity. In her project,, she decided “to photograph anyone who is not 100% straight” and created 1000s of simple, beautiful portraits that defy labels.

“My goal is to show the humanity that exists in every one of us through the simplicity of a face….I challenge you to look into the faces of these people and tell them they deserve less than any other human being.”

Self-evident truths at work

The problems associated with de-humanizing people aren’t limited to social science experiments and issues of diversity. The authors of “Influencer” described why corporations also need to focus on the issue.

“If you’re a leader attempting to break down silos, encourage collaboration, and engage teamwork across your organization…moral disengagement always accompanies political, combative, and self-centered behavior.”

Part of their advice? “To reengage people morally – and to rehumanize targets that people readily and easily abuse – drop labels and substitute names.”

Evidence & optimism

A social platform

A social platform

Social collaboration platforms take this idea – moving from labels to names and photos – and makes it a fundamental part of the work environment. And because the platforms are so highly interactive, the benefits go well beyond that.

At my own firm, I find that widespread use of the platform makes it harder to objectify people in 4 ways.

  1. You see faces everywhere – not just in the group directory but every time someone contributes something.
  2. You tend to know more about people. As someone interacts online, you pick up more information about them – “ambient intimacy” – than you’d ever get from a simple profile.
  3. People tend to be helpful. Whether people are having a bad day or a bad project or just have a question, people on line are eager to offer help or at least sympathy. And those simple acts of generosity help build relationships that make collaboration and cooperation easier.
  4. Bullies don’t like sunlight. There will always be bad behavior at work (companies are made up of people, after all), but few at work want their bad behavior to be public. The more employees work out loud and attract public feedback for their contributions, the more difficult it is for someone to unfairly diminish them.

It’s true that the main reason businesses are implementing social platforms is because they’ll generate commercial value. But the cultural side effect – creating a more humane work environment that respects and celebrates individuals – is priceless.

About John Stepper

Driving adoption of collaboration and social media platforms at Deutsche Bank. (Opinions here are my own.)
This entry was posted in Management, Social Business and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to Towards a more humane workplace

  1. IMO Transparency IsThe Mother Of Humanization John, thanks For The Great post

  2. jbholston says:

    Excellent — thanks for this.

  3. Joachim says:

    Buying a user license for a social collaboration tool? $49.00
    Creating a more humane work environment that respects and celebrates individuals? Priceless.

  4. I was thinking about my company while reading this. For a number of years they have been using forced ranking and letting the people in the bottom ranks go. This has made it easier to fire people because of the labels provided (“Oh…he was as 5”) regardless of the person and their circumstances.
    It has also created an atmosphere where everyone is out for themselves. Putting down co-workers and taking credit for other people’s work is not uncommon, and no-one wants to work on anything that is new or hard for fear of failure.

    Working out loud is a big step in the right direction, making it harder to steal credit and objectify people as numbers.

    Thanks John. Great post!

  5. John Stepper says:

    I love your comment, Barry, and will re-use it liberally. 🙂

    “Working out loud is a big step in the right direction, making it harder to steal credit and objectify people as numbers.”

  6. Doc Searls sums up the need to humanise the corporation very aptly.

    “Think of markets as three overlapping circles: Transaction, Conversation and Relationship. Our (corporations) are transactions run amok. Metastasized. Optimized at all costs. Impoverished in the Conversation department, and dismissive of Relationship entirely. We’ve been systematically eliminating Relationship for decades, excluding, devaluing and controlling human interaction wherever possible, to maximize efficiency and mechanization.”

  7. Léon Benjamin says:

    Hi John,

    Great Post. I wanted to comment with this but I’m not sure it’s appropriate…

    That’s what we should be looking for, antibodies; some peaceful idea that binds us….because we can all agree that this King of the Mountain shit has got to go; a lucky few get to spend a bit of time on top, but everybody spends most of their existence getting pissed on from a great height. So why do we continue doing it?


  8. Nicole Noel-Norman says:

    Thanks for writing this blog John. Friday someone I have never met or even spoken to on the phone left the company and I felt such a sense of loss because I knew him on our social media platform. Also, last week I had to tell another person I’ve never met that I wouldn’t be able to do any, “volunteer” work for his group because i was overcommitted already and couldn’t add any other things to my schedule. It has been about 4 days since that happened and I STILL feel bad because one of my, “friends” needed my help and I couldn’t give it. If this had been a call from a stranger asking me to work for his team for free, I would have thought him crazy and the request ridiculous. But now I WISH I could have said yes and that is a good thing because while I made the only decision I could, I saw him as a real person, and not some guy just trying to get free labor from me. I think you are very right and we are all made more humane by our increased connection to each other.

  9. John says:

    John – Yet another fine post. And I agree with the previous comments that the current behavior must go. One of my pet peeves had been how my former company’s senior leaders consistently referred to people as “resources” and dehumanized the employees. I guess in a spreadsheet or on an expense chart that may be the way to look at people but I never liked it and avoided using such terms. I hope to find a company that treats and values people as people. Keep the good ideas flowing my friend!

  10. Guy Lipman says:

    I can really relate to the power of a ‘social’ network helping us see colleagues as whole people. I used to always talk about “Houston are saying XYZ” or “IT are such a pain” or “HR behave a certain way”. Now I know representatives of these groups as people, it is much harder to generalise about them. I guess it is the same as recognising that women or gay people or any other grouping are human and individuals, and labelling them can diminish them.

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  12. John,

    Thanks a lot for the great post. Funny enough, I wanted to write a blog-post about employee’s “hall-way” interaction and scalability of it. I saw a documentary about Pixar and amazed with Steve’s thinking. Google is very interesting. They track how to maximise people interaction during their lunch waiting line too: 3-4 minutes q results in the best interaction.

    Loved how social enterprise software can “scale” the hallway employee interaction. But, there should be more different approaches to break the silos IMHO.

    • John Stepper says:

      Thanks, Josh, for that excellent article.

      And you’re right. Creating an environment isn’t just a well-designed atrium, or optimal lunch lines, or a widely-used social collaboration platform. It’s all those things and many more.

      Where to start depends on the size and culture of your company. For those with 10,000+ people in many locations (like, notably, Yahoo!) I’d suggest starting with the social platform as it has the best (and most measurable and commercial) return on the investment.

  13. Marie-Louise Collard says:

    A great post John and one that I’ve thought about a great deal.

    A great post because I agree wholeheartedly with what you are saying about social collaboration platforms
    A great post because I can identify with what you are saying from our own internal social
    A great post because it is a reminder that every individual should feel they are respected and celebrated in their work environments.
    A great post because it made me consider what was still “missing”…. the “social” journey is a continuous one of growth and development.
    A great post because it made me consider more fully the colleagues (and the faces!) who still make up the work environment but who, for whatever reason, have not been engaged
    A great post because it reminded me of all those who work hard to make it work for everyone, not just a few.

    Thank you

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