Human-Centred Cultures for the Age of Adaptivity
We previously posited that companies contribute to employee stress and other mental health problems. At the core of the breakdown is that many corporate cultures are an anachronism, developed for a post-war industrial era or built on ‘command and control’ structures. Recognition that the digital age requires a different way of being is foundational to building a healthy future workplace. This requires addressing the cause, rather than fixing the symptoms.
Instead of writing about how to ‘fix’ mental health in the workplace we’re going to focus on what makes workplaces more human; and healthier and higher performing as a consequence. What might a human-centred workplace culture in the digital age look like? We certainly don’t have all the answers, but we have developed a point of view informed by empirical evidence to suggest that organisations need to create environments that encourage autonomy, risk-taking, sharing, diversity, knowledge flow, and the flexibility on which adaptation thrives.
In short, we’re suggesting that organisations should build a culture on principles that consider human needs and the human psyche.
Autonomy: Uncontentious but Rarely Executed
Many contemporary corporate cultures have compliance and safety structures in place. In the world of financial services or mining, this serves a purpose. However, the rigidity and formality of such structures applied universally tend to quickly dehumanize the workplace. It makes us feel we’re not trusted to be competent or free to contribute. The potential for creative, innovative thought in such structures is diminished.
Dan Pink explains in his book “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us” that autonomy is one of the foundation pillars of motivation, alongside purpose and mastery. This is similar to the three universal, innate and psychological needs used in the self-determination theory of human motivation: autonomy, competence and psychological relatedness. Autonomy can be described as the ability to function independently without control by others and to behave independently, to do things on one’s own. It’s also about the capacity to make decisions independently; to serve as one’s own emotional source; and to manage one’s life tasks without depending on others’ assistance.
In his book, Pink cites a Cornell University study about workers’ autonomy at 320 small businesses. The study discovered that businesses that offered autonomy grew at four times the rate of the control-oriented firms and had one-third the staff turnover. Examples of autonomy include workers having 20% of their time free to decide what they do, when they do it, how they do it or with whom they choose to do it.
Without autonomy, there is no motivation, and without motivation, the creativity and innovation needed to survive the digital age are going to be in short supply. Although autonomy appears to be relatively uncontentious, it’s perhaps surprising that it is rarely executed. However, it’s not possible to just introduce autonomy without creating a framework that can house it.
Psychological Safety, Trust and the Freedom to Fail
Autonomy, and the freedom to create and innovate requires the freedom to fail. If your corporate culture is governed by strict rules and compliance diktats, it’s a message that failure is not tolerated. If your reward system promotes only success (rather than effort), it’s reinforcing that message and perversely you’re more likely to fail collectively.
That which cannot be deduced, or forecast, can often only be discovered through experimentation. Experimentation necessarily produces failure. In his book, “Outliers – The Study of Success” Malcolm Gladwell suggests that it takes 10,000 hours to become a recognised master of any particular skill. Mastery is achieved through a combination of learning, coaching feedback and ongoing deliberately practice. Making mistakes along the way are very much part of the learning journey. All genuine masters of their art recognise that learning never stops, and one of the best ways to learn is through mistakes, followed up by great feedback and coaching.
Some very successful companies that have gone a long way to making allowances for failure. In his book “Work Rules!”, Laszlo Bock asserts that Google encourages risk-taking through reward, and illustrates this using the example of Google Wave, an online platform that launched in 2010 and closed a year later. “They took a massive, calculated risk. And failed. So, we rewarded them.” Intuit, which holds failure parties and gives a special award for the Best Failure, is another well-known example. Adaptive companies are very tolerant of failure, even to the point of celebrating it.
A culture that does not encourage employees to try and fail cannot innovate at the speed required to compete in the digital age. This calls for a high degree of psychological safety and trust.
Create Decentralised, Fluid, and Accountable Organisational Structures
Autonomy requires accountability, otherwise you would just have chaos – people doing what they wanted with no control and little direction. Rather, in exchange for the creative freedoms to develop new ideas or pursue new ways of doing things, employees must be accountable for their actions, ideas and outcomes.
And accountability should not exist without psychological safety and trust. In their book of the same name, ex-US Navy Seals Jocko Willinck and Leif Babin explain how successful Seal units work on the principle of “Extreme Ownership”. This means that each Seal, no matter what level in the hierarchy, is fully responsible for his or her actions and for the consequences that has on the people around them. When mistakes are made, Seals are encouraged to talk about what they did, and why, in a psychologically safe environment with their whole unit.
Willinck and Babin recite excellent examples of how discussion and exploration of the mistake or failure resulted in a deep understanding of a previously poorly understood issue, generating whole team learning in the most efficient way. It should be evident that this also creates highly effective, cohesive teams. Teams that sweep failures under the carpet, or penalise those who make mistakes, cannot learn and will not progress. With this level of accountability, Seal units are able to confidently decentralise command, and allow each Seal to act with autonomy based on the circumstances they face.
In the modern workplace, there should be fewer, more open ‘rules of engagement’ – which will be expressed in the company’s vision, mission and strategy. Employees should feel comfortable and confident talking about their ideas – both to ‘seniors’ and ‘subordinates’ in a reporting line context – setting out a proposed plan and being open to constructive input. Employees are accountable for working within this framework and should be prepared to be thoughtfully reined in if their direction moves too far off course. Autonomy does not mean freedom to act alone – it’s about taking responsible actions to move the company forward in its (clearly) stated direction and being open to support and guidance.
Experiment Rapidly, with a Growth Mindset
On the path to mastery, ability and willingness to engage in structured feedback is critical. To get the most out of feedback, individuals need a growth mindset. In her 2006 book, “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success” Carol Dweck introduces us to the two fundamental mindsets that we all possess to a greater or lesser extent – the ‘growth’ mindset and the ‘fixed’ mindset. Growth mindsets are built on the fundamental principle that we are not limited and that we can achieve anything if we are wisely effortful. Fixed mindsets, on the other hand, believe that learning or intelligence is finite and limited to abilities that we’re born with – and learning is about getting the best out of that.
The key difference is that a growth mindset individuals see failure as an opportunity to learn, whereas fixed mindsets see it as a reason to stop. In an organisational context, a growth mindset means a culture that is open to feedback and is not limited by ‘the way things are’ right now. Working in an environment where feedback is encouraged in a skilled way, both the giver and receiver of feedback learn and grow through this experience, continuing their respective journeys towards achieving mastery. Rather than feeling threatened, those with a growth mindset experience receiving feedback value the opportunity to learn from someone more masterful, or more experienced than them.
The Journey to a Human Centred Culture
To be healthy, human-centred and adaptive, a company must be quick to read and act on signals of change, and hence refine or reinvent its business model and even reshape the information landscape of its industry. Instead of being really good at doing some particular thing repetitively, successful companies will need to get better at learning how to do new things. What’s needed is some simple, generative rules to facilitate interaction, help people to make trade-offs, and set the boundaries within which they can make decisions.
Adaptive companies have replaced permanent silos and functions with modular units of skills that freely communicate and recombine according to the situation at hand. Let’s acknowledge that for organisations that don’t possess any of these cultural attributes already, change will require a clear vision, a long-term strategy, and significant effort as a start. Creating a change-ready, high-performing and nurturing workplace in the constantly changing world we’re in is a journey, not a destination. That’s said, with a clearly articulated vision, and leadership commitment to that vision, none of the challenges are unachievable for any organisation, no matter where they start.
If you’d like to start your journey to a human-centred, mentally healthy and high-performance workplace culture contact us at or contribute to this discussion on one of our LinkedIn feeds