How Do We Move from Dehumanizing to Humanizing Organizations?

An artistic index card with humanize, and some leaves
Photo Credits: Ali Shafiq

In his book entitled, “Rethinking the color line’, Charles A Gallagher argues,

When it comes to race relations in the United States, we are two nations: the nation we imagine ourselves to be as depicted in the media and the nation we actually inhabit.”

Using this powerful statement, Gallagher contends that America’s depiction of a glossy ‘self’ misrepresents the disadvantaged life chances of racial minorities. In essence, this statement underscores that we live with two very different realities and have privileged one view while marginalizing the experiences of the latter.

As I read Gallagher’s quote in one of my ‘Courageous Conversations’ to discuss the role of myths, deceptions, and illusions, one student exclaimed thoughtfully, “Ah, the lies we tell ourselves!” Her expression stuck with me.

The problem with lies is that they are misleading. Persistent lies are also harmful because they can distort, corrupt, and manipulate reality. Often, lies become the ‘reality,’ the single most believed fact of life. Reinforced with a binary, rigid, and ‘either-or’ thinking, lies, for the sake of simplicity, can lead to imposition and impression of uniformity while disregarding diverse viewpoints.

As a microcosm of society, organizations are no exception. They tell lies too. And their lies can as easily become deeply entrenched in their cultures and structures through a process of reinforcement. Let us look at the mechanization of organizations aimed at enforcing rational thinking. In a previous blog, I have argued that our obsession with rationality has led to an emphasis on quantifying, developing efficient and effective work systems, and promoting a command and control logic that accentuates the role of optimization, implementation, performance, and authority (for example). In elevating this machine-like efficiency, organizations have also forced individuals to compartmentalize their lives.

Hence we live with two selves daily- the ‘professional-self‘ that we bring to work and the ‘personal-self’ that we are asked to leave behind.

We have dehumanized ourselves and the organizations we work in with our persistent focus on the ‘professional-self.’

Imagine the prospect of organizations cultivating the personal-self; with its sense of responsibility and desire to be inclusive. This could genuinely transform them as sites of innovation, fulfillment, and human well-being! Such is the great potential of humanizing workplaces!

Haridimos Tsoukas and Robert Chia, in an article published in 2002, describe organizations as sites of constantly evolving human action. The reality is that humans are not machines. We are not uniform. We live with competing desires, needs, and wants. We continuously weave and reweave our habits, actions, and beliefs to accommodate new experiences through our interactions with others. To capture the nuanced and contextualized human condition, we have to disentangle ourselves from the dominant thinking. This will open us to the essence of human experience with its immense complexity and mind-boggling messiness.

To humanize, we need to first acknowledge the invisible ‘other’ in our thinking.

Nov 19, 2020

This article has emerged from the “Humanizing Initiative,” which seeks to humanize leaders and organizations to cultivate humanistic leadership. For more information, please refer to

I am thankful to Sarah Sears, whose expression, “Ah, the lies we tell ourselves!” inspired this blog.



Shaista E. Khilji is Professor at the George Washington University University. She is also Founder of the Humanizing Initiative.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Shaista E. Khilji

Shaista E. Khilji is Professor at the George Washington University University. She is also Founder of the Humanizing Initiative.