How Do We Move from Dehumanizing to Humanizing Organizations?
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 are expected to take our professional-self to work so that we can exclusively focus on tasks, roles, and responsibilities. This self (for example) goes through work robotically, forms teams to accomplish pre-assigned projects within predefined time constraints, and has been taught to lead with a grand vision. Day after day, the professional-self checks boxes and trudges along accelerated deadlines leaving little to no time for introspection. It is important to realize that such an expectation has disconnected us from our contexts. It has also made us intolerant of conflicts and tensions within organizations. Hence, when faced with a conflict, we either want to ignore or crush it. To further reinforce this expectation, organizational cultures demand conformity. As a result, organizations shun the promotion of human dignity, equity, uniqueness, the capacity for growth, respect, fostering ‘ethics of care,’ identity, and concern of common good as mere ideals.
We have dehumanized ourselves and the organizations we work in with our persistent focus on the ‘professional-self.’
The personal-self represents our deep attachment to the social and psychological contexts. It yearns for human connections, feels empathy, rejection, compassion, and a variety of other emotions. It exists due to mutuality and collaborations. It is also concerned with inter-dependence, fulfillment, intellectual curiosity, identity, and benevolence. Since we leave our ‘personal-self’ outside the organization, our interactions don’t typically realize the positive effects of empathy, collaboration, and concern for the other. For fear of mixing pleasure with business, we mostly shelve our personal selves. And those who try to bring these values to work are met with strong resistance.
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!
So where does it leave us? An emphasis on mechanization may have generated material wealth but for a few. Through its denial of identity, context, and community, dehumanizing misrepresents the complete human experience. In addition, it unnecessarily breaks down our inter-dependent existence into two disjointed realities- one that is dominant and favored (for example, the professional-self), and the other that is ignored and shoved under the rug (for example, the personal-self). As an act of exclusion, such an expectation imposes an illusion of uniformity and also enforces conformity to perpetuate inequities and racist structures.
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.
When embarked on this journey, we will create spaces that support the power of the human story to elevate human dignity and well-being eventually.
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 https://www.humanizinginitiative.com
I am thankful to Sarah Sears, whose expression, “Ah, the lies we tell ourselves!” inspired this blog.