Making diversity work: Rethinking human nature to humanize organizations

Photo Credits: The Humanizing Initiative

A global pandemic and racial reckoning have highlighted the rising levels of inequalities and intensified demands for equitable organizations. The 2021 Edelman report, based on a worldwide survey of 33,000 respondents in 22 countries, paints a picture of mistrust with institutions. Within this environment, 86% of the respondents expect business leaders to fill the void created by the government. These heightened public expectations place significant demands upon business leaders to lead on societal issues, particularly addressing socio-economic inequalities.

A glance at national headlines shows leaders at major companies have started responding to calls for change. For example, Starbucks has published an assessment of its diversity initiatives to track its performance over time. Nike and Uber have tied executive compensation to diversity goals, and General Motors has pledged $10 million to support organizations promoting racial justice and inclusion.

While these are necessary measures, they’re unlikely to yield meaningful results without concerted efforts at dismantling underlying cultural and structural biases.

It is widely known that minority group members experience subtle and persistent biases. In their integrative review of the literature across social sciences, John Amis, Joanna Mair, and Kamal Munir find that biases are deeply embedded in mundane organizational practices (such as hiring, role allocation, promotion, and compensation). Further, studies show these biases show up as micro-aggression, structures of exclusion, and systematic under-representation of minority groups in top leadership positions.

They also perpetuate a dehumanizing culture that denies people their full humaneness. Hence when organizations introduce piecemeal diversity measures, it signals a lack of commitment to changing the culture. This leaves minority group members feeling even more dehumanized, perceiving organizations as routinely stripping their dignity and objectifying them as mere instruments for achieving organizational goals.

Albert Einstein famously said, ‘The world as we have created it is a product of our thinking, and it cannot be changed without changing our thinking.’ Dehumanization is a product of mainstream management practice, and we must rethink it to impact change. At a more fundamental level, changing means humanizing organizations to break the cycles of disadvantage and exclusion.

So how do we humanize organizations to make them more equitable?

This question has been central to my decade-long research on inequalities and diversity practice and led us to launch the Humanizing Initiative to help leaders and organizations create value by promoting human dignity and well-being. I combine this with my expertise in change management and leadership development and interviews with hundreds of managers, executives, and non-managers to provide a comprehensive model for humanizing organizations.

The Humanizing Model (see below) proposes looking beyond surface-level organizational reality and deeper into human nature to disrupt and change.

For this reason, rethinking human nature forms its essence. Human nature refers to the characteristics that form social abstractions, including motives, cognitive and emotional capacities, and psychological mechanisms. More specifically, it constitutes human needs, drives, predispositions, and actual behaviors.

Rethinking human nature to disrupt

In her book entitled ‘Economics for Humans,’ Julie Nelsen outlines mainstream management relies on the 20th-century interpretation of economics, which has promoted reductionist assumptions about human nature as purely self-interested, self-maximizing, and opportunistic. The picture of a calculative economic man is inept, one-dimensional, and has perpetuated racial and gendered organizational structures. Michael Pirson, in his interdisciplinary analysis of the mainstream business narrative, argues an over-emphasis on improving clock-like efficiency has alienated people and proven counter-productive to human dignity. Most surface-level diversity initiatives reflect this mechanistic and short-term orientation. Consider unconscious bias training, which has emerged as a popular tool for reducing bias at work. Francesco Gino and Katherine Coffman, in a 2021 study, show that most organizations provide unconscious training as a check-box exercise. As a result, instead of changing discriminatory behavior and norms, they may even further activate biases.

Our understanding of human nature influences how we tap into the human drives for motivation, vision, and control. Paul Lawrence and Nitin Nohria synthesized 200 years of thought along with the latest research in biology and social sciences to offer a unified view of human drives in their book “Driven: How human nature shapes our choices.” They described four basic drives that guide all human decisions. These include dA or the drive to acquire resources, dB or the drive to bond to form relationships, dC or the drive to comprehend and learn, and dD or the drive to defend against threats. The independence of these drives forces people to choose, thus increasing the influence of culture in shaping their choice. When we view these four drives as independent, we open ourselves to accepting the irrationality and complexity of human beings.

Michael Prison’s interdisciplinary exploration in “Humanistic management: protecting human dignity and promoting well-being” indicates mainstream management practices, relying on the principle of fulfilling insatiable economic wants, elevate dA and dB. They do so by encouraging intense competition (dD) and maximizing shareholder wealth (dA)- while promoting a result-driven culture (dC), hierarchy, and command-control structures (dB). Such a culture emphasizes rational and goal-driven management practices and becomes disconnected from the people and context. It is, hence, little surprise that most diversity efforts don’t reflect major contextual shifts. Frank Dobbins and Alexandra Kalev, in a 2021 article, based on 30 years of data from more than 800 firms, show organizations have been recycling decades-old diversity programs.

Insights from various disciplines, such as evolutionary science, humanities, sociology, philosophy, and psychology, indicate humans have evolved through collaborations. From Charles Darwin to Amartya Sen and Joshua Greene, many prominent scholars note that humans are not perfectly rational. Instead, moral judgments and value-based commitments serve as intrinsic elements of their sociality. Humans also have diverse non-economic needs, including emotional, social, and individual. They crave a better life and have an innate desire to flourish.

Rethinking human nature as eusocial and moral would allow leaders to develop equitable organizations where all human beings can flourish and live a life of dignity. This shift will help humanize organizations- to promote individual dignity, equality, respect, uniqueness, and a concern for overall well-being to capture the true essence of justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion.

Humanizing organizations means viewing the four human drives, not in competition with each other but as independent and interdependent. This increases complexity and requires leaders to continuously balance all drives. With a focus on humanizing, leaders pay attention to protecting human dignity: a) reframing the focus for business on acquiring equity and well-being (and not solely profits), b) bonding through inclusion (and not control), c) defending through creativity and innovation (and not only competition), and d) comprehending through purpose (and not exclusively results). While these new orientations are in human nature, leaders will need to learn and tap them to dismantle mainstream approaches.

Figure 1 captures the four human drives as desired in the Humanizing Model compared with the mainstream management practice.

Figure 1

Economistic & Humanizing Drives

Photo Credits: The Humanizing Initiative

The Humanizing Model

Rethinking human nature is no easy feat, as it will overhaul micro behaviors and reshape structures and cultures. To succeed, organizations must assess their current status to espouse their future, strategize, change, and internalize to instill new norms and values. These activities are presented in six stages of humanizing, as follows.

1. Introspecting: Introspecting is looking inward to explore ‘who the organization is; and what it stands for”. This includes focusing on identity, mission statement, and value proposition (for example). Introspecting means learning about the current values and norms that undergird the prevailing organizational identity and systems. To look inward, organizations need to reflect in both structured and unstructured ways.

2. Espousing: Once the organization has examined its current identity and systems, it must redefine itself by imagining a future aspirational state. Some of the questions to ask include, ‘who do we want to become.’ Espousing allows organizations to establish a guidepost- its future direction and goals.

3. Strategizing: Strategizing is mapping a course of concrete actions by focusing on people and business (as shown in Figure 1 above). Often, organizations overlook or downplay the people aspects in strategizing. However, in the humanizing model, people aspects must be paid full attention to drive maximum value.

4. Changing: This constitutes the real test of making change happen. Organizations should meaningfully implement various steps that impact people and processes to tap humanizing drives (see Figure 1) and produce humanizing outcomes.

5. Internalizing: The change will only stick and produce results if incorporated in individual/ organizational values and norms and shows up as behaviors. A humanizing mindset is valuable in balancing the various drives (see Figure 1) but only possible if daily behaviors and values promote the humanizing principles discussed previously.

6. Growing: The purpose of a humanizing model is to keep building. Since organizations operate in a dynamic and rapidly evolving environment, humanizing requires a deep commitment to continuous improvement and learning. Ongoing reflection, evaluation, and modification of people, processes, behaviors, and people is necessary. Small tweaks and/or significant changes will be necessary to reflect new knowledge and insights and keep the humanizing culture and structures thriving.

Figure 2

The Humanizing Model

Photo Credits: The Humanizing Initiative

The stages outlined above provide some generic steps to guide organizations. Of course, each organization is unique hence would need to adapt these questions in a contextually relevant way. Additionally, as organizations delve into each question deeply, others would emerge to help them adapt and contextualize ‘humanizing’ in the most meaningful and appropriate way. The Humanizing Initiative offers specific tools, mechanisms, and frameworks to help its client organizations through these stages.

Humanizing organizations has become even more relevant in the ‘great resignation’ age where the quit rates have shot up significantly. While the causes of the great resignation are multifaceted, we know people are walking away because of the poor working conditions, pay inequities, burnout, and even existential crisis. Humanizing offers a new lens to tap the innate human drives and build organizations that flourish human dignity.

It is truly an opportune time to dismantle the old and write a new narrative. So, ‘here is to hoping,’ as we begin 2022!

Shaista E. Khilji

Rev. Dec 17, 2021
Potomac, MD

We developed this model earlier in 2021. I am grateful to Christine Kensey for her contributions in conceptualizing the Humanizing Model. She has also helped create both images included in this blog. Thank you, Christine.

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

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Shaista E. Khilji

Shaista E. Khilji

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

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