Three principles to follow
First, it’s helpful to remember that tone sets the standard. Two Harvard professors, Julia A. Minson and Francesca Gino, found that when colleagues communicated at work, they emulated the other’s tones. Individuals naturally picked up on expressions signalling receptiveness, or the opposite, and adopted them in replies.
This means a deliberate effort to set a human-centric tone at the start of an exchange can increase the likelihood of all participants following a set standard, and responding in kind. It’s a simple, yet effective, principle that can have a near instantaneous impact.
Second, accountability sets the culture. If we want a human-centric workspace, we need an organizational culture where everybody — up and down the hierarchy — is willing to take responsibility for their actions. Workplace culture needs to encourage and empower all members to take risks and own the consequences of their actions.
This means that everybody must be open to both giving and receiving feedback. A human-centric work culture values learning when someone’s work is in need of improvement, they need to be provided with the opportunity to grow and change. Human-centered management presumes accountability, which requires an openness to feedback. We can be kind and still hold folks accountable for what they do, what they say they are going to do and how they respond to what employees do.
Third, co-operation requires challenge, confrontation and safety. In a human-centric workplace, all participants are made to feel safe while being active and engaged in their work. Managers need to engender safety because authentic co-operation cannot be faked. We know when we are actually needed.
Real co-operation demands all involved parties honour the need to be active while creating value in an open and trusting environment. Everyone listens with the same intensity when others speak, and challenges other participants as appropriate, knowing they are bonded in a shared pursuit.
Creating safe work spaces
Feeling safe does not mean that we are free from expectations to speak up and share our ideas, to actively contribute to a project or to take calculated risks in a supportive environment. Our post-pandemic culture has the lingering association of safety with passivity — we are only truly safe when we withdraw.
A “safe space” is often understood as a place free of conflict or criticism, but I argue that conflict is not antithetical to safety. We can trust that our co-operative partners have our best interests at heart, even when we are challenged by them.
With these three guiding principles, businesses can create a workplace environment that both supports vulnerability, and is less likely to lead to exploitation by the dishonest. It is a first, but deeply necessary, step in building a more human-centric post-pandemic future.