Last week, I spent a few days on the road in Orlando, where I attended the first ever WorkHuman event, a conference on the “future of the human workplace” produced by rewards and recognition provider Globoforce that was ostensibly dedicated to accentuating the positive parts of human nature rather than fighting against our better nature, as is so often the case in HR and recruiting.
The conference’s content was centered around the almost utopian premise that by accepting the innate humanity and celebrating individual workers and their contributions instead of continually stressing the collective, companies will achieve increased engagement, employee satisfaction and bottom line results.
This sounds, in theory at least, pretty compelling, and the content focused on the enabling and empowering individual humans instead of treating them as amorphous and interchangeable “human resources.”
This included a lineup of speakers that definitely took a page out of the TED playbook, including several TED Talks alumi, such as Wharton Professor Adam Grant and author Shawn Achor, anchoring the agenda along with big name keynoters like actor Rob Lowe (not the creepy one) and media magnate Arianna Huffington (who, let’s face it, is always kind of creepy).
Throw in some thinly veiled sales pitches from Globoforce executives – hey, it’s their show, after all – and you’ve got the basic premise behind WorkHuman.
What Worked at WorkHuman.
In breaks between the various sessions, I kept an eye out for any Recruiting Daily community members who were in the house, and my mom will be proud to know that out of the fairly packed house of HR and recruiting leaders, I found a grand total of four – yes, 4 – of you who actually read my blog.
To my four special friends, please, take the advice I gave you to heart: please never show up at the same HR event again. Seriously, God forbid there’s an accident, and my entire audience is wiped out in a single unfortunate, untimely incident. Hey, stranger things have happened.
Because there were so few people who I knew (or who knew me) in attendance, WorkHuman offered a great chance to connect with and have some really interesting, insightful conversations with other attendees. Of course, I was watching the program unfold with a critical eye, having scored a press pass to cover the event, so I was particularly interested in hearing what, exactly, drove the leaders and practitioners in attendance to splurge for a fairly pricey pass to this particular conference, especially given the manifold and seemingly mandatory alternatives, like the SHRM Annual Conference or the HR Technology Conference, crowding the packed events calendar.
What I discovered were a lot of people with a particular passion for driving culture change and making their workplaces work better. For instance, there was the librarian I met who was there to get ideas for how to go about attracting younger talent with her core workforce all swiftly approaching retirement age.
And the attendee whose corporate culture was fragmented into three distinct cultures forged by the distinct styles of the CEOs forming the company’s core business and people strategy over its 80 year history. I even met a CEO and CHRO who had flown in all the way from Monterrey, Mexico, in a quest to improve their office culture so that their engaged employees would give them a competitive edge in a tight professional labor market, proof that company culture transcends national cultures, and the world of work truly is universal.
What It Means To Work Human.
So, what the hell does it mean, exactly, to ‘work human?’ I was actually a little surprised at the similarities in the sessions delivered by both Rob Lowe and Arianna Huffington, two fairly dissonant public figures with a fairly unified message.
Both these luminaries, obviously, have a pretty impressive track record of success in their respective fields, but both revealed that the path to success might require hard work, but the easiest way to lose your way is by burning out.
Both evangelized the importance of work-life balance, and why sleep might be the biggest competitive edge any workforce can have when it comes to getting work done. In fact, the importance of sleep was a surprisingly common recurring motif throughout the keynotes but then again, maybe they share the same soporific speechwriter.
Either way, I walked away from both keynotes with the idea these speakers felt that true success is defined not just by what we do as professionals, but what we achieve as people, too.
One shouldn’t come at the expense of the other, and that the path to peak efficiency means ensuring we feel fulfilled in both our personal and professional lives. It’s not an either/or if you’re doing work-life right.
Building A Culture of Contributors.
Adam Grant continued this human-focused narrative by presenting a keynote entitled, “Driving Success by Building A Culture of Contributors,” a presentation that vaguely reminded me of Freakonomics in both subject, tone and underlying ideas.
Grant explained his theory that the world can be divided into three basic types of personalities, which he classifies as Givers, Takers and Matchers, respectively, categories reinforced by research on which of these types are the most proficient top performers and consistently productive workers, and what companies can do to recruit and retain the talent they need to develop the culture they want.
If Grant’s name sounds familiar, it’s likely the result of a recent New York Times article, Madam C.E.O., Get Me a Coffee, which he bylined with Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg. The widely circulated op-ed offered an eye opening examination of how women who fall into the Giver category tend to be unnoticed, unrecognized and unrewarded at work, despite their prominence in all levels and segments of the workforce today.
The interplay of how Givers, Takers and Matchers interact at the workplace, to hear Grant tell it, reads a little bit like comparative game theory, the interchange ultimately resulting in zero or positive sum gains, but as interesting as all this smart stuff was, what honestly had me hooked was a well placed Seinfeld reference included in the presentation.
Grant explained how if you want to boost those all important organizational metrics like profit, retention and customer satisfaction – and trust me, your CFO cares about that stuff – then it’s imperatives for organizations to create a culture that causes more workers to act like Givers.
Accepting the negative impact created by Takers, despite their often high performance as individual contributors, on the collective psyche, Grant stressed the need for firms to actively manage out and eliminate Takers from their ranks – an initiative inherently incumbent on HR taking the reins of their company culture and driving change. The Jim Collins fans in the room seemed to enjoy Grant’s off the cuff proclamation:
“It’s nice to have the right people on your bus, but it is essential to keep the wrong people off your bus.”
Grant shared a forward facing forecasting tool for building organizational roadmaps that he has dubbed The Reciprocity Ring, because alliteration has a nice ring, after all. You can find out more about this method here, but in a nutshell, the Reciprocity Ring is an exercise designed to make Givers more visible by creating opportunities for recognizing their contributions to their colleagues and the company.
The program encourages Matchers to compliment the Givers’ behavior, which effectively eliminates any way for Takers to continue hiding out and keeping their free ride going.
By rooting out the employees who aren’t contributing while recognizing those whose individual impacts matter most, the Reciprocity Ring creates impressive impact and bottom line benefits for any employer, improves workforce engagement and ensures improved succession planning and organizational development initiatives by rooting out underperforming or problem employees.
Grant concluded his keynote by offering this sage advice:
“If you invest in a world with more Givers, paranoia changes into pronoia – a believe that others are plotting for your well-being.”
This seemed an apt outlook, and apropos mission statement, for a conference singularly dedicated to increasing the sense of humanity our workers feel when they’re at work and improving the culture of the companies they work for.
Making Work Human Work Back At Work: Top Tips & Takeaways
While much of the WorkHuman agenda was obviously filled with a lot of inspirational, empowering sessions and uplifting messaging, the ultimate goal of any conference is not to talk about change, but provide attendees with actionable advice and tangible takeaways to take back and use to drive change when they’re back at the office.
I have to say, judging from many of the attendees’ questions, it sounded like my friend, the CHRO from Mexico, was in a unique and enviable position to drive culture change: his CEO was already on board and didn’t need to be sold.
But even in a limited Q&A, all 3 audience questions after Huffington’s address were focused on how to ensure leadership buy-in in adopting the conference’s underlying ethos of putting humans first in Human Resources.
“How can I help get these changes adopted when it’s not my last name on the side of the building?” one attendee asked Huffington, with a sense of frustration and futility underscoring her question. I felt that in following up with this fairly direct query, Huffington dodged giving an actual answer a bit, considering that two other people more or less reworded the exact same question, and her response continued to fall flat with attendees.
Huffington threw back some softballs about “needing to start the change with ourselves,” and “just taking everything from the ground up.” Yeah, right – I’ll hang that right next to my Successories poster.
Now, in fairness, I’m not sure exactly what answer she could have provided I would have necessarily found at least somewhat satisfactory. I mean, it’s not like she’s going to keep it real and answer with the actual truth: “Sucks to be you, dude.” “Welcome to the City of ‘Ain’t Gonna Happen, Population, You.”
At least those answers would have showed a little humanity, in keeping with the overall spirit of the event.
Work Human: Changing Culture, Changing Values and Changing Minds.
Other conference sessions addressed the fact that at any organization, any leadership team’s actions set the de facto company culture, not that list of cliched ‘core values’ that’s slapped on your careers site and stuck in the employee handbook you were given during onboarding.
If leadership isn’t fully aligned with the vision of the culture you wish to create, you’ll never create anything but a disconnect.
Various attendees had their own anecdotes to share about their own experiences trying to get executive buy-in, and their various war stories reminded me of that old tale of the Zen Master and the Tea Cup:
“Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.
Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring.
The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. “It is overfull. No more will go in!”
“Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”
From a purely psychological perspective, what we’re really talking about when we talk about lack of consensus around culture is really just Cognitive Dissonance. Social psychologist Leon Festinger theorized that:
“cognitive dissonance focuses on how humans strive for internal consistency. An individual who experiences inconsistency (dissonance) tends to become psychologically uncomfortable, and is motivated to try to reduce this dissonance—as well as actively avoid situations and information likely to increase it.”
For those of you who don’t speak shrink, this sums up the idea that when we hear something we don’t agree with or doesn’t match up with our preconceived notions, earlier experiences or defined expectations, we tend to dismiss an idea regardless of its relative merit, and ignore any counter argument, no matter how valid.
I think we’ve all found ourselves in this situation, whether it’s convincing your colleague that just because you’re working on the same roadmap doesn’t mean you’re both facing North, or with your roommate over the fact that a dishwasher should not, in fact, be used like a garbage disposal and to stop sticking those leftover rib bones in there, already.
If you can’t find a way to get your C-Suite to see where you’re coming from, and at least come to a consensus that there’s value in treating employees as “humans,” then you’re probably in for a tough time as an HR or talent leader – and it might be time to start polishing off that resume, frankly.
Until The Robots Take Over, Our People Are Our Culture.
WorkHuman reinforced the idea that culture isn’t something that should only be addressed during onboarding, or something employees sign off on annually as an acknowledgment they’ve at least seen your firm’s mission statement or employee value proposition.
Culture has to be fluid to function, and in action is a bit like sailing a boat. If you simply state your direction and sail away, you’re never going to find your way. Instead, you’ve got to constantly plot your course, understand your position and adjust your trajectory as necessary.
If you think for one moment that one conversation one time a year is going to identify, much less fix, your company’s culture problems, you probably deserve to go down with that inevitably sinking ship.
Effectively developing and controlling company culture comes from creating and communicating a clear picture of who you are, what you value and how these drive what you do – not to mention the reason you’re in business in the first place.
And no, making money isn’t enough. Anyone in OD can tell you about the relative importance of employee recognition and positive reinforcement, but when it comes to missteps, we can all do a better job of dealing with these in the moment instead of letting these problems build up – similar to the way we’re largely already dealing with informal recognition and rewards, only adding a proscriptive element that actually helps the positive stuff have even more of an organizational impact.
I like to think of this a little bit like house breaking a puppy. If you come home from a long day at work to find a little surprise on the floor, and react by rubbing his face in it and yelling at him for the accident he forgot even happened, you won’t actually succeed in doing anything but making the dog wonder why the hell is master is such a sadist. If you don’t help him connect the dots between cause and effect, between your current frustration and his previous actions, you’ll end up cleaning up shit forever, frankly.
Come On, People Now.
In closing, my top WorkHuman takeaway is the same as the Youngbloods: C’mon, people now. Smile on your brother, everybody get together, try to love one another right now. But then again, I’m a BART ride away from Berkeley, so I might just be biased towards the hippie mentality and worldview. But the stuff that Work Human focused on seems to be pretty in line with the free love spirit.
Work Human taught attendees to do what you can to pay it forward, because that’s how you make things pay off when it comes to driving real progress. A rising tide lifts all ships, and while you can focus on changing the bottom of the ladder, you’ll never climb up until you’re supported at the top, too.
A firm’s culture is only as strong as its leadership, and is defined daily by the dozens of small decisions that ideally add up in aggregate to a dynamic, defined workplace and dedicated, devoted workforce. What is tolerated, what is praised, and what is reprimanded are key signals of success – or failure – at moving the culture needle forward.
Sure, this seems a bit like tilting at windmills, so maybe for now the most we can do is follow Huffington’s advice, channel our inner Michael Jackson and take a good look at the Man in the Mirror. Look at yourself as someone who’s capable of making culture changes, but if the image staring back at you isn’t also the one who’s actually in charge, it’s not reflecting the reality that you’re up against steep odds.
But unless you’re the boss, it might be best to put up, shut up and keep on keepin’ on – at least until you can find another job at an organization that actually treats its workforce the right way: like humans.
About the Author: Daniel Fogel serves as the VP of Content and Community for Recruiting Daily, bringing 10+ years of experience in both the HR realm at large and talent acquisition specifically. Previously Director of Digital Content Strategy at HCI, Daniel builds communities and relationships organically through crafting thought-provoking content, networking constantly, and connecting people and groups to common purposes and goals. Don’t be surprised if you see emails from him looking to chat.
A well travelled and culturally savvy foodie, you’re likely to find him on his fourth coffee of the day discussing how candidate and employee engagement go hand in hand or why storytelling needs to be key in your employer branding.