It was a great day when the personnel department changed the name on the door to human resources. Then came the hard work of making good on the implications of that change.
Why I became an advocate of human beings at work
I started out as an information technology professional. I have a Bachelor’s in Comp Sci.
I worked at a chemical plant in the early Eighties. Many people were afraid they were going to break their computers or look stupid. I liked helping them get past that so they could feel confident and productive. About 7 years into my IT career I realized I didn’t love the technology enough to excel over the long haul. Yet I really enjoyed working with people.
I knew I wanted to make things better for people at work. I saw that we could engage people in a much different way. Projects could be more successful and deliver more quickly if we treated people like human beings. These realizations settled in, and having recently survived my first downsizing in IT, I chose to pursue a career in human resources.
Fast forward several years. I had my master’s in HR and was acting as HR manager at an R&D lab, with over 500 constituents. By this point I had a good idea of what being in HR meant. Those in charge expected me to push more employment-related tasks to employees and managers.
In R&D, organization members developed things to turn into products, presumably so our company could sell them and make more money. I thought being in HR meant it was my job to facilitate this. I didn’t like creating more work for them that was not related to developing the next new thing.
Manage those human resources in a way they can thrive
When you hear the term “human resources,” often the first thing that comes to mind is the department that handles the people stuff. But if you think about it, the name is about the “humans” who happen to be employees. I often talk about treating people at work humanly. The word “humanely” often gets fed back to me.
So, let’s clarify. For me, treating people humanely means providing access to water and toilets. Treating people humanly means addressing human needs for appreciation, belonging, and the need to make a meaningful contribution. Treating people humanly does not require a title or authority. You can start today.
Colleagues have told me they neither want to treat people more humanly, nor behave more humanly themselves. What?? Turns out that my use of the word “humanly” conjures up visions of over-sharing and awkward emotional moments.
No worries. I’m only suggesting to give humans at work what they need so they can perform—just like you would give a car the oil it needs on a regular basis, so it has what it needs to perform. You can meet human needs daily, starting simply with social exchanges. This can be interpreted as broadly as asking a question, giving an instruction or offering feedback.
What are those needs again?
There are many ways to describe “human” needs. I use the words appreciation, belonging and meaningful contribution—adapted from Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. David Rock, neuroscientist, uses the words status, autonomy, certainty, relatedness or fairness. He says that in a social interaction our human brains automatically assess whether any of these needs are threatened. To be effective, attend to whether the interaction is going to prompt others to feel threatened or “rewarded” (or engaged, or uplifted) by your interaction. Rock asserts:
Leaders who understand this dynamic can more effectively engage their employees’ best talents, support collaborative teams, and create an environment that fosters productive change. Indeed, the ability to intentionally address the social brain in the service of optimal performance will be a distinguishing leadership capability in the years ahead.
You can be human even if it’s not in your title
You don’t have to be a leader to engage people’s brains in a positive direction. You don’t have to be a leader to treat people more humanly, and engage your fellow humans at work in a way that supports optimal performance. Science and good sense make the case.
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