Towards a more humane workplace

If you want to mistreat someone, it helps to think of them as something other than human. And so, unfortunately, you’ll notice the same tactics used at work as in some of the greatest atrocities against humanity. Yet there’s hope - and evidence - that the social platforms firms are now introducing will make your firm a more humane place.

De-humanizing tactics

“Humanize”, by Jamie Notter and Maddie Grant, makes the compelling case that the mechanistic, industrial model has influenced us to treat each other more like cogs at work than like people. And Seth Godin echoed this in a recent blog post.

But the industrial model has only exacerbated what seems to be a natural tendency.

Some fascinating studies show how easy it is to create an environment where people mistreat each other. For example, the “Robbers’ Cave” experiment, involving 22 eleven-year-old boys in a 3-week summer camp, showed how easily we can be divided into arbitrary groups and drawn into conflict with each other.

And a study by Albert Bandura (popularized in “Influencer”) showed how subjects in a “training experiment” would deliver significantly different levels of electrical shock depending on a single one-word label applied to the unseen “trainees” (Literally: “They seem nice.” versus “They seem like animals.”)

Bandura found this kind of dehumanizing labeling is one of four strategies - moral justification, dehumanization, minimizing, and displacing responsibility - that “allow individuals to act in ways that are clearly disconnected from their moral compass.”

A self-evident truth

A photo by iO Tillett Wright as part of selfevidentproject.com

One example of combatting this tendency to label and dehumanize was presented by the artist iO Tillett Wright who recently spoke about gender diversity. In her project, selfevidentproject.com, she decided “to photograph anyone who is not 100% straight” and created 1000s of simple, beautiful portraits that defy labels.

“My goal is to show the humanity that exists in every one of us through the simplicity of a face....I challenge you to look into the faces of these people and tell them they deserve less than any other human being.”

Self-evident truths at work

The problems associated with de-humanizing people aren’t limited to social science experiments and issues of diversity. The authors of “Influencer” described why corporations also need to focus on the issue.

“If you’re a leader attempting to break down silos, encourage collaboration, and engage teamwork across your organization...moral disengagement always accompanies political, combative, and self-centered behavior.”

Part of their advice? “To reengage people morally - and to rehumanize targets that people readily and easily abuse - drop labels and substitute names.”

Evidence & optimism

A social platform

Social collaboration platforms take this idea - moving from labels to names and photos - and makes it a fundamental part of the work environment. And because the platforms are so highly interactive, the benefits go well beyond that.

At my own firm, I find that widespread use of the platform makes it harder to objectify people in 4 ways.

  1. You see faces everywhere - not just in the group directory but every time someone contributes something.
  2. You tend to know more about people. As someone interacts online, you pick up more information about them - “ambient intimacy” - than you’d ever get from a simple profile.
  3. People tend to be helpful. Whether people are having a bad day or a bad project or just have a question, people on line are eager to offer help or at least sympathy. And those simple acts of generosity help build relationships that make collaboration and cooperation easier.
  4. Bullies don’t like sunlight. There will always be bad behavior at work (companies are made up of people, after all), but few at work want their bad behavior to be public. The more employees work out loud and attract public feedback for their contributions, the more difficult it is for someone to unfairly diminish them.

It’s true that the main reason businesses are implementing social platforms is because they’ll generate commercial value. But the cultural side effect - creating a more humane work environment that respects and celebrates individuals - is priceless.