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BUSINESS ETHICS – A NEW ERA – Human Nature – Print – Issue 210 – April 2022 | Article of the Week

Few organisations have been created for the purpose of enabling humanity to thrive and grow, most businesses have traditionally been built upon flawed principles, which focus on efficiency through control. This often comes into focus when we see organisations attempting to instigate change, using methodology that aims to remove humanity from the process. Companies are groups of people, working in service of other groups of people. By taking away the ‘human’ element, we set ourselves up to fail.

Few organisations have been created for the purpose of enabling humanity to thrive and grow, most businesses have traditionally been built upon flawed principles, which focus on efficiency through control. This often comes into focus when we see organisations attempting to instigate change, using methodology that aims to remove humanity from the process. Companies are groups of people, working in service of other groups of people. By taking away the ‘human’ element, we set ourselves up to fail.

It has been said many times, but it is worth repeating that the huge scale and pace of work-related change, forced upon the corporate world by the pandemic, could never have been envisaged preCOVID-19. Employees took up working from home, families took to homeschooling their children for months on end. Millions of doses of highly effective vaccines were developed and rolled out in a matter of months. But they were driven by a necessity to put human needs first, to keep everyone safe, to maintain salaries and to show compassion for each other. Despite all of the negative impacts and disruption, there is real motivation to harness the power to change and use it for long term good – not only for organisations to run successfully – but to contribute to the wider health of human society and the planet. It all starts with purpose and a human-centered business places humanity at its heart. The value of organisational purpose has been widely analysed, with many businesses having sought to promote a notion of carrying out ‘meaningful work’ as a means of gaining market share. Authenticity is key, so if a business has genuine intent to make the world a better place, then defining meaning and purpose with a human centre shouldn’t be too challenging. However, if the intent is merely to pay lip service to drive sales, articulating those credible credentials may not be so straightforward. Once organisations have set out their ultimate purpose, this needs to be communicated simply and clearly to all stakeholders, customers, employees and beyond.

Trust is essential to creating respect between employees and employers and human-centered organisations build this by recognising the value and symbiotic nature of customer and employee, treating both in equally high esteem. Once we start with the acceptance that all our relationships are interconnected, from employee to customer, businesses can apply the same framework to its relationship with the wider social framework, looking at the connection to the natural world and how the organisation is nurturing that relationship. This is not a conventional approach to business, but we find ourselves in a complex and increasingly risk-filled landscape, where global heating, loss of biodiversity and the impact of mass inequality stand to significantly impact everyone. So, businesses must play a critical role in driving change, but new perspectives and a shift in tackling these issues are needed to become the new norm.

Traditionally, most organisations recognise and commit to the notion of being a learning organisation, taking time and allocating resource to learning. However, the challenge lies in the fact that most practices have historically worked on principles that reinforce what we think we already know about our organisations and indeed, the world around us. To break this and find new solutions to the complex challenges that present day businesses face, we must do things differently. Human-centered organisations are new learning organisations. In recognition of the principle that organisations are simply people working in service of people, then they will only grow if their people grow. But we can only grow by learning something new and in practice, this means learning in a way that actively challenges mindsets and behaviours, identities, fears and previous experiences. Human-centered organisations focus on achieving one of two things: doing different work or doing work differently. This has become more pertinent in recent years, with the rise of machine learning and automation. Whilst some roles still retain a standardised set of procedures, most roles are becoming much more amorphous. Strict job roles, person specifications and competency lists are likely to become obsolete. Therefore, human-centered organisations recognise, nurture and facilitate learning amongst people so they can pivot and shift in an agile way and keep pace with and look ahead of, the market and wider social landscape as required. They also value the importance of democratising the learning process and invest in learning and development across all levels, not just those in senior leadership positions. Moreover, this learning agenda extends beyond being work-related and fosters agility by building everyone’s potential through whole-person development.

This process isn’t easy and the deeper or more disruptive the new learning is, the more challenging we find it, as significant change naturally shakes the status quo. It can be hard to accept existing perceptions and our own role within those assumptions from a personal level. From a broader organisational level, traditional hierarchies that this mode of learning looks to break down have long been devised on the fundamental principle that people’s roles are based on an unshakeable specialist knowledge and experience. Yet, accepting the notion that we are always learning turns this principle on its head. Crucially, when this learning is applied in doing, or ‘in the flow of work’, real change is realised. In the context of a human-centered organisation, learning cannot happen without ‘direct encounter’. Specifically, experiential learning needs to be social, relational and contextual. It needs people working through their development together, pulling ideas apart and challenging them, to really thrash out the nuts and bolts and stress test them to ensure they are fit for purpose. This should also occur across all hierarchical levels – from line managers and leaders to those with no direct line reports alike. Everyone’s input and impact should be recognised and realised, because it is only through this level of challenge that human-centered learning and transformation can happen at the speed and scale that we need to facilitate meaningful change amongst organisations and beyond.

A key focus for learning should be on leadership skills, which shouldn’t be confused with being delivered exclusively for leadership and management roles. Instead, all employees within a humancentered organisation should be encouraged to view leadership as an action for all rather than a personality trait, as well as being adequately upskilled in techniques to promote teaching – by creating an environment conducive to learning – and empathy. By leading with empathy at all levels across the business, human-centered organisations are well equipped to maximise the success of any change proposition. This is because it naturally considers and places those involved in the change process as central to the consultation, design and strategising of any future. By creating an open, trusting and empathetic environment, businesses can better access the expert voices they need to make impactful changes and garner the buy-in from the people they need to deliver it. The pandemic taught us relationships are everything and that we are capable of doing amazing things. By putting people at the center of our organisations, we naturally pave the way to happier, healthier and more engaged workforces. These are the people who will go the extra mile for a business because they know that their input is valued and understand that every person counts towards its overarching moral purpose. It is these businesses that will thrive by liberating human potential in service to all our futures.

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