How Do We Humanize the Workplace?

Last week I had the privilege of attending the WorkHuman Live Conference in Nashville and my head is still buzzing! I always leave this event filled with ideas, new friendships, different perspectives and tons of learning. For me, this is the Disney World for HR. This conference is filled with heart-driven professionals who are passionate about doing better in the workplace and stepping up as change agents. For those of you not familiar with the WorkHuman movement, its mission is to galvanize leaders worldwide to harness the transformative power of people for the next generation of HR.

The movement is the brainchild of WorkHuman, a company that boasts the world’s fastest-growing integrated Social Recognition and continuous performance management platform. Their human applications are shaping the future of work by helping organizations connect culture to shared purpose.

The keynoters at this year’s conference were passionate, bold, and inspiring offering diverse perspectives with actionable takeaways. We heard from Viola Davis, Brené Brown, George Clooney, Geena Davis, Kat Cole and Gary Hamel. There were a lot of tears and people shaking their heads with a hell yes as these speakers touched our hearts and reminded us why we do this work every day.

There is a lot to unpack and I’m still processing all of the rich insights, but here are some of the key themes that I took from the conference.

Recognition is a game changer

The data and science show that when people are being recognized they feel inspired to do their best work. Gratitude drives performance. When employees were asked – If you could change one thing about your organization’s culture, what would it be? The answer: Foster a culture of appreciation and mutual respect.

We ALL have unconscious biases

This one really landed for me at the conference. If we want to change our unconscious biases we need to begin by recognizing they exist and shifting our behaviors. Unconscious biases are social stereotypes about certain groups of people that individuals form outside their own conscious awareness. Everyone holds unconscious beliefs about various social and identity groups, and these biases stem from one’s tendency to organize social worlds by categorizing. I will be making a concerted effort to grow my knowledge and awareness in this area. As I move through my exploration I will share some of the books and resources that resonate with me. I think this is a critical area that all leaders need to focus on to create a workplace built on diversity and inclusion.

Bureaucracy is having a huge cost on employee engagement

Gary Hamel shared how too many layers and pointless rules in our workplaces result in conformity, rigidity, apathy and politicking. The problem isn’t that people don’t like their job, it’s that they’re not getting the right leadership. We have way too many people in leadership who have no idea how to lead. Employees want autonomy, space to learn, innovate and create. The role of the leader should be as a mentor, it’s not about power and title. It’s ironic that so many organizations punish people for presenting new ideas, yet demand creativity and innovation. Love this quote from Greg Linden of Amazon: “In my experience, innovation can only come from the bottom. Those closest to the problem are in the best position to solve it. Everyone must be able to experiment, learn, and iterate. Position, obedience, and tradition should hold no power”. If you want to create a more positive community at work, then your culture should be built on the following:

  1. A Mission Worth Caring About
  2. Transparent Data
  3. Safe Enough to be Yourself
  4. Collective Decision-Making
  5. Peer Accountability
  6. Mutual Respect
  7. Family Spirit

We need to rethink and re-frame what work is

Jason Lauritsen reminds us that work is about creating relationships. He asks us: Why are we describing humans as capital and designing systems that treat people like assets to be managed and optimized? Work should feel like a healthy relationship. Trust is on the decline in organizations and the only way we’re going to fix this is by empowering our leaders and changing the focus. There needs to be a commitment to extending trust early. Leaders need to be having regular one-on-ones with their team. Time is the currency of relationships, this has to be a top priority. We also need to shift the emphasis from top-performers only and support our mid-performers as well.

Those who have been given opportunities need to share with humanity

Well Mr. George Clooney didn’t disappoint, he offered a lot of wisdom and truths that need to be looked at in our society. His parents have had a big influence on the values and beliefs he upholds. They taught him the importance of challenging power and protecting the powerless. George shared a story that depicts what Christmas looked like in his household. When he was growing up in Kentucky every Christmas when they woke up in the morning they went and delivered gifts and food to those in need and stayed and helped them clean up. This was all done before they celebrated their own family Christmas. What a beautiful message his parents were sending. He believes that we lead by example. As someone who is privileged he wants to make sure his kids learn the same values and don’t come from a place of entitlement. He lamented that if you’re not paying attention, than you’re part of the problem. When he spoke about #Metoo and its impact on the film industry and in organizations he eloquently said: “Women need to feel safe in the workplace and the people engaging in bad behavior need to feel unsafe”. While change may feel insurmountable when you’re going at it individually, if we work together as a collective it will happen quicker.

Leadership is about getting into the trenches and rolling up your sleeves

Kat Cole is one of those leaders who you can’t help but admire and respect because she walks the talk. She’s the President and COO of Focus Brands, they own Schlotzsky’s, Carvel, Cinnabon, Moe’s Southwest Grill, McAlister’s Deli, Auntie Anne’s and Jamba Juice brands. She is a leader who gets into the trenches and talks to the people who are doing the work every day. She asks her employees, if you could change one thing with the business what would it be? The answers almost always lie on the frontlines, with the people who are actually doing the job. You have to be listening to these folks and do something with the information, it’s dangerous when you get stuck in the “this is how we do it” mindset. As a leader, she feels that it’s incredibly important to be clear on the priorities and communicate those out to the team. She’s also not afraid to share her failures and be transparent. Remember FAIL = First Attempt In Learning – encourage and celebrate it! She candidly shared that a risk of being a diverse leader is that you hold yourself back from asking difficult questions. It’s important that you get support with mentoring and coaching so that you can have those courageous conversations. To show up boldly is to say “I would be failing you if I didn’t push you on this”. You have a responsibility to use your influence to advocate for important change in the workplace.

We all have barriers to courage

When Brené Brown took the stage the crowd went wild! She had a lot of fans in the house who waited 2 hours in line to get a front row seat. I have shared that Brené is secretly my BFF and I was delighted be surrounded by a room full of people who feel the same way. She is a magnificent storyteller and you just wish you could sit around a campfire listening to her speak all night long. She is highly relatable because she shares real, vulnerable stories and we can all see ourselves in them and connect human-to-human. Her talk at WorkHuman was based off her new book, Dare to Lead. I highly recommend this book for all leaders and share it with all of my coaching clients.

What are some of the barriers to courage?

  1. Tough Conversations
  2. Fears and Feelings
  3. Stuck in Setbacks
  4. Problem Solving/Action Bias
  5. Inclusivity, Diversity + Equity
  6. Shame and Blame

Here’s the thing about brave leaders, they know that hard conversations are going to whip their ass but they still take action because they know it’s the right thing. She reminded everyone that you don’t need to hustle for your worth, know your value. Ask for feedback. Remember, in the absence of data, we make up stories. The stories we make up inflate our fears and insecurities. You can’t get to courage without vulnerability. When you want to quit embrace the suck. If you build a culture that doesn’t tolerate vulnerability, don’t expect your people to innovate or create. Something that’s also counter-intuitive is that joy can be a really hard emotion to lean into. Ever had a time when you were watching your kids sleep and you got this warm feeling in your heart and then all of the sudden you started to think OMG something bad is going to happen to them. That’s the strong feeling of joy in action. We dress rehearse tragedy to avoid joy. When it feels too overwhelming, turn to gratitude. We can’t get to love without feeling vulnerability.

What are the skill-sets of courage?

  1. Rumbling with Vulnerability
  2. Living into our Values
  3. Braving Trust
  4. Learning to Rise

Everyone who is brave risks heartbreak and failure. You can be brave and tender. You can be fierce and kind. You can drive hard change and recognize people. You can do all of these things at the exact same time. You just have to practice and develop these skills.

We have reached a very important tipping point with women’s empowerment

It was great to hear from Geena Davis at WorkHuman, I had no idea she had started The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. She believes strongly that if we want to make shifts in gender equality we need to start early with our kids to remove unconscious biases by changing the images they see in media. When her kids were young she would watch shows with them and was appalled to see how girls were being represented on screen and that quite often they were actually missing from the narrative. Ever notice how many of the mothers are killed off in kids’ films? If we’re going to have true equality we need to kill off the fathers too. We need to pay attention to the role models girls are seeing in media. Participation for girls in archery increased by 105% in 2012 when they saw themselves in the media. If she can see it, she can be it. The #MeToo movement has had a huge impact for women in Hollywood. In the past Geena and her peers understood the rules: If you want to get work you keep your mouth shut and don’t talk about harassment and inequality. Now the dialogue is shifting but women need to continue educating men and speak up when they say or do something that is uncomfortable. Let’s remember this is not about HUGS, it’s about treating women with respect and ensuring they have the same opportunities. Right now, only 4% of directors are female, if we want to continue to change the narrative we need to ensure that more women are well represented.

When you speak your truth you WAKE UP

I saved the best for last. Viola Davis was incredible – she had every single person sitting at the edge of their seats listening intently. Her voice was powerful and poignant – she was direct, unapologetic and real. The word authenticity gets thrown around a lot these days, but she embodied what it looks like to be full in and show up with courage. I’m know that if Brené was sitting in the audience she would be telling everyone, this is what I’m talking about when I say Dare to Lead. Viola shared what it’s like growing up in poverty, dealing with alcoholism, violence and experiencing racism. If we’re building human organizations that support diversity and inclusion we need to be aware of what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes. We go around saying that everyone has untapped potential, but if you’re living in poverty and no one throws you a rope, you can’t get out. This is the truth. Viola was lucky to have mentors who believed in her but that’s not the case for so many people. You are invisible when you’re poor, no one is noticing you. You are seen as the throwaways. The heroes are the people who truly see those who are powerless AND advocate for them. If you care, it’s going to cost you something but that’s what it means to be a leader.

Viola shared “I spent a career pressing my hair and turning down my blackness in order to be heard. It has taken me a long time to feel like I can be authentic and be safe”. For most of her life, she waited for people to see her. If we want to humanize the workplace we need to truly see all of the people and recognize their uniqueness. She also shared that if the stakes are high you either sink or swim. If there are no films being made that accurately represent your race or narrative you create your own production company. Viola really challenged us to stand up and be part of the change. Your life is a dash, what are you going to do with that time? What kind of impact are you making? She ended by reminding us that success is really about significance and leaving something on this earth bigger than you. It was hard to capture all of the wisdom coming out of Viola’s mouth because I was memorized by everything she said. She is definitely living her truth and inviting all of us to step up and take responsibility.

What’s next?

Here are some questions to get you reflecting:

• How are you advocating for the powerless in your workplace?

• Where are you playing it safe – what are the courageous conversations you need to have?

• Are you owning and sharing your failures?

• What tools and systems do you have in place to deal with unconscious bias?

• How are you setting up your leaders for success?

As you can tell, this movement and conference is powerful and leaves you fired up to take action. But it’s impossible to do the speakers justice, to be truly moved you need to be in that audience and part of the experience. I guarantee it will be life changing. I hope to see you at the next WorkHuman Conference!

Kristen Harcourt is a Certified Executive Coach, Facilitator and Professional Speaker who helps executives and emerging leaders achieve extraordinary and sustainable results through increased self-awareness, emotional intelligence and mindfulness. She’s on a mission to help leaders transform from the inside out, creating a meaningful career and purpose-driven life where they reach their full potential. To discuss a customized coaching program for your company, individual coaching or speaking/training opportunities email:

8 thoughts on “How Do We Humanize the Workplace?

  1. Very motivating Kristen…I have bought Brené’s book and I will see you in Denver!

  2. This is a great post Kristen. I most certainly agree about what you wrote about unconscious bias. You know my deep my passion for diversity & inclusion. Again, wonderful read!

    1. Thanks so much for the kind feedback, Anthony! I look forward to reading the books you recommended and continuing the dialogue!

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