EngagementCultureWe’re not machines: it’s time to humanise workplace culture

We're not machines: it's time to humanise workplace culture

Heather Gunnell, director, employee wellbeing at Dartmouth-Hitchcock, outlines the importance of human connection in workplace culture

Leaders and employees everywhere identify a dire need for increased empathy, humanity, and honesty in our workplace culture. Over the last several years, we have learned that removing the human experience from business is not sustainable. Moreover, companies that prioritise the wellbeing of their employees also see increased efficiency and productivity. We are most successful when we embrace authenticity and expand our empathy through workplace culture.

For instance, I recently joined the hospital chaplain on a busy, high-acuity patient floor for a visit intended to support the staff rather than patients. These nurses and providers are some of our best – professional, caring, highly skilled, and typically wary of letting their guard down while on shift and under high pressure. In this small moment of mental and emotional reprieve, I witnessed the hunger these professionals had for empathy and a shared connection.

Because we approached them as if taking a moment to pause was an expectation rather than an invitation, they let their guard down and enjoyed a moment of connection, a laugh, and a brief respite. These moments are so vital to ensure staff wellbeing and organisational success.

Humanise yourself through transparent communication

At work, the phrase, “it’s not personal, it’s just business” is an example of how we attempt to eliminate emotion and ignore the holistic impact of decisions. In the future, leaders should be acknowledging shared experiences and establishing necessary but not artificial boundaries regarding workplace and cultural expectations.

The line between work and home personas has faded, if not entirely disappeared. It is an opportunity for us to improve communications by encouraging empathy, transparency, and support for the whole person.

We start by acknowledging our humanity. In a recent meeting, a colleague asked how everyone was doing. When it was my turn, I replied that I’m fine and work is going well. But then I chuckled and added – I’m also weary! Aren’t we all exhausted by the uncertainty, the isolation, and the tech fatigue?

I find myself rushing to mute my microphone when my toddler starts screaming down the hall. I laughed again and said, other than that, I’m great! The team smiled, nodded in understanding, and one person shared how grateful he was I had been so candid because he felt like the only person on the team not holding it all together all the time. We moved on quickly, but the tone shifted, and we had grown closer.

Engaging in reflective moments honestly and transparently is another vital step. We do this by sharing joy, being open about what worked in a project and what didn’t, and what we personally learned through that process.

Cultivate empathy across the hierarchal lines

The need to cultivate empathy for your staff, peers, and leaders has never been timelier. A single act of honest kindness can create a better work environment for everyone. Encourage your teams to build empathy across hierarchical lines and see their leaders as people who are also impacted by life’s inevitable challenges.

It may be easier to have compassion for team members or peers, but it is equally important to extend our empathy towards our leaders and the executive teams.

As leaders, we should encourage our teams to do the same in workplace culture. Remembering that every person you talk to or interact with has challenges you are not aware of makes it easier to see them as another human being worthy of empathy. The simple act of assuming good intent from our leadership breaks down some artificial barriers that prevent engagement. When we say we are all in this together, it does mean all of us.

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What would happen if we started by assuming good intent and the premise that people are doing the best they can in any given moment? Consider how this would change the way we lead and the tone of our teams. This foundational assumption could not only improve our interactions with staff, colleagues, and leaders, but it would also change the policies we enact and the decisions we make throughout the day.

Boundaries: integrating empathy into the workplace culture

While we’re adjusting to the new demands of today’s conditions, we need to retain the boundaries that work and ensure accountability in workplace culture.

Brené Brown’s research shows that the most compassionate, empathetic, and resilient people also have the best boundaries. The practice of establishing and communicating what is right and wrong allows for expanded freedom to be empathetic and supportive of people. In business, this translates to clearly defined values, purpose, goals, and expectations. Once we are all clear on the boundaries, we can be open to a holistic approach to our teams’ input and experience. Establishing our boundaries is also vital in creating a workplace with better limits.

Consider the boundaries and standards you need to communicate to the team and organisation to allow leaders to assume good intent, cultivate empathy, and acknowledge their humanity. What needs to change to ensure psychological safety for people to be more honest and empathetic?

The key is to use our humanity not as an excuse for poor behaviour or unsatisfactory results, but instead as a clear acknowledgment that we are complex individuals with our own motivations.

Consider your opportunities to establish a human connection. I recently attended a leadership meeting discussing sensitive policies that significantly impact employees’ lives. As the discussion started to lean toward enacting a more punitive approach to influence behaviour, one executive leader helped us reframe our assumptions. She acknowledged how complicated these issues can be and how hard everyone has worked over the last year to address the workplace’s upheaval.

She then asked us to consciously avoid cynicism and remember our employees need the same level of compassion we are asking of each other. Her approach acknowledged her team’s challenging reality and provided clear direction on how she expected us to lead. Where can you introduce a personal touch into the system?

Wellbeing and engagement are more than buzzwords. They are goals organizations can achieve through a shift in behaviour at the leadership level. This shift in leadership behaviour moves us toward more significant systemic changes that allow us to build more inclusive, engaging, and productive workplaces.

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