The Goodness of Humanity is Alive and Well at WorkHuman 2018
In an age where employee engagement and happiness is at an all-time low, it’s easy to be cynical about all things Human Resources. How did our HR organizations, those charged with protecting the human element of the workplace, let things get so bad? I headed to Globoforce’s WorkHuman 2018 conference in Austin, TX to get some answers.
The goal at WorkHuman is to bring more humanity into the workplace and to lift up all people. Globoforce’s stated commitment is to “inspire people leaders all over the world to build inclusive workplaces where every human is treated with respect and dignity.” Featured speakers included Brené Brown, Tarana Burke, Salma Hayek Pinault, Ashley Judd, and Simon Sinek who covered topics ranging from how to create more people-focused organizations to the insights and challenges of the #MeToo movement.
Austin proved to be an ideal setting for the experience. With a call to “Keep Austin weird”, celebrations of the creativity and quirkiness of the human spirit were all around. A brief detour from the conference led me to an energetic and insightful panel dedicated to increasing diversity on nonprofit boards. And somehow I found myself in conversation with Mando Rayo, whose profound passion for tacos has led him to author a book and film an accompanying PBS special, “The Tacos of Texas”. Both within and beyond the walls of the Austin Convention Center, humanity abounded.
And yet it was clear there was a lot to address. 2017 and 2018 were rocked by the revelations of the #MeToo movement. Diversity and Inclusion initiatives are frequently talked about but not clearly defined. Companies are desperate to do away with old structures like performance reviews in hopes of finding an approach that makes employees feel more valued and engaged.
What exactly are the issues? What can we fix?
Among other things, companies have placed the priority on performance over people. As one speaker put it, all the current talk about getting the most performance out of people is like wringing water from a washcloth. And HR, the organization tasked with nurturing humans, is instead acting as the executive team’s henchman. Simon Sinek said “HR should be the last line of defense between the people and the executive. HR has become the executor of executives’ desires [layoffs, compliance, etc.] as opposed to saying ‘Do not touch the People’.”
Simply changing the organization’s name from “Human Resources” to “People Team” isn’t going to fix the problem. Our HR organizations need to protect, defend, and nurture the people. Sinek said that leaders are responsible for the lives of human beings at work, so the goal has to shift from seeing how much we can gain to how much others can gain. And when people feel trusted, safe, and empowered at work, true potential can be unlocked.
Enter the leaders of the #MeToo movement.
If you’ve never heard Tarana Burke, founder of the #MeToo movement, speak—you should make it a priority to do so. According to Burke, the fear of speaking up, the lack of safety and trust, and the abuse of power rampant in our organizations today cannot be solved at the individual level. These are systemic issues that are rooted in the culture and community of the workplace. It’s “not just about healing the individual, but healing the community” said Burke. Ronan Farrow, whose 2017 New Yorker articles helped uncover the Harvey Weinstein story, said “Everybody wants to help, but nobody wants to go first.” HR needs to go first, protect the people, and create a safe environment for others to speak up about injustices, inequity, discrimination, and workplace challenges.
It takes courage.
Brené Brown challenged us to have more courage—to lead with a “soft front, strong back, and wild heart.” She introduced what she calls the Four Pillars of Courage, which include Vulnerability, Clarity of Values, Trust, and Rising Skills (which she equated with resilience and heart). She said that every day we struggle with the question of how to be brave without being vulnerable. And we can’t. It’s an impossible task. She asked “Can you give me one example of courage that didn’t require uncertainty, risk, or emotional exposure?” The room, filled with 4000+ participants, stayed silent.
It takes courage to speak up about injustices. But according to Brown, “Saying ‘I’m not doing it because it’s uncomfortable’ is the definition of privilege.” When you opt out, there’s a 90% chance you’re living outside the boundaries of your own ethics.
Feedback is not a gift.
The need to be seen, heard, and known was a pervasive message common to almost every featured speaker at the WorkHuman conference. Our people leaders are responsible for creating an environment that establishes the trust, vulnerability, and clarity of values that enables our people to utilize their rising skills. Many of us have tackled this challenge by doubling down on feedback—implementing software platforms that allow employees to receive continual feedback from peers, managers, and key partners. But according to Dr. David Rock, director of the NeuroLeadership Institute, feedback is not the gift we’ve been led to believe it is.
Unsolicited feedback, which is often focused on errors or opportunities to improve, triggers the portions of our brain responsible for our “threat” survival instincts. According to Grant Beckett of Globoforce, “61% of my rating of you is a reflection of me.”
Rock challenges us to stop giving feedback, and to start asking for feedback. When feedback is solicited, both parties feel less threatened, and you can ask many people for feedback on the same event or topic, thereby reducing bias. Knowing when to employ solicited vs unsolicited feedback is the key to creating a culture of feedback.
Build a more human workplace.
How do we tackle these deep-rooted issues and build a workplace of the people, by the people, and for the people? Many of the answers can be found in the very fabric of the WorkHuman conference itself.
1. Celebrate your culture.
WorkHuman managed to bring Austin into the conference space. The decor and signage featured tarnished wood textures stained in bright colors. The food area featured a backdrop of food trucks inside the building, and offered selections from some of Austin’s finest. The gratitude bar (more on that in a bit) made donations to three Austin-based charities. Local musicians kicked off the conference with a collaborative performance. It wasn’t just a conference in Austin, it was Austin in a conference. It was a celebration of the human creativity that drives the city, and it gave all of us a greater sense of belonging.
2. Address the issues from the top.
Many of the hardest issues to talk about were addressed head-on by the featured speakers. Confronting the issues permeated everything from the top down. All too often organizations try to tackle deep-rooted problems from everywhere but the top. Let’s change that approach and equip executive leadership to create the most profound change, starting with them.
3. Express gratitude.
At the center of the main conference hall was a large tree encircled by a Gratitude Bar. Whenever you experienced the power of human kindness, collaboration, or connection, you could go to the Gratitude Bar and send a note of thanks. There were projection screens set up with streams of shared gratitude, and each note sent came with an award amount the recipient could donate to one of three identified Austin charities. The feeling of seeing a notification pop up on your phone saying you received gratitude from someone at the conference was amazing. You’d think “Who, me? I wonder who it could be? I wonder what I did to deserve it!” Participants would redeem gratitude awards at the Gratitude Bar, and for every charity they targeted with a donation, they’d receive a paper tree leaf to hang from the branches of surrounding trees labeled for each charity. And since you’re already at the Gratitude Bar, why not extend gratitude to someone else? It became addictive and profoundly impacted the conference experience.
4. Love the people around you.
I met hundreds of people from a wide variety of organizations and backgrounds, and everyone, with only two exceptions, was incredibly welcoming, friendly, and accepting. We made friends standing in line at the bookstore. We made friends while waiting to get temporary tattoos that said things like “I am enough” and “Forward together”. There were giant banners expressing things like “You belong here.” We all felt compelled to show love and acceptance to each other, to connect on a fundamentally human level. I believe it was as much the people as it was the environment we were in.
There may be a great deal of work to do, but I left WorkHuman with a renewed sense of hope that progress is possible. Salma Hayek Pinault said, “Adversity is your best ally for evolution.” That, combined with gratitude, loving humans, and a plate of tacos gives us a great start.
Plumeria is dedicated to helping organizations nurture their people as much as their people nurture them. Visit www.plumeria.consulting for more information on how we can help you build a more human workplace, and be sure to sign up for our newsletter.