Humanising Organisations: Ideal to Reality

I’ve long believed – and research consistently shows – that adopting humanistic management principles and practices such as empowerment and treating people with dignity and respect generates positive economic value for organisations.

Mental Health and Wellbeing

The recent explosion in interest in Mental Health and Wellbeing at work is further confirmation of the negative economic value associated with outdated management practices that cause stress, anxiety, employee turnover and lower productivity. However, according to Stanford Professor Jeffrey Pfeffer, humanising organisations is likely to remain a futile endeavour without substantial systemic change.

Education, Regulation, Reputation

Pfeffer is a prolific author and one of the most influential management thinkers of our time. His recent book – Dying for a Paycheck: Why the American Way of Business Is Injurious to People and Companies catalogues the cost of bad management practices. In a recent interview with Michael Pirson from the International Humanistic Management Association, he proposed three substantive changes needed to create more humanistic organisations.

First – Education. There are simply too many managers and organisations who aren’t aware of the costs of de-humanising management practices grounded in Command and Control behaviour and Theory X mindsets. The lack of education about the costs of de-humanising approaches means that human costs – mental and physical health – are externalised by organisations into the community rather than organisations bearing the costs themselves.

Second – Regulation. In part due to the costs associated with the above externalities issue and in part due to their wider social responsibility, governments need to introduce legislation and regulation ensuring workplace health and safety embodying mental as well as physical health and safety.

Third – Reputation. In Pfeffer’s view, we need to change our hero-worship towards leaders who epitomise humanistic management and move away from leaders who don’t.

Besides Pfeffer’s 3 systemic changes, I’d like to suggest an additional substantive change – Diffusion. By characterising “humanistic management” as a new idea or innovation, the late Everett Roger’s Diffusion of Innovation model can be applied. Rogers (also a Stanford Professor) determined there are 5 attributes influencing the rate by which an innovation such as humanising management is adopted over time.

Diffusion of Innovation

  1. Relative advantage – Utility and Status. Emphasising the true economic cost of de-humanising approaches as well as the positive value of humanising ones will create greater perceived utility and speed up the rate of adoption. In addition, awarding accolades to organisations/leaders adopting humanistic management approaches will confer higher status and lift adoption rates.
  2. Compatibility – Focusing on what doesn’t change with humanistic management practices instead of what does will accelerate adoption rates. However, I concede that moving from Command and Control mindsets and behaviours to Empower and Engage ones is a fundamental shift for many managers and their organisations.
  3. Complexity – Not unexpectedly, less complex innovations are adopted more rapidly than complex ones and unfortunately, adopting a humanistic management approach in organisations will be seen as complex. No easy fix here but keeping the change as simple as possible in the early stages will help.
  4. Trialability – Try before you buy is an age-old selling trick and humanistic management is no different. Running pilot humanistic management programs in parts of your organisation with greater affinity to or need for the change will create a beachhead prior to rolling out these practices across the organisation.
  5. Observability – We need to promote organisations who’ve successfully adopted humanistic management practices and give them as much visibility as possible.
Humanistic Psychology

It’s been well over half a century since humanistic psychologists such as Mayo, Maslow and McGregor introduced humanistic management principles as a novel approach to management. Substantive changes to education, regulation, reputation and diffusion provide the framework we need to turn the ideal of humanistic management into a reality. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait another half a century before the benefits of humanistic management practices are realised across the widest possible spectrum of organisations.

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