Let’s cut out half of our employees’ brain

Why? Because that would be the most logical thing to do. It’s basically what we’re doing already. So why not go all out?

The two sides of all humans

Here is my point: all humans have two sides. The rational side, where we operate from scarcity, where we reasons, compare, where we compete, where we strive to be better. There is nothing wrong with that. It helps us strive for better outcomes, fix what’s not working, gives us some healthy life energy to strive for something better than we had last year. And some sense of scarcity is an accurate and helpful reality check: it is actually true that some resources are limited, and each gallon of oil can only be burnt once. Scarcity mode has its place.

However, there is the other side. The side that we ignore in so many of our interaction. It is the cooperative side. Where mathematics fail. Where there is abundance. Where our only advantage is to be part of something. Where we want to belong. Where we want to have meaning, purpose, connection. Respect, contribution, care.

Is this second part just silly touchy feely? No. Connection is the most basic survival need. Water, food, shelter are secondary. Because without connection, we would not have water, food, shelter, or at least not for long. Connection is the beginning of everything, and that’s why babies learn to smile at their caregivers as soon as the honeymoon phase is over. Connection is the deepest need and skill we have. The glue between people that makes things work. And it is the energy between us that makes life meaningful, pleasurable, joyful, fulfilled.

“People are selfish”

What’s interesting to me is that we clearly have that cooperative side but somehow we don’t seem to acknowledge it, against our better knowledge. People tell me time is money. People tell me “people are selfish”. People tell me “yeah, but what if someone takes advantage of others”. Yes, you’re well prepared for one side of reality. How about the other, though?

A spontaneous act of cooperation to save a dog. They did not learn this in school.

And I want to ask them: have you ever been in love? Have you ever thrown time, plans, money, whatever, out the window, just to spend time with someone? How does that go together with the homo economicus that we think we are? Why would people have children? Rationally, it is the most stupid decision you can make! (I know what I am talking about.) And so many do it, or find other ways to take care of others.

Human resilience

And that’s my point: people are selfish but they are also, at the same time, very selfless. Or, more precisely, giving makes us happy because contribution is a deep human need. And it is not because we expect reciprocity or status. We all do things all the time that we would not have to do, and it makes us happy. (See the science of generosity.) And that’s not because we’re being silly. It’s because we’re human.

Two people together is a miracle (Adrienne Rich). True — how do we even get along? And still, despite people divorcing, arguing, just open your eyes to the million ways we cooperate, take care of each other, are considerate. It happens all the time. We’re wired to get along and to make things work. Our #1 survival skill is cooperation. Our disposition to cooperate is a huge asset — and we’re not making enough use of it in our organizations.

We build workplaces as if people were inherently non-cooperative. We use coersion, reward systems, command and order, control, tracking etc as if people were inherently not trustworthy. As if people inherently did not care. As if people were inherently lazy and bad. That has some truth but it is at the same time completely absurd. Whenever someone has put a lot of love and effort into an animate gif, a piece of art, a funny compilation, it restores my faith in humanity. We are productive, we are constructive, and if our workplaces don’t harvest that energy, it will go somewhere!

So we’re basically planning our workplaces for only half of each of us. It’s like operating with only one hand, one leg, half a mind and half a heart.

Workplaces for whole humans

What would workplaces for whole humans look like? Workplaces for whole humans factor in connection. Connection thrives on authenticity, and authenticity builds on vulnerability. They honor people who show up. They have fun meetings. They build on trust. They assume others know what needs to happen. They model respect for each other.

If you know me, you know that my favorite tool is sociocracy. Sociocracy has those features baked in. It gives you a healthy drive to improve things and to be competitive but not in a screw-everyone-else kind of way. If gives us the chance to listen to each other, really listen, without turning the meeting into a self-help group. It starts from the basic assumption that we’re well-intentioned, considerate, caring human beings who want to get stuff done. It gives us the chance to experiment together and mess up. It plays the ball back in the court of groups of people where we can play the cooperation card and connect.

However, sociocracy only sets the stage. People have to get on the stage. The framework is great but the mindset has to come along with it. The mindset that assumes agency in people and keep both sides of humans in mind. We will not have humane workplaces as long as we assume that we’re inherently selfish. Our workplaces need to be balanced around rational effectiveness on the one side and connection and equivalence on the other. Because we humans are too.