Humanizing the Workplace: Creating a New Corporate Culture

As the Wells Fargo scandal dominates the financial headlines recently, many pundits are wondering aloud how this could have happened. The case is undoubtedly not an isolated instance, and more likely an indicator of something much more endemic across the financial services sector.

While Congress debates the merits of more or less regulation to solve the problem, as a society, we’re ignoring the larger issue. Somehow, 5,300 individuals were coerced into exhibiting behavior and undertaking practices that in most cases they probably knew was illegal, or at the very least, ethically questionable.

The individuals who were complicit in this scheme ranged from front-line sales personnel to regional managers, all the way up to the division VPs. They likely pay their taxes, make important decisions on behalf of their dependents, go to church on the weekend, and adhere to a set of personal morals when confronted with making decisions in the real world.

In other words, by most standards they’re good people.

So why did they feel compelled to behave in a different way when they put on their “employee” hat? The answer lies deeper within our current-day crisis of corporate culture.

As employees, we are trained to check our emotions at the door and to wear a professional face. We’re trained to separate what makes us human from what it takes to succeed in business.

We are also trained to speak a certain way; to blindly follow orders and pass them along to others below us in the hierarchy; and to keep our heads down and toe the line in order to climb the ladder. Employees are often also asked to relinquish their civil rights, and basic privileges like making their own decisions — especially when those decisions involve spending money.

In many companies, the things we take for granted in our personal lives are routinely stripped from us once we badge-in.

This environment does little to support growth and personal accountability inside the enterprise, so what should we expect to happen when individuals who have been trained to be essentially unaccountable are finally granted authority and decision-making powers? After years of climbing the ladder and being stripped of their humanity, the only loyalty that remains is to the bottom line.

But there’s no reason that humanity and profitability need be at odds. They’re not mutually exclusive.

As a society, we need to begin to evaluate more deeply the organizations that we create and work for. We need to value and support personal growth as much as we do professional growth.

How?

It begins by creating a company culture that embraces employees coming to work with all of the emotion, talent, and creativity that makes them who they are. Once employees begin to embrace their own humanity and that of their team members in the context of the workplace, only then will they start to view how their individual role can have a positive impact on the larger organization.

A big part of this process entails breaking down all of the barriers that tend to block normal human communication — the performance reviews, the constant oversight, the mandatory training programs, the heavy-handed processes that were installed with the best intent but have an ultimately dehumanizing effect. In the case of Wells Fargo, its initial reaction, per the Washington Post was:

The bank is “working to significantly strengthen our training, monitoring, oversight and compensation structure, which led to a reduction in this behavior,” Wells Fargo spokeswoman Richele Messick said in an email. “We believe the changes we have made have strengthened Wells Fargo and will help ensure this behavior doesn’t happen in the future.”

But something’s missing: The problem they’re trying to solve cannot be solved with the same level of thinking that created it in the first place.

Employees on the front lines, who are interfacing with the organization’s customers on a daily basis, do not need more “training, monitoring, and oversight.” They need more autonomy, accountability, and humanity.

They need to be enabled to become part of the solution and personally buy into that solution’s success, not to be branded as potential future problems waiting to happen.

The path forward for Wells Fargo, and likely many other financial institutions struggling with similar issues, is to seek the counsel of the very same employees they’re scared might lead the organization astray. Buried in those cubicles and teller booths are the organization’s most valuable assets: its people.

And they’re brimming with creativity, passion, and unique perspectives just waiting to be unleashed.

Where does your organization or the companies you work with fit into this crisis of corporate culture? Are they humanizing and empowering — or warning and preventing? We’d love to hear your thoughts and examples in the comments.

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At HVCK, we help organizations think and act more progressively by designing and implementing systems and programs that promote positive organizational change. An org shift hackathon could set your company on the right track. Want to learn more? Shoot us an email at info@hvck.co.