Organizational Design Without Empathy Won’t Work

Turns out I’m not a productivity cyborg after all.

I work for an incredibly innovative and forward thinking company. I don’t have a micromanaging boss. Our vacation policy is essentially, “Take what you need!” Since we are a self-organizing company there is a process for processing my work related tensions into useful and real change in how we work. My colleagues are the brightest, nicest, and most interesting people I know. Our workspace is utterly beautiful and has coffee and sparkling water (two of my favorite things) available in abundance — for free. I have real authority, responsibility, and autonomy with everything I’m working on. I feel like all my colleagues trust me to do my thing and I get to do what I’m best at basically every single day. And, saving the best for last, I find our purpose deeply motivating and aligned with my own values.

If only we could all be so lucky, right?

My work life is charmed.

And yet I’ve been mired in a couple weeks of low productivity, low energy, and a generally mopey attitude. I haven’t written anything in weeks, I’m having trouble getting traction on a couple long term projects, and I’ve just generally not been myself.

If you were an organizational design consultant hired to come in and look at The Ready you’d be scratching your head and throwing your hands in the air in exasperation. What’s wrong with this guy? He’s got it made and he can’t pull himself together long enough to be great at his job?

That’s because my general malaise for the past few weeks (which is undoubtedly affecting my work a bit — thanks for the patience, colleagues) has nothing to do with work and everything to do with everything going on outside it.

Without getting too personal (or tedious), there are a handful of things that have been taking up more of my mental bandwidth than I’d prefer; my long term relationship is currently long distance meaning I see my girlfriend of nearly five years for a couple days per month (if that), my apartment has sprung three different leaks in the past few weeks (one of which caused significant water damage), I’ve been traveling a ton (which I actually enjoy, but I think I’ve bumped up against the edge of how much I can do in a short period of time and still enjoy it), I developed a stye on my eyelid (gross, right?), and I have an extremely heavy decision to make regarding my PhD that needs to be made soon (ideally, weeks ago).

Org Design Doesn’t Always Have All the Answers

It has been a super helpful reminder that much, maybe the majority, of what determines how we feel about our work often has nothing to do with the work or organization itself.

As an organizational designer how often and how effectively do I keep that in mind?

I know it can be extremely easy to slip into a mindset of seeing an organizational transformation effort as some kind of proverbial jigsaw puzzle that with enough tinkering and careful thought will eventually come together in the most satisfying of ways. Move this piece here. Move that piece there. Shuffle, shuffle, click, click. Beautiful.

Except in the real world the pieces are people and this particular person’s cat died last night and this other person ate the yogurt for breakfast she knew she probably should’ve thrown away and this other one is worried about a sick parent and none of them are in the particular mindset to learn this truly awesome new way of meeting I’m trying to teach and OH GOD WHY AREN’T YOU COOPERATING?

At The Ready we believe people should feel comfortable bringing their whole selves to work. This article is me doing that. It’s the kick-in-the-head reminder that our clients are dealing with the same things — sick kids, family strife, money problems, house repairs — you know, life. It’s a reminder to bring empathy to every conversation, every coaching session, and every interaction we have with our clients; especially with the folks who seem the most disengaged and the most resistant to the work we are trying to do.

But It Sure Doesn’t Hurt

What this isn’t, though, is an excuse to not even try to make our organizations better places to work. To not even try making them places where people feel like they can make a contribution toward a purpose they believe in, where they can use skills they’ve spent years developing and honing, to develop friendships, and to have fun. Places where the time they spend doing useless tasks, navigating arcane bureaucracy, and managing petty politics, is minimized in favor of doing stuff that actually matters.

All organizational design must come from a place of empathy. Without an appreciation for the complete humans who comprise our organizations we risk missing the more complex and accurate larger picture in favor of the micro level view that feels easier to control and understand.

And sometimes life is just harder than you’d like it to be, you know? Our organizations and our work environments shouldn’t be adding to that difficulty. In fact, we believe we can help create a world where work can become a truly positive force for more people instead of something that we just try to tolerate.

It’s the least we can do.


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