A Publication of WTVP

How Human Is Your Workplace? Four Questions To Ask

The old fear- and ego-based ways of working and leading won’t survive in the future.

by Ed Hess |
If employees feel that they have autonomy

As the Digital Age advances and technology takes over more jobs, workers must get better at those “human” skills computers can’t do. They must excel at critical thinking, innovative thinking, collaborating and emotionally engaging with others in the creation and delivery of products and services. Most of all, one must excel at continuously learning… and unlearning… and relearning. I call this last piece “hyper-learning.”

Does your workplace nurture these skills and the hyper-learning that powers them? Or does it do exactly the opposite?

You must create a workplace environment that enables the behaviors that will result in the higher-order human cognitive and emotional performance that smart technology can’t do well. In other words, the workplace must enable people to think, to manage their egos and emotions, to listen, and to emotionally engage with others in positive ways that result in high-quality collaboration. In the Digital Age, people will need to bring their “best selves” to work.

Making this shift requires people to engage in constant learning—and that means your workplace must mitigate the two big individual inhibitors of learning: ego and fear. Unfortunately, most workplaces are relics of the Industrial Revolution. The leadership model is command-and-control, and they achieve compliance through fear. In these types of workplaces, competition, political gamesmanship and hierarchies thrive. Rather than being team-oriented and collaborative, they promote individualistic, survival-of-the-fittest mentalities. That type of environment in the Digital Age is a formula for extinction.

If your company is to survive in the Digital Age, you’re going to have to humanize it. This boils down to four key concepts. Your workplace must be an idea meritocracy and embrace three key psychological principles: positivity, psychological safety and self-determination. Ask yourself these four questions:

  1. In my company, do the best ideas rise to the top? In an idea meritocracy, the best data-driven idea or judgment wins, irrespective of rank, compensation or power. What determines any course of action is the best idea or judgment, not whose idea or judgment it is. If your company isn’t an idea meritocracy, people won’t behave with each other in ways that lead to the highest levels of collective human performance. The kinds of high-quality conversations you need for real innovation can’t happen.
  2. Are people usually in a positive emotional mood? Leading research by cognitive, social and positive psychologists shows that positive emotions enable and enhance cognitive processing, innovative thinking, learning and creativity, and lead to better judgments and decision-making. Negative emotions like fear and anxiety squelch them.

    There are simple things you can do at the start of a meeting to help people be in a positive mood. Just asking people to smile at each other or make eye contact makes a big difference. So does asking people questions that indicate you care about them as individuals. Truly listening to people is mission-critical. People will feel positive when they feel cared about as a unique human being and when they trust their colleagues, managers and leaders. Work environments that make people feel like a machine or a cog in a giant wheel will not enable the highest-needed human performance in the Digital Age. 

  3. Do people feel it’s safe to speak up to power and try new ways of working? Studies show that without psychological safety, people will not fully embrace the hard parts of thinking and innovating: giving and receiving constructive feedback; challenging the status quo; asking and being asked the hard questions; being non-defensive, open-minded and intellectually courageous; and having the courage to try new things and fail. 

    Google has studied what makes certain teams effective in the search for the “secret sauce” of high performance. The most important factor it discovered was psychological safety. The precondition for feeling safe is trust—and while nobody is “against” trust, many leaders worry about the time it takes to build it. Time is a precious commodity when you are running a lean efficiency machine. However, every company that I know of that has invested in building trust, giving people time during the workday to build trusting relationships, has found the ROI far exceeds their expectations.

  4. Do leaders meet the self-determination needs of those who report to them? Initially developed by psychologists Edward L. Deci and Richard Ryan, self-determination theory (SDT) says intrinsic motivation occurs when three innate human needs are met: autonomy (e.g., people have input into how they do their job), relatedness (e.g., a sense of mutual respect and reliance with others) and competence (e.g., being able to succeed at optimally challenging tasks). If employees feel that they have autonomy, relatedness and competence at work, they’re more likely to be highly engaged—and thus more likely to perform at high levels. 

Hopefully you answered each question with a “yes.” If not, you’ve got some evolving to do.

It’s not easy to transform an organization. But, you have no choice if you need human workers to excel in the Digital Age. You can’t transform a workplace unless the leaders take the lead in transforming how they lead. They must behave in ways that enable the new desired behaviors, and they must role-model those behaviors. Leaders must be enablers, not commanders. They must liberate their employees to perform at their highest levels, cognitively, emotionally and behaviorally. When people are able to play to their strengths and develop themselves, they don’t just go through the motions or wish away the day. This is the kind of work we all long for. PM

Edward D. Hess is professor of business administration and Batten Executive-in-Residence at the Darden School of Business and author of Hyper-Learning: How to Adapt to the Speed of Change. For more information, visit