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Open questions on humanism at work

Chase Damiano
13 min read
Open questions on humanism at work

I’m changing up my format today.​

Typically, I offer some tactics or frameworks on how to lead your teams. Today, I’m asking more questions than I have answers for.​

I had a recent conversation with a founder/CEO, currently running a venture studio, talking about workplace trends and themes we’re both seeing.​

There’s an open, ongoing conversation about the role of employers these days. Both of us see trends in an increasing amount of responsibility employers bear to meet the needs of their employees. Employees are expecting their employers to take care of more of their lives.​

Big Tech has guided us down a pathway of huge perks and benefits, impossible-to-compete-with compensation, and perhaps more bureaucracy than they’d like to admit. I recall back to my earlier time in corporate America where, at stages of growth earlier than one might expect, the lack of the “hustle culture” that was once there.​

Employees, especially those earlier in their career, are simultaneously figuring out what they want to do with their lives, while not identifying work as the “end all be all” source of personal meaning, while also seeking more connection and belonging.​

Questions we’re asking

Is the workplace the right avenue to make one’s mark on the world? For entrepreneurs, that vehicle can be a resonating YES (but doesn’t have to be)… but what about for everyone else?​

Can the workplace be somewhere where we can self-actualize and bring our whole selves to work?

Do we do what our employees ask of us, and transform our workplaces to cater to their personal desires and values (and thus, as research suggests, retain these employees longer with lower average payrolls), yet risk building a company that we ourselves no longer resonate with, or one where performance itself could be at risk?

Or, do we stick to our guns, fulfill the vision as we intend it, yet risk higher rates of turnover and lower access to top talent accordingly?​

Or, some blend of both, or an entirely different framing altogether?

Should we even care about the interests, desires and needs of our teams beyond the 8-9 hours they are “here at work?” Do I even personally care?​

How much of ourselves should we be revealing at the workplace? What balance of vulnerability and confidence is the right mix? What is appropriate (or not appropriate) these days?​

How much of the notion of the “traditional workplace,” meaning “we’re doing this to earn money; it’s called WORK not FUN, etc.,” should we be re-evaluating or transforming?

A research-driven view

We suffer, especially in the United States, from rampant workplace burnout that kills performance. Burnout correlates with attrition, absenteeism, lower engagement, and decreased productivity. (McKinsey, 2022).​

Burnout is defined as “an ominous triad of symptoms in which individuals experience emotional exhaustion, feel disconnected in their relationships, and experience a reduced sense of personal accomplishment in their work.” (Friedland, 2016).​

96 percent of senior leaders report some degree of burnout, and one-third describe their burnout as extreme (Pillay, 2013).​

We know that toxic workplace behavior is the biggest predictor of burnout symptoms and intent to leave by a large margin, accounting for 60 percent of global variance. (McKinsey, 2022).​

Toxic workplace behavior is defined as “interpersonal behavior that leads to employees feeling unvalued, belittled, or unsafe, such as unfair or demeaning treatment, non-inclusive behavior, sabotaging, cutthroat competition, abusive management, and unethical behavior from leaders or coworkers.” (McKinsey, 2022).​

We know that employee engagement is driven by how managers are showing up. We know that managers account for 70% of the variance in employee engagement scores (Gallup, 2015) and companies with highly-engaged employees experience 23% more profit, 10% higher customer loyalty, 43% less turnover, and 66% increase in wellbeing (Gallup, 2020).​

Piecing it together

So, if burnout kills performance…

…and unsafe employees predict burnout and intent to leave…

…and managers have a huge influence on the employee experience (and their psychological safety)…​

Could there be a vested business interest in catering to the “whole employee” at work? Could there be a real business case for allowing more of our whole selves within the workplace? Or, do competing forces simply make this difficult in practical implementation?​

Again, I’m writing today with questions, not with answers. This has been a topic that’s held my attention for several years now, and it’s inviting more exploration, more research, and more practical case studies.​

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