The Fully Human Business Culture

March 26, 2015

ThefullyhumanbusinesscultureTo be fully human

The Templeton Foundation, named for the late investor and philanthropist Sir John Templeton, is an organization with a mission to help answer the “Big Questions of human purpose and ultimate reality.” Like its namesake, the foundation champions open-mindedness, acceptance, forgiveness, creativity, humility and shared human experiences. It celebrates the similarities and common bonds of people, rather than concentrating on differences. And this ideal represents a departure from the ways many other thought leaders approach diversity. We’re so often told to accommodate differences, embrace differences and understand differences that we may be overlooking the traits that unite us. The intent isn’t to downplay or preclude each individual’s unique attributes; it’s to accept that we are all equal members of one global family, regardless of race, religion, gender or ethnicity.

Each year, the Templeton Foundation awards a monetary prize to a person whose life’s work has attempted to tackle and give meaning to the spiritual and philosophical dimensions of these big questions. This year’s recipient is Jean Vanier. After seeing the horrific conditions of a mental institution near Meaux, east of the French capital, Vanier founded an organization that partners mentally disabled people with healthy people, who live together in homes. The group has spread across the world, and the success of the organization prompted Vanier to postulate on the profound question of what it means to be fully human:

“To be fully human is really to discover who I am. And who am I? I’m a member of the huge human family, where we’re all brothers and sisters wherever we come from, whatever our culture, whatever our religion. We were born in weakness. We will grow. And we will die. So the story of each one of us is a story of accepting that we are fragile.”

Have we attained full humanity?

Diversity persists as a topic at the forefront of employment issues, and this year it has become even more pronounced, as we’ve discussed in several past articles. Today’s workplace begs Vanier’s big question: are we fully human?

Forty-five years since the introduction of the Equal Pay Act, gender discrimination still haunts the halls of office buildings and desks of Human Resources professionals. Though women today have attained historic highs in terms of career progression and leadership opportunities, there are still significant pay gaps and prejudices. Full-time working women, despite their greater likelihood of completing a university education, earn 18 percent less than men. The problem, however, extends beyond compensation and into culture. Consider the high-profile lawsuit against venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins by Ellen Pao. It speaks to a blatant bias against women that still reigns in aggressive, male-dominated corporate environments.

In many ways, Pao’s case surpasses the stereotyping that lingers in some enterprises; it reminds us of the Anita Hill hearings or the Tailhook scandal that involved more than 100 U.S. Navy and Marine Corps aviation officers. The climate at Kleiner Perkins would appear disturbingly exclusionary. Several stories have emerged depicting women as “killing the buzz.” There are also all-male ski retreats and an ideology that closing deals is an optional consideration for women, who are perceived as not needing to prove that “their portfolios are bigger.” In one instance, a male partner was awarded a payoff for a project Pao spearheaded because, executives said, he “needed a win.”

Yet, did anyone really win? The partner who could not perform the work will still be unable to. And Pao, the productive talent behind the successful project, will move on to drive the profits of a more humane organization.

Issues of gender-based discrimination aren’t new, yet they’re taking newer turns. The hottest button on the control panel of diversity today is gender identity. Absurd as it may sound, concerns are cropping up all over the business world about who can use what bathroom. Most recently, a female gym member at Planet Fitness lodged a formal complaint about a transgender person using the women’s convenience. She then told other members that a “man” was using the women’s locker room. The “violator” in question was born male and now identifies as female. So how did Planet Fitness react? Like a fully human company:

“Planet Fitness is committed to creating a non-intimidating, welcoming environment for our members. Our gender identity non-discrimination policy states that members and guests may use all gym facilities based on their sincere self-reported gender identity. The manner in which this member expressed her concerns about the policy exhibited behavior that management at the Midland club deemed inappropriate and disruptive to other members, which is a violation of the membership agreement and as a result her membership was cancelled.”

Yet the problems don’t end with gender. We are seeing national spikes in open racism, religious intolerance, discrimination against veterans and resistance to implementing accommodations for disabled people. The reality is that imposing limitations encourages limited thinking and limited potential. It naturally follows that businesses promoting limitations in their cultures can expect stunted growth and stale innovation.

What matters in a thriving, fully human business culture?

The individual and what he or she brings to the organization. Having the courage to admit that we are all “fragile” to some extent and need others to help us achieve bigger goals is the secret — what Vanier calls the “development of the head and heart.” In a business context, that translates to pairing emotional intelligence with skills and abilities. It’s a matter of identifying talent who meet all the requirements for the job while complementing and strengthening the abilities of the team. What cultural fit shouldn’t mean is searching for workers who will integrate with the business because they hail from the same culture (background, race, gender, religion) as the majority group.

If there’s one aspect we should be pinpointing, according to psychologists Ian MacRae and Adrian Furnham, it’s conscientiousness. “Of all personality traits, conscientiousness has been associated with strong performance and success in almost all areas of work,” they write in “High Potential: How to Spot, Manage and Develop Talented People at Work.

Conscientiousness is a unifying human trait for success

Conscientious workers are those professionals who are timely, prompt, organized, goal-oriented and deadline driven. Not only do conscientious workers exhibit critical skills and powerful work ethics, they’re more likely to possess emotional intelligence. In his book “Working with Emotional Intelligence,” psychologist Daniel Goleman notes the importance of conscientiousness at all organizational levels:

  • Mailroom clerks who never misplace a package
  • Receptionists who take impeccable messages
  • Delivery drivers who always arrive on time
  • Managers who develop stellar teams that are motivated, innovative and boast higher performance ratings
  • Committed sales people who generate higher qualified leads and volumes

Additional studies conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health, the National Center for Biological Information and others have discovered that conscientious workers earn higher salaries, enjoy greater levels of job satisfaction and income potential, are more adept at finding and retaining careers, live longer lives, and when pursuing entrepreneurial endeavors are more likely to sustain successful businesses for at least eight years.

The positive effect satisfied talent have on a company’s bottom line can’t be overstated. According to the latest research performed by Glassdoor, “Great companies are highly profitable, often attracting top talent and keeping them with employee-friendly policies. But does the opposite hold as well? Are companies with the unhappiest employees also poor financial performers? Surprisingly, the answer appears to be ‘yes.’ We examined a portfolio of 30 companies with the lowest employee satisfaction as well, and found that they significantly under-performed the stock market since 2009.”

Conscientious people, by nature, are also those sensitive to the needs of others. To attract and retain this top talent, companies must have an equally conscientious culture.

Defining cultural fit

Cultural fit has become a popular catchphrase in the talent industry. Much of the emphasis on it has been placed by younger generations of workers. They harbor the promise of innovation that business leaders seek. They enjoy change, unfamiliar scenery and being part of a group that fosters paradigm shifts and open communication; they thrive in unconventional environments or methods of work. More importantly, they cherish diversity because they represent it.

Millennials aren’t just the product of increased immigration, they are more open about their identities: their sexual orientation, beliefs and backgrounds. They are expressive, they want to be recognized and accepted as individuals, and at the same time they want to be integral members of a global community that embraces equality. In short, they want the fully human experience that Jean Vanier envisions.

“You see, the whole thing with human beings is to learn to love. And to love is not to do things for people. It’s not to tell people what to do. It’s to reveal. What do we reveal? ‘You’re important.’ You might be important in the things you do. But there’s something even more important than what you do. It’s who you are. And who you are is something about your heart by being open to others. A heart that is not filled with fear.

“The problem today is that many people are filled with fear. They are frightened of people, frightened of losing. And because people are filled with fear they can no longer be open to others. They’re protecting themselves, protecting their class, protecting their group, protecting their religion. We’re all in a state of protection. To become fully human is to let down the barriers, to open up. And to discover that every person is beautiful. Under all the jobs they’re doing, their responsibilities, there is you. And you, at the heart of who you are, you’re somebody also crying out, ‘Does somebody love me not just for what I can do, but for who I am?’”

Rather than bracketing diverse talent into labeled groups, which highlights differences instead of equality, we should be looking at the opportunities unique perspectives bring. There is a dark side to cultural fit — defining a culture that is ethnically, ideologically, racially and sexually the same. An environment that propels the status quo — that stagnates within these limitations. In creating a fully human, conscientious business culture, better questions to ask candidates are:

  •          How will you shake up our culture?
  •          How will you contribute to its improvement?
  •          How will you make our team stronger?
  •          How will you help us win?

The solution is simple. Create policies that prohibit discrimination, train management on how to enforce them and hold violators accountable. Ensure facilities are ADA compliant. Host company events that welcome all workers in the organization. Make one locker room or restroom unisex. Ensure that dress codes allow all people to express their faiths equally. Look past physical, sexual and religious differences in hiring to focus on compatible skills and demonstrated emotional intelligence. See people as people and not members of distinct groups. Learn how the future of talent will be shaped by diversity and millennials.

The more we focus on differences as differences, the more we consume ourselves with fears of losing: losing control, losing dominance, losing productivity. In some ways, we’re still doing so much to prevent losing that we’re not figuring out how to win. Let’s embrace our shared humanity and our mutual goals. Let’s abandon fear and start preoccupying ourselves with success. Let’s win. Together.


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