People-centered workplaces: hollow marketing tool or authentic cultural shift?
In the current corporate climate, many organizations have begun to promote themselves as people-centered workplaces. This focus on people-centered decision-making is highly encouraging (and needed), but what does it mean? What can an individual reasonably be expected to infer about the organization from those words, and how does that organization differentiate itself? It is important to define what people-centric workplaces truly are, so that employee expectations can be effectively managed.
Psychological contract theory posits that initial impressions and representations of the organization lead employees to develop a concept of what working there will be like. When the reality of working there doesn’t live up to expectations, the psychological contract is violated. At best, the employee experiences dissatisfaction and at worst they experience moral injury, cynicism, or the intention to quit.
In my years of experience in the organizational psychology field, a theme that is clear is that employee engagement and satisfaction are underpinned much more by meaningful concepts such as trust and appreciation than by shallow perks. Taking this into consideration, my conception of the people-centered workplace is as follows:
People-centered leadership involves respecting the agency and dignity of each employee, irrespective of their identity, job level, or role.
I believe this is what the general employee base wants and expects from a people-centered organization, even if some of the words I’ve used are relatively philosophical. This is a huge shift from how employees have traditionally been regarded.
For instance, in a people-centered organization, what behavior is acceptable in the name of the business?
- Is a manager justified in lying to an employee to get them to perform?
- Is a manager justified in lying to or asking employees to lie to a customer if they think it is in the business’ best interests?
- Is a manager justified in pressuring their team to perform in a way that is detrimental to their wellbeing simply to secure their own promotion, or to meet an arbitrary deadline?
- Are leaders justified in ignoring the toxic behavior of a fellow leader when that leader’s team is delivering results?
- Is it appropriate to liken employees to children and managers to their parents, and to treat employees in this way?
I think in many organizations, the answer to these questions would be a resounding “yes” or a begrudging “this is just how things work in business. But these practices are not consistent with a people-centered culture. In fact, they are not consistent with most evidence-based effective leadership strategies.
What these behaviors have in common is that they all have authoritarian elements — elements that disrespect the dignity and agency of another adult human being. Authoritarianism is characterized by:
- a lack of concern for how decisions impact others, and;
- a lack of consideration of input from others, especially and usually those lower in the organizational hierarchy.
However, because these leadership tactics have been so normalized in the corporate context, it can be very hard to even recognize them when they’re happening.
I imagine that almost everyone reading this article has likely encountered one or more leaders or managers who lacked concern for how decisions impacted them or who made decisions about them without their input. Sadly, some reader might even think, “But this is how leaders make all decisions!”
So we can see that people-centrism requires a deeper shift — one that focuses on the core of how many organizational leaders behave. Accomplishing this shift will not be easy — it will take time, effort, and focused resources. It will take much more than corporate platitudes and guruism, or a flexible work policy with unlimited PTO, to challenge and overcome decades of normalized authoritarian leadership behavior.
Below I share three core recommendations that will help any self-proclaimed people-centric organization move toward this foundational culture shift:
- Those who design organizational policy, programs, and systems must have a deep understanding of individual differences and organizational dynamics and they must be data-driven. Many well-meaning HR departments often rely on fads, trends, or tradition to create policies and programs. However, when challenging the status quo, you cannot rely on any of those things. I have said it before and I will keep saying it: there is actual science behind leadership, management, and people in organizations. If your HR department has no organizational psychologists, then I am highly skeptical that the organization is seeking the type of change needed to create a people-centered workplace. Organizational psychologists can use data, analysis, and scientific research to create programs & environments that are truly effective for people in the specific context of your organization, without relying on trends or tradition. These individuals are trained to design many different programs including leadership and management training, hiring, recognition, DEI, and performance management — all based on science.
- The organization must provide and enforce comprehensive leadership training programs to undo the ineffective tactics many leaders have learned throughout their careers. The organizational leaders of today learned how to be leaders from those of yesterday. The longer someone operates within an environment in which authoritarian management tactics are normalized, the less they will be able to identify when damaging authoritarian behavior occurs. Further, people-centric and evidence-based management practices have never really been taught, as traditional management tactics are derived from slavery and hierarchy. Without a concerted effort directed at re-training leaders and holding them accountable for applying new management skills, how can any organization expect to undo the often ineffective leadership tactics that were previously learned? Saying “we put our people first” isn’t enough concrete guidance for old dogs to learn new tricks.
- The organization must implement a 360 feedback program for all leaders and managers to establish accountability. 360 feedback programs typically allow employees to leave feedback on their direct and skip-level managers. The program must include specific competencies designed to assess leaders’ and managers’ people-centric leadership skills. Feedback from employees, who are the people actually impacted by leadership decisions, is essential to understand whether people-centric decision-making is happening. Often, leaders are judged by the productivity of their teams, but in my experience, teams can often be highly effective despite poor leadership. In organizations where the cultural differentiator is the way employees are treated, not monitoring 360 feedback on leaders and managers makes the people-first message ring hollow.
(Not coincidentally, if you follow #1 from above, that person can implement #2 and #3 for you!)
Despite my skepticism, I believe that the corporate world is moving in the right direction with the focus on people-centered workplaces, but steps must be taken to go deeper than surface-level. These recommendations will help organizations move toward creating a tangible cultural shift by using experts to design context-based programs that instill accountability and provide support and re-education at all levels. If people-centrism isn’t recognized as a major cultural shift that takes intentional effort — as more than a flexible work schedule and positive words — I fear that it will become just another hollow marketing tool used to entice hopeful employees into disappointing careers.