And what role does story play in all of this?
Dehumanization is destoryfication
If humans are storytelling animals, it seems obvious that a human organization would deal with stories the humans bring into it. Brené Brown says »Stories are data with a soul.« And people without stories are just data – numbers. Re-humanization is the process that reverses the damage done by dehumanization. Dehumanization means that we see and treat people as something other than human: numbers, problems, machines, working animals, ...
Even the term we use for the people who are supposed to care for the employees – human resources management – invites dehumanization. Using people as a resource, thinking of them as a resource, is a powerful metaphor. Resources are precious, but they are something we can use up, exploit, run out of, consume. It's something that is valuable because a benefit is produced from it. »Human resources management« is a story in which humans are not a protagonist. In a human organization, humans would be not only protagonists of the story, but also its authors. Their value lies in the stories they create and live, and their worthiness is a given.
Dehumanization practices at work strip people of their story. We are expected to behave like machines: highly effective, unquestionably obedient, unbiased by context and emotion, indefatigable, infallible. Anything that is not contributing to the benefits we are supposed to produce, is considered a flaw or a disturbance. This is the sea we swim in. Even though emotional intelligence, life-long learning, work-life balance and other topics that imply that we are nevertheless not machines, are becoming buzzwords, the underlying hypothesis stays – the fact that humans are human is a problem to be solved not a treasure to be sought.
The treasure of humanity
Humans are not perfect. We live in stories, and the stories do often get in the way of getting things done. And yet, stripped of stories we lose our meaning. Meaningless work, doing things that are not aligned with out values, being treated as if we don't matter – all these things contribute to burnout, sickness and stress. We all need to feel valued and worthy to be able to contribute in a meaningful way. Future work skills are the competencies computers do not have – they are about communication, sense-making, understanding and co-creating stories, collaboration, trust. Only humans can read between the lines and capture meaning from data. We need our humanity to navigate the complex world we live in. We did not need to be persuaded; we know our humanity is essential to our most treasured contributions. We only spent a short time talking about why we need our organizations to be more human: to enhance engagement through “Glűck und Sinn”, to foster cooperation and trust, to move on from failure better, to reduce sickness, stress, absenteeism and fluctuation, to support natural human creativity, to free us from roles and expectations and make space for change, growth and innovation … So we know only humans can do these things; and only if they can tap into their human potential. But what is human? When do we feel human? When do we feel alive?
What is human
After much thought and a little bit of research, I believe two general practices come up at work that dehumanize us – denying our needs and partialization. Whenever our basic human needs are denied, that dehumanizes us. Whenever any of our inseparable parts needs to stay out of the picture, that dehumanizes us.
Firstly, to feel human, we need to have our needs met. There is a multiplicity of human needs theories, but most of them agree on the basics. We need to tend to our bodies with enough food, drink and rest. We need to be and feel safe and secure, both physically (our bodies will not be harmed) and emotionally (our hearts will not be harmed). We need relationships, to feel like we belong and are loved, appreciated and connected to other humans. We need to feel we are competent, successful at what we do and that we are growing, learning and getting better. We need to feel we have some autonomy and control over our lives and our decisions. And finally, we need to feel like we are contributing something, that we are true to what we believe in, that we are a part of something bigger than us. At work, it is common that even the most basic needs are put on a tight schedule, if not denied completely; relationships are shallow and transactional; our competence goes unacknowledged; our autonomy is severely limited; and we don't fully see the sense of what we do. All of that dehumanizes us.
And secondly, to feel human, we need to be acknowledged as a whole. Not only our minds come to work, but so do our bodies, our hearts and our souls. Our identities are informed by what we think and do (which are usually welcome in business environments), and also by what we feel (sensations and emotions) and who or what we connect to (our environment, context or system we come from and also our spiritual beliefs and experiences). At work, our minds are welcome, and some functions of our body – the ones that can produce what our employer needs from us. All the rest is often seen as superfluous or even problematic. Integration and wholesomeness also means space for the polarities, or better, shades of gray between the good and the bad, the light and the dark, the done and the developing, the achievements and the failures. In short, it means no part of us needs to stay hidden when we enter the office (because we all know that checking it at the door is not a real option).
We all lose, and yet ...
Let us not forget that organizations are made out of humans. All of us are human, from the top management in their suits and ties (and hopefully more and more dresses and skirts, too) to the workers in their dirty overalls. And all of us are losing in the system which does not let our whole selves to show up at work. The leaders are also not allowed to be whole – to show vulnerability, to make mistakes, to feel. It might be that more of their needs are met, but can they truly be alive in their role? Can they bring the multiplicity of their stories into the workplace? My guess is – no, most probably not. They may live a narrative of a successful leader, but that is often heavily influenced by the ocean of taken-for-granted beliefs than make the story thin and one-dimensional.
So how does this happen? In another session (the one in which we realized we want to dance with the Earth not all over it) we realized that a system persist because a system is stronger than an individual. Yet, a collective is stronger than the system. A collective can form a new narrative and re-author the future. It can transform a system through writing and living a better story. But we cannot create a collective if we don't have permission to show up, be seen and connect. So we're in a vicious cycle.
What are we afraid of?
But why? Why can't we just be human with one another, share our stories, realize we're all the same and better together and just work from there?
Well, it's not that simple. We can never know what it is like to be the other person. We cannot feel their pain or their joy. So it is easy to consider them separate, even lesser than we are. Emphatic story-listening is as close as we get to understanding what it feels like to be another human being. But empathy is always a choice, and it's a brave and vulnerable choice. We need to allow ourselves to open up to be able to do that.