Anyone who keeps up with corporate trends is undoubtedly familiar with the human-centric bandwagon that has been picking up speed over the last several years. Maybe you’ve even jumped on it yourself. Just in case you haven’t heard it by that name, what I’m talking about is the notion that employees should be treated like people (gasp!) and that a focus on treating people as human beings (as opposed to order takers) leads to people being happier and working harder, which in turn leads to positive growth and better business outcomes.
The company I work for has always been operating this way — before it was trendy, because these are the values of our founders. The reason I say that is not to be snarky. If anything, I think all organizations should adopt a people-first approach, and better late than never. The fact that our business has been putting people first since the beginning is only relevant because it’s made us a de facto case study. And the results? Putting people first really works — I promise.
In an era where “people first” has quite literally been turned into a tagline, though, what does it really mean? In practice, it can differ from one organization to the next. For us, it has a number of faces.
More Than Words
One is the effort that company leadership puts into ensuring that the work environment is safe for everyone. Physical safety, of course, goes without saying, but what I’m referring to is the ability of employees to speak out and share ideas without being hushed. That might seem like a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised; for every company that genuinely encourages innovation from within, there are dozens more that have zero interest in employees’ opinions — especially when they go against the grain.
Here’s another: It’s rare for anyone in our company to use the words “manager,” “supervisor,” or “boss.” It’s not that we lack a hierarchy, but by using a different vocabulary (namely, swapping out those words for “coach”), relationships up and down the aisles are reframed as something more like mentoring, guides, and advisors. This accomplishes several things at once — it humanizes the top executives, it makes leaders more accessible, and it generally (and positively) affects the attitude of everyone. In my experience, having a “coach” versus having a “boss” is the difference between being obligated to do your best at work and actually wanting to do your best at work.
It’s all about challenging ourselves and one another to mutually create an environment in which everyone gets a constant stream of opportunities to improve — not just at our jobs, but as people. I’m constantly asking people at work how they’re doing and how they’re feeling, which seems completely normal except for the fact that I truly want to know. How are they doing with what’s on their plate? What are they struggling with? What’s going well? Where do they need support? How can I help? Knowing these things helps determine whether they are thriving in their role, and on a deeper level, gives insight into their lived experiences. That kind of knowledge pays dividends when it comes to figuring out who is ready to take on new challenges, who is ready for the next opportunity, or who may benefit from some closer guidance and support.
A third way our company benefits from a human-centric approach is by paying closer attention to soft skills. Like a hawk, I scout for them in interviews, often focusing more on a person’s body language and apparent authenticity than on the specifics of their questions and answers. How clearly do they communicate? How self-aware are they? How high is their EQ? Do they exhibit a high level of empathy?
You’ve probably seen any number of think-tank studies declaring that these are the skills of the future workplace, but again, we’ve been doing this for years. Not because we wanted to be different, but because it works — so why stop? When you not only hire for these skills but actively assist employees in improving them, you lose absolutely nothing. By not doing so, you are actually capping the potential of your human investment. There’s only so far that knowledge and aptitude can take someone without solid interpersonal skills. When you focus on developing those from inside your organization, you’re creating a deep pool of future leadership resources.
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The Bottom Line
Everyone is smart, everyone has incredible amounts of data, and everyone can make use of talent and services from around the world. What is left to create competitive advantage? In my view through the HR window, it is absolutely, irrefutably this: the extent to which people are treated and cared for as valuable individuals. Lucky for me (and our organization), experts agree, but you don’t need to take anyone’s word for it — all you have to do is try it and you’ll see!