THE BLOG
02/28/2013 02:02 pm ET Updated Apr 30, 2013

Building the Human Workplace

I don't know where the lady got my cellphone number, but I heard the phone ringing in my purse as I stepped into a cab, and I grabbed it and answered it without looking at the number.

"Is this Liz?" asked the lady.

"Yes," I said. "I'm sorry that I don't recognize your number."

"Oh, my CEO gave me your number," she said. "We have some organizational things going on, and my boss, the company CEO, wants to have you work with our team."

"OK," I said. "Can you tell me a little about what's going on?"

"Oh," she sighed, "discord and unhappiness, some complainers, people upset with my boss, you know."

"I'm sorry to hear about it," I said. "It sounds frustrating."

"My boss told me to call you and tell you, 'Make it stop,' in fact," said the poor woman.

"It is draining for everyone when there's a disturbance in the Force like that," I said.

"You said it!" said my caller. "You will make my boss very happy if you come out here and fix it. He even told me to tell you that he's prepared to get rid of every one of them, but I'm not sure if he was joking when he said that or serious."

"I understand," I said. "I'd love to meet your CEO when he has time."

"That won't be necessary," said the well-meaning lady. "I just wanted to make sure that you're available on the dates we have in mind for your visit, and then I'll introduce you to our HR director. The assignment is to work with the executives and coach them on how to be a team. The CEO won't be there."

"I apologize, I'm just between meetings," I said. "Why don't you send me an email message with your thoughts. I should tell you, just to save your time, that I won't be able to work with your team unless the CEO is in the conversation too. I don't mean that he has to be in every meeting with his staff. There will be times when I'd like to talk with the staff without the CEO there. I will need to meet and work with the CEO, however. It's his team, after all."

"Oh, my!" said the administrative assistant. "That is not going to happen. He wants help for the leadership team, not for himself. He told me to take care of the problem by the end of the quarter."

And there you have it.

When people ask me, "What is a human workplace, anyway?" I tell them that it isn't a place where they have free drinks and popcorn and people get to go home early, although those things are fine by me. It's a place where people are human.

In the real world we know that a leader -- in Cub Scouts, on a high school volleyball team or anywhere -- is part of a team and a more influential member than any other person. In business we pretend that that isn't the case. "Fix my team, but leave me out of it" is the second most common conversation stopper we hear. (The most common conversation stopper is "we need you to find us some rock stars and ninjas, but we're not interested in looking at our recruiting process.")

When an organization (a company, a government agency, a not-for-profit or any entity) decides to follow the human workplace path, they start by telling the truth about the human and inhuman issues swirling around them. They talk about what's going well and what's crashing and burning. They talk about energy, and notice where the energy is moving fast and where it's blocked and dammed up.

They take responsibility for their piece of the puzzle. They don't believe that being a leader means being divorced from the action.

They acknowledge that the only thing that powers their ideas, their product features, their newsletters, their inventory turns and their investor-pleasing numbers are the good ideas and good will of their employees, contractors, vendors and customers.

No one in the community is left out of that circle.

When we transactionalize the relationships around us such that we forget that the other people in the mix are people first and whatever else they are (customers, bankers, employees or job seekers, for instance) second, we destroy our chance of building a human workplace. When we start with the premise that we are fine ourselves and therefore would only ever dream of surrounding ourselves with other fine, smart, funny, creative and whole people, we begin to build a human workplace in our own shop and in the working world in general.

It is a very easy thing to do, but you have to shed old ideas to do it. You have to give up the idea that the boss is righter than anyone else. You have to let go of the notion that because you pay someone, you control him or her. It is a strange and twisted idea that when we pay a person for his or her services, we also get to (or would even want to) control that person's connection to the power source, to the fount of creativity. We don't tell the miller how to mill the flour (if we dealt with millers, that is). Why would things be any different in the case of our database administrator? If we don't trust a person to do his or her job, why did we hire that person?

We can build a human workplace when we notice and emphasize trust over fear, and when we practice giving up control. Leaders who understand that people connected to their power source will always bring more, deliver more, think bigger, have sparkier ideas and create more exciting results will win. But leaders who dwell in the realm of policies and restrictions, protocols and red tape and controls in the vain hope that those things will keep them safe from their nameless fear that some horrible thing might happen? Those guys always fail.

My old boss, Jon Zakin, used to say, "You can't save your way to greatness." Nor can you administer your way to greatness, or employee-handbook your way to greatness, or process-control your way there. Greatness comes when people attach to a vision and make it their own. There's no carrot and no stick that can produce that spark and that voltage.

You build a human workplace by gently, continually breaking down the barriers that keep people from connecting to their work and thereby keep them from giving a shit about your yardsticks and your gold stars. In our company we have a name for the edifice of rules, controls, hierarchy and fear that blocks the energy in so many organizations right now. We call the edifice Godzilla, after the Blue Oyster Cult song. ("History shows again and again how nature points out the folly of men. Godzilla!")

We can break down Godzilla, bit by bit, with as much zeal as pursuing a new acquisition or a market segment. We only have to trust ourselves to trust the people we surround ourselves with, and to be human with them.

The CEO in the apocryphal story at the top of this piece isn't a bad guy, I'm sure. He just doesn't see his role in the soap opera of dysfunction that he brought into being. He wants things to change, but he wants the system to stay the same. That's not rational thinking, but we have trained ourselves to think irrationally in business, and, worse, to teach other people to do the same. It's not too late for that to change. It only takes remembering that we are humans, and no algorithm, edict or strategic plan can alter that.