Creating balanced human systems

“Connection is why we are here. It is what gives purpose and meaning to our lives” Brené Brown

There is so much talk currently of being human-centred and creating systems that allow people to thrive. We are constantly striving to figure out how to put humans back at the centre of the workplace, particularly as technology advances and generative AI changes the rules of the game for learning, communication, knowledge and intelligence, effectively impacting the way we think, act and interact – ‘the way we do things around here’. Yet when I look at the world at large, we are surrounded by examples of inhumanity that are driven by diametrically opposed behaviours, by fear, ego, and power. How can we use this observation as a basis for stepping into a different space and getting more intentional about the space we create for ourselves and others? This is true not only at work, but in all areas of our lives: at home with family, in communities, with friends and at work. It is about how we show up as humans, and how we intentionally thrive together.

The joy of connection

I often cast my mind back to when I was younger, listening to Tchaikovsky’s ‘Peter and the Wolf’ and enjoying the lighthearted and mischievous musical skips and jumps, before being invited up on stage to try out different instruments – what unbridled discovery, joy and curiosity! When I observe kids playing, I can’t help but notice the un-self-conscious creative joy that laughs out loud, that gets excited spontaneously, that isn’t scared of ‘looking silly’, that brings warmth and radiates connection. When did we learn that we had to always be right, that we had to know everything? When did we learn to be defensive and come from a place of fear and restriction to fit into what we need to ‘be successful’? While many believe that fear pushes people to excel at work, in truth, it actually narrows our cognition and constricts us. This in turn dampens our creativity and problem-solving abilities, making complex work even harder to navigate. The biggest challenge in managing complexity is managing yourself. What are your reactions to uncertain situations, what triggers you and how can you manage this?

When I think about the term ‘new normal’, I often think about the word balance. The task here is to take enough distance and understanding to create a different model, although effectively, as ever, we default to what we know: the ‘old normal’ if you like, but with a few additions to accommodate changes we can’t reverse. The new normal is just a way for the brain to frame things as they evolve, and we adapt to this ever-changing world. This always brings us back to the most difficult part of change: the adaptive challenges. I often use this to explain digital transformation, and the fact that we approach it from a technical or tool lens, when effectively, it is 90% adaptive in the challenges it poses to both leaders and organisations. Coming from a place of knowing is particularly dangerous when navigating a complex environment where things need to be given time and space to emerge, and we need to connect the dots – constantly.

Staying connected

All true learning has an emotional base. Emotion signals to our brain that something is relevant and important. Without an emotional connection, it is much less likely we will be able to either remember or change. Your ‘inner game of work’, which refers to the psychological and emotional aspects of your leadership, is the key to staying connected both with yourself and others. Empathy is often discussed in the context of understanding team members’ work-related challenges, but it also applies beyond the workplace, in caring about their personal well-being and life experiences and in listening, hearing and valuing them before connecting as parts of a bigger system.

Seeing systems and the interconnected dynamics of a system is key to understanding how to create balance, not only in your team but also as a way of being for the system. The ubiquitous constellation of I/We/Us, which characterises the organisational system in which we live and work, is powered by human connection. If we take the hypothesis that leadership is the capacity of a human community to shape its future, then systems can be viewed as the collective human capacity to create the conditions for flourishing and continued human connection. Although we are all different individual parts of a system, we have a communal need for connection and dignity. This is a subject I delve into regularly in my work with leaders and change makers, as we look to find more systemic ways of creating sustainable behavioural change that will allow more humanity in the workplace. Donna Hicks tells us in her work on dignity that there are three ‘Cs’: connection to your own dignity (Me), connection to others’ dignity (We), and connection to something bigger by contributing to the greater good (Us). We are the guardians of our own dignity and self-worth, which allows us then to connect to others’ dignity. So how can we use this in interactions with our teams and peers?

Leaders must understand that dignity is our highest common denominator and that dignity wounds are felt and experienced by the brain in the same way as physical injuries. Yet they are often implicitly allowed, and this is at once a very powerful message and a very persuasive argument. Both systemic and interpersonal acknowledgement is vital – organisations have an emotional infrastructure too and reconciliation requires the acknowledgement of suffering, even by a party other than the perpetrator. We need to acknowledge that we are worthy no matter what, and that we need the emotional infrastructure to ensure that we can survive negative experiences, atone for mistakes and recover from violation and violating others’ dignity. Humanity is a level playing field yet sadly shame and fear form the basis of much organisational culture, and there is not necessarily a place for emotions, vulnerability or compassion. Dignity skills are required to build a more balanced, fair and psychologically safe environment. Connecting with this can help leaders embrace how to create not only the conditions for a more inclusive workplace, but a whole new paradigm of empowerment. 

Connecting with others

Today, most processes, measures and corporate cultures talk about performance and high performing teams. High performing teams are automatically connected on various different levels: emotional, cognitive, business, etc. But how can we ensure that this becomes viral and that powerful coalitions of high performing teams emerge to form teams of teams? Talking about it like this makes it sound like a one-off activity, but it is anything but! It is a deliberate practice, it is discipline, it is hard, but it is fulfilling and purposeful as people connect to themselves, to others and to the greater good.

We know that relationships are the currency of systems, and that interdependence is key for survival in today’s fast evolving ecosystems. We need reciprocity, trust, empathy and humility to build partnerships, and scaling connection means scaling our skills for building deeper, more meaningful relationships and more interdependent skillsets. Our task is to span boundaries and emotions and lead across them; build respect, trust and collaboration; create commonality and powerful coalitions; and disrupt and transform through connecting different perspectives, different ideas and different ways of being and doing. Deliberately developmental organisations are designed to be cultures of practice, not performance. When we are practicing, we aren’t wasting energy trying to show what we know, or be right, or be the best, and we are not trying to hide our weaknesses and get it right first time because the person who knows most is the best placed to answer. Instead, we are focused on experimenting, learning, improving and connecting. We must be mindful that people will always revert to type in terms of trying to get comfortable and create more certainty, so watch out for the signs! There are behaviours that we get into when we are ‘figuring things out’ to come to the ‘right solution’: we are disconnected and isolated in our thinking; we are thinking and acting in silos and not across boundaries and teams; our rationale is binary, coming from linear mental models; and we are busy analysing details and not looking at the bigger picture. We need to do things with people and not for people, which is the biggest mindset shift of creating healthy ecosystems. In my recent podcast on this subject with Dr. David Dinwoodie and Jim Ritchie-Dunham (listen here), we explore this in a lot more detail. We discuss the need to connect with the idea of collaborative advantage, not competitive advantage, and that we can only solve critical issues in the world by collaborating and thinking expansively.

To facilitate organisational connection, we need to be CLEAR:

Clarify: define the purpose and vision for collective connection, confidence and commitment

Listen: focus intently on individuals, teams and, more importantly, on the whole system

Experience: concentrate on peoples’ lived experiences, emotions and feelings

Act: constantly come back to personal agency and accountability

Reflect: create developmental practice to regularly reflect on our learnings 

We must commit to creating connection as a common objective – connection with self as well as selfless connection with others. We must intentionally commit to connecting with our own dignity, other peoples’ dignity and the dignity of the greater good, which in turn will create a more inclusive culture where people can thrive. We must create the conditions for a more balanced system where fairness, curiosity, empathy and growth evolve into healthy collaboration as the hallmark of ‘how we do things around here’. If we intentionally create deliberate practice to continually enhance the emotional infrastructure of our systems, people will flourish, and business will thrive.

Thank you for reading.

If this resonates with you please share your thoughts in the comments, and subscribe for more thoughts on human systems. 

You can also find more subjects like this in my podcast, Let’s talk Transformation, available on Apple PodcastSpotify, and Google Podcast.

If you’re looking to build and lead agile ecosystems differently, check out our Human Systems Practitioner course :

Suzie Lewis

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