What are Human-Centered Organizations?

Group of multiracial and multi-generation people using app for video meeting online.

I thought I was going to cry. My new boss just informed me that she was changing my assignment. My new home base would be a field location an hour and a half drive from my home. Moreover, she was giving me a task that I thought was deeply unethical. I raised objections, but she shot me down. You can do this or you can quit, she told me.

I quit. I moved on to a job where I felt more supported by and aligned with my boss. I was lucky to find that job. In a recent webinar led by Donna Hicks, the writer of Dignity at Work, she shared that 80% of employees polled had identified the lack of psychological safety as a primary concern in their workplaces. They felt like they could not speak openly without risking retribution or ostracization.

Too often, people work jobs where they feel as if their opinions don’t matter. Where they’re not free to express themselves. Where they’re not valued as human beings, but simply seen as laborers chipping away at an overwhelming mountain of work.

More and more organizations are finding this situation to be untenable. Over the last 15 years, interest in human-centered organizations has been rising. Professor Georges (Sjoerd) Romme of Eindhoven University in the Netherlands and I recently reviewed thinking about human-centered organizations and published the results in Humanistic Management Journal. The free article can be downloaded here: https://doi.org/10.1007/s41463-024-00168-w

The Five Elements of Human-Centered Organizations

Professor Romme and I discovered five elements that characterize human-centered organizations (HCOs). I’ll explain each element briefly here and I’ll take a deeper dive in posts to come.

Common Good Purpose

Human-centered organizations exist to fill a need, solve a problem, or improve the world. Money is important since organizations can’t operate without cash flow, but it’s not the reason for an HCO’s existence. Patagonia and Bombas are often cited as models of common good purpose. They make a profit, but not at the expense of their values.

Humanistic Values

Human-centered organizations support the innate dignity of people who work within and around the organization. Companies like Barry-Wehmiller believe in the importance of human well-being and justice. They see people as whole human beings, not simply a means to an end. Finally, they take the countercultural approach of treating people with care and kindness. This practice does not translate into a lack of accountability. For example, at the e-learning company Sweet Rush, kindness means marrying care with directness so employees know where they stand, what they’re doing well, and what they need to improve.

Positive Human Experiences

Human-centered organizations create cultures in which people thrive. They seek to support employee connections and help employees feel valued. Work is structured so that it brings meaning. It’s not simply routine, assembly-line work, even in organizations where assembly lines could be used. (See Morning Star and Volvo’s Udavalla plant for examples.) Employees are seen as capable, resourceful, problem-solving learners.

Team Structures

Human-centered organizations tend to employ structures in which teams have ownership of their work. They’re semi-autonomous and make decisions within their domain. WL Gore has pioneered this method for decades while newer company Zappos uses the newer holocratic approach.

Participatory Practices and Tools

In a departure from command-and-control cultures, HCOs believe in the value of participation. They engage people in thinking, solving problems, imagining, innovating, and testing together. The goal is to employ the deep wisdom and knowledge within the workforce in the interest of the common good purpose. IBM and IDEO, for example, have baked participatory practices into their DNA by using human-centered design techniques to engage those served into looking beneath the surface to address the causes of vexing challenges.

In what way does your workplace fit the profile of a human-centered organization? Perhaps your organization has a common good purpose, but struggles to treat people with dignity. Maybe you’re organized into teams, but the work doesn’t seem meaningful. The good news is that organizations can change and become more human-centered.

I’ll explore the issue of becoming human-centered and the five aspects of human-centered organizations in future posts. In the meantime, check out the Humanistic Management Journal article: https://doi.org/10.1007/s41463-024-00168-w

Is your strategy stuck in the 20th century?

Image of "Is Your Strategy Stuck in 20th Century"

Sign up to receive the two-document Strategic Resilience set and join our low volume list.

We’ll never share your information with anyone. Period.

* - required