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The Radical Humanisation of the Workplace

I had the pleasure of spending Friday at my colleague Mykel Dixon’s Business Romantic 2017 event in Melbourne. This event was conceived as a contrast to the archetypical business conference with its jam-packed agenda of speakers, carefully curated to serve a central theme. The event title was drawn from the work of its featured speaker, Tim Leberecht. Its design was far from the careful curation of a singular message. The other facilitators (a better term than speaker in this context) were as diverse in message, style and delivery as they could possibility be – from poet to performance artist to entrepreneur. The progression of the day was more an exploration than an agenda. However, the shared purpose of the event was clear – the radical humanisation of the workplace.

I thought I would share an insight that I gained from this truly special gathering of like-minded – but far from identical – human beings.

Music, maestro

A few weeks ago, Myke and I had been discussing thought leadership and the impact to be made by bringing the best version of ourselves to our leadership. We used the musical analogy that much of what passes for leadership these days is the equivalent of a pop song. You know the ones… with a back beat that gets your foot tapping mindlessly and a catchy little hook that gets stuck in your head as if on a loop. There has even been research into these so-called ‘ear worms’ which found them to be ‘generic, with a common melody’.  Once one of these little ditties, designed to appeal to the masses, is stuck in your noodle it is notoriously difficult to get it out, even when you are well and truly sick of the sound of it.

We talked about the prospect of instead creating symphonies. Expressions of our thinking that have layers – that have depth. Compositions that don’t yield to the half-listener, that perhaps aren’t meant for everyone. Messages that have to be experienced at both an intellectual and emotional level to be fully appreciated. They require our attention – our time and energy. But once experienced in this way they have impact. They have the potential to become imprinted on our thinking and the way that we look at the world. Their messages are timeless and invite us to come back to them again and again. In their finest form, these are works that become part of the tapestry of thought with which we view and approach the world.

Clearly, the Business Romantic event was Mykel’s symphony. It didn’t follow the popular formula. It had layers and depth. It took risks and explored ideas where the outcome was uncertain. I have little doubt that this will not be Myke’s only symphony and, chances are, it will not even be his best.

But another idea grounded in music came out of this event for me. Through casual conversations with fellow Business Romantics that touched on 60s folk artists Dylan and Baez. During Groundswell director Jessie Williams’ moving story where she talked of the sounds of Joni Mitchell filling the room during the still-birth of her child. In the lovely rendition of a Paul Kelly song during David Leser’s talk about how music helped him find his more human self.

A medium for meaning and dreaming

I realised that there is a middle ground for us mere mortals – the folk song. The thinking that is melodic or polyrhythmic to give it nuance and depth rather than a mindless thump. A message that speaks to the human condition – our angst, our aspirations, our loves and losses. Its subtlety requires the listening ear and emotional intention to fully grasp the meaning and message. But its very human nature and simple truths makes it timeless – they allow the message to be a point of reference for the many or the personal. In the centuries-old folk tradition, once it is out in the world it now belongs to the people – to be interpreted and moulded, to be played and sung according to the times and circumstances.

My favourite artist at the moment is Mike Rosenberg – some of you may know him as Passenger. Mike describes himself as a simple folk singer. The chorus from one of his songs kept resonating with me as I reflected on the idea of radically humanising the workplace. It goes likes this:

If you can’t get what you love, then learn to love the things you’ve got.

If you can’t be who you want, then learn to be the things you’re not.

If you can’t get what you need, then learn to need the things that stop your dreaming.

If we are to radically humanise the workplace, we need to start loving the best of what our people have – valuing their uniqueness – and stop judging them on where they come up short. We need to engage that uniqueness in a way that they are motivated both individually and collectively to be who they are not – yet aspire to be. And, crucially, we need to do everything in our power to keep them dreaming.

The power in our people is not in making them more productive and efficient. The real organisational magic lies in our people’s dreams. The dreams that create truly exceptional workplaces and turn possibility into business reality. Dreams that draw customers to our door and delight them once they come inside.

If you want to bring your organisation and its people together in a powerful way, then look for ways to humanise your workplace. Don’t give them pop songs that they will barely hear then soon tire of and forget. Create your leadership symphony if you have the chops. But at a minimum, give them a melody that will move them and a message that has depth and meaning. Give them something to return to time and again that makes them feel good about who they are and what they can be.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the radical humanisation of the workplace – please leave a comment.
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