Company vs. Humans: Is that even a thing?
Some thoughts on how modern companies work and what’s the actual impact of each individual’s behavior.
The TL;DR version of this story is that a company’s behavior is heavily affected by individual humans with all the humane behavioral benefits and flaws. Instead of fighting the “human flaws” of a company, we should embrace them, and work on improving them.
Phew! Having said that let’s move on to the reasoning thoughts to back up this claim!
“I’m working in a company”
Yes, that’s the starting phrase I’ll be using! That phrase reflects how we all start talking about the place we work in for a big chunk of our weekday life. Working in a company, usually means that we have to interact and collaborate with colleagues and customers, generate new work items (through development, reporting, the creation of new products, promotion), and generally create more value for the place we work for, called the company.
After using that starting phrase, for example when talking with our friends, we continue by stating either what we do for that “company” or an incident that happened while working for the “company”, “I’m working in a company where we do X, and today this thing happened….”. It’s almost like we are describing a separate entity/individual that thinks and acts on her own.
Repeating this statement enhances this entity and what we are expecting to get from “the company”. We usually add enough abstraction layers so that “the company” is not people we already know and collaborate with daily, either colleagues or our manager or people from other departments that we talk to daily.
Additionally, we are accustomed to these abstractions by other companies, making it easier to have a separate “the company” individual in mind when talking about a product or service delivered. Like Yuval Noah Harari shares in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind:
- “If all employees and management of Peugeot resign tomorrow will Peugeot cease to exist?”
- or “If an employee in the assembly line of Peugeot makes a mistake and your car is problematic, do you blame Peugeot or ‘dat employee in the assembly line’?”
It’s like Peugeot in the above example exists on her own, it’s a distinct individual, defined outside of the scope of all people working in the company.
That individual called “the company”
So, having created this individual called “company”, we do have certain expectations for our relationship:
- Offer stability, so that we do know some things will be there and will keep working the way they should. The company should be there to withstand any changes coming from the outside or the inside, she should persevere!
- Has defined processes, that will help in addressing the majority of incoming work and collaboration, as well as some of the unknowns that may land on the company’s direction.
- Offer safety, to her employees and their work so that they can be productive and keep adding value! Having stability and processes enhances the feeling of safety.
- Be rational, in how decisions and actions are taken. Since there are processes in place, she should always act according to these processes and be predictable for her employees. Being rational creates a safer environment for people working for the company.
- Offer growth opportunities to all individuals working for the company! This way all people can feel the impact that their work has on her (company) growth too and be able to grow along in that journey!
- Offer even more processes and functions, as the needs of the people working in the company, do defer, vary, grow along with the team’s size! Knowing that your needs and uncertainties will be heard and covered when they are not already in place, offers additional safety and stability!
Also, we do expect that all the above relationship traits will be followed consistently and professionally by “the company”. Although we do identify a separate entity for the “company” and we do think of specific characteristics that this entity should have, we do recognize that it’s not a human we are talking about, but it’s “the company” instead.
That is an organism with the ability to be consistent and precise in all the interactions with external triggers (like the industry in focus, economic factors, customers, VUCA related events) and internal triggers (like employees working for the company, internal structure changes, or internal processes). Essentially, “the company” organism has inherited specific human characteristics, the good ones, but not the whole package, again mainly the bad ones.
The individual called “errr… just me working for a company”
With “the company” side of the relationship covered above, let us see what mine and your contribution (actual humans) to the relationship should be. Well, for a relationship to be stable both sides should contribute equally. This means that we should look after our cut of the pie!
We’ll simply take the bullets shared above and see how good they apply for us, the humans, in the relationship:
- Offer stability, well mostly yes! We know that we humans do have certain traits to have a stable response to triggers, yet our decisions can be quite different based on the situation. Our own mind is playing tricks on us depending on the situation.
- Use processes, well again, mostly yes! We can be very thorough following steps, yet again we cannot guarantee that 100% of the time we will follow the exact same process or how fast we will adopt a new process that is introduced to our workflow.
- Like feeling safe, meaning that we do appreciate safety when it is offered to us, and (flipping the safety coin) we do become more unstable and problems are escalated when we feel unsafe. The way we manage our safety affects our colleagues as well. The literature around building and cultivating safety is quite long validating the importance of personal safety (check Google’s re:Work framework, or EU’s guidelines)
- Be rational, again mostly yes! We clearly have this intend to be rational, but real-time situations come into play that may drive decision-making a bit off. Researchers are examining ways to enhance rational decisions with inherent/intuition knowledge but the final implementation of a complex system lies again on our hands and minds that are flawed.
- In general, we do like growth and learning. This is mostly true, as there are cases where people prefer to perform on conquered knowledge with no desire to grow, while there are other people that thrive and welcome growth. These are people described as “rock stars” or “superstars” in Radical Candor.
As we can already see, our perception and expectations from real, actual people cannot be on the standards expected from “the company”. Moreover, we do have some more traits to bring in the relationship that a non-human entity cannot have. Those are:
✅ Creativity, on how we, humans, approach a problem and investigate for a solution. In addition, we are good at defining a problem out of thin air and then solve it.
✅ Connecting the dots is the ability to connect seemingly unconnected knowledge into producing a more solid solution. The innovation introduced by this human process is unique.
✅ Our ability to think further than what the presented data and processes cover helps us create and adapt better in certain situations.
✅ Being empathetic can help in understanding better certain situations and define a better solution than what the norm would suggest.
✅ Our ability to learn helps us enhance our approaches and be open to new ways of doing things or evaluating our processes.
🛑 Be forgetful, due to our limited and selective memory. We tend to favor and amplify recent knowledge than more historical cases, in essence making us more biased towards the present.
🛑 Being empathetic can hinder our ability to judge and make a decision as much as it can help us understand a situation. We do not control our ability to empathize and can easily lean towards a wrong decision.
🛑 Being stubborn and fixed on a decision or opinion can drive us in the wrong direction.
🛑 Being stressed is affecting our performance and decision-making and we can all recall situations where we retrospectively identify a wrong decision made purely because of stress.
“As humans, we are a collection of all the above characteristics! Being human means all of the above and we cannot choose the ones we simply like the most!”
If you, the reader, are to keep one thing from this article I urge you to be that all the above characteristics are referring to BOTH you and ALL your colleagues, managers, teams, CEO, and board of directors! Please don’t forget that, as all positions in a company are covered by living, breathing humans holding all the characteristics that make a human excellent and flawed at the same time!
The individuals that define a company
Having covered all the above, I would like to question the existence of a “company” entity that behaves and acts on its own. The company is a collection of humans working and acting on their level of expertise and knowledge. Any change introduced in a company is not defined or dictated by “the company”, instead there is a group of people that speak and act on it spreading the word to the whole company, or (pun intended) “company-wide”. In consequence, any error or wrong decision is an act of a person or group doing the best at “being humans”, having all the traits of a human as shared above.
Like Kim Scott shared in Radical Candor:
“Your entire working life you’ve been told to be professional. Too often, that’s code for leaving your humanity at home. To build strong relationships, you have to Care Personally.”
“OK Mike, what that means? Are you saying we simply should swallow any wrong-doings and be forgiving on the individuals without blaming ‘the company’?”
Well no, no way! What I’m saying is do your best to spread the word and acknowledge that human behavior is responsible for decision-making and actions, not a company. And like you and me, all human beings are bound to their nature, holding both good and bad traits that affect their behavior.
When you reach a point that you acknowledge this truth, you can start talking more openly and candidly with each other.
So the first step to this transition is acknowledgment. This realization is NOT a one-man’s task! The more people realize how much they affect where the ship is going the more empathetic and visible the thesis of “we all drive this!” will be. A good starting point to do that is always yourself and then your direct teammates. I recall myself saying “well when you say ‘the company’ in this context you mean department YYYY,… c’mon! That’s Mary and Paul we’re talking about! We can clearly talk to them to see what they had in mind!”, or “What if ‘the company’ doesn’t have an answer on that already? That’s your opportunity to make this move forward!!”. The dynamics of such behaviors are usually that strong and positive where the final outcome is too obvious to go unnoticed!
I believe right after acknowledgment comes respect. Knowing that we are all human in nature, you should respect your colleagues and people working in your company. This is a hard thing to do and you should try expressing it in all your interactions. Everyone has all the human traits and characteristics, their intention is not to hinder you but at certain times they do feel stressed, offended, and defensive this is not who they are! You can also show respect by being empathetic of other people's situations and be vocal about it! I recall sharing with colleagues how much I appreciate their work trying to accommodate me and my understanding and support when they fail to do so, or understanding that “it’s too late in the noon for you and you’ve started early today! We’ll talk about this tomorrow!”.
Past acknowledgment and respect, I would say ego is the next fortress that needs to fall, after all being human means that you do err and that’s within your nature. Having acknowledged your human traits means that you have also embraced the possibility of being wrong. There is a fine line that needs to maintained here and that is to not mix the intention of your action with the final outcome of your action. Ownership of a flawed outcome rests on you, but the intention was to create a positive outcome for everyone in the company! Leading by example can have a great impact on everyone, so again you can be the starting point! I try to do that but it’s not happening that often, I do recall sharing to my colleagues' phrases like “I was wrong in deep diving in that direction as it was a rabbit-hole. I should be very mindful the next time! Please do ping me if you see me do that!”, or “I’ve realized that as a team we do like/embrace ‘the new’ and forget ‘the now running’ ending up with tons of work to do and feeling stressed! How could we address that?”.
I’m currently at the point of working my ego, so it is hard for me to see past that! What I’ve seen teammates do that I aspire to work towards to are:
- Being candid in all interactions. I saw that happening once and it was mind-blowing! “I’m currently feeling really pressed by this discussion, like standing pinned on the wall. I don’t feel that I can offer my best moving forward, could we reschedule so that we all get the space needed to think this through?”
- Providing space for people to realize, think, and act on items. There are things that I know, more accurately I DO KNOW, and I tend to jump in and share my opinion which is then considered as “THE way to go” by people. Despite all my good Intentions, I’m blocking people from working towards a solution on their own and maybe ending up in a different/better outcome than the one I shared. Again, I’ve seen this happening with other people in my company and I feel grateful standing on the learner’s side.
I’m sure there are a ton more steps and things we can do to improve the way we work together, so please share your thoughts or any aspiring article or book that covers the subject — I’m really interested! In my opinion, the most important thing is to acknowledge and act in the direction of being more humane in our interactions and expectations!
All people working in a company share a common goal and mean no bad to one another! Never forget that we are all humans!