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On May 20-21st, a small group of people from various arms of the coaching and consulting world, private and government sectors, authors and artists, from U.S. and abroad, converged to enter a conversation. We gathered around the question: "What is a humanly sustainable organization, and how do we bring this concern and conversation into the corporate mainstream?"

What resulted was a series of lively discussions on topics declared by the participants, conducted in the "open space" format. By the end of the two days, several themes had emerged, and participants were left, not at the end of a conversation they had finished, but instead, at the beginning of a conversation they had started. Participants unanimously reported an intention to continue this conversation, in their work and in their lives.

The themes that emerged in the discussions were frequently familiar. What seemed important was that these themes, about values and the value of human beings, were central to our discussions, and that they formed the heart of the illustrations and anecdotes of what goes well and not-so-well in organizations.


What is a Narrative?

A narrative, for our purposes, is a set of statements that form an assertion about the nature of the world. Narratives are grounded in belief and emotion. Facts, evidence and anecdotes are brought to bear in support of them, but in most cases a narrative will prove resistant to rational or factual argument.

The background narrative of what kind of place the world is, and what people are like, is a critical factor in shaping organizational policy, the mood of the organization, and the approach to controls and governance within the organization and community of customers and vendors.

The narrative we found most attractive asserts that a Humanly Sustainable Organization is one in which the validity of people in organizations, and the value of increasing human capability is attended to. This point of view is expressed in claims about the fundamental nature of the world, and in the way people relate to organizations.

What Are Humanly Sustainable Narratives?

World Narrative: What Kind of World Do We Live In?

A humanly sustainable narrative about the way the world is, holds that the world is a neutral or even nurturing environment; value will be recognized, and there is a place for everyone to grow and flourish.

This is contrasted with the view that the world is a threatening place. Both people and organizations must struggle and fight to survive. In business, competition is relentless and ruthless. Every business seeks to dominate its market by eliminating its competitors. There is not common ground for cooperation with other organizations unless cooperation is seen as producing a competitive advantage.

Staff Narrative: What Is The Nature Of People At Work?

A humanly sustainable narrative is that people want to work and contribute, belong and be trusted. It is seen as an unusual exception when someone steals, lies or lacks integrity. The breakdown in trust, rather than the breakdown in controls, is considered to be the issue at hand when an individual behaves in an untrustworthy manner.

The contrasting view holds that people are naturally lazy, work only for money, can't be trusted, must be made to work and must be watched like wayward children. They do as little work for as much money as they can demand. In many cases they deliberately frustrate the efforts of executives and managers to carry out reforms. In most cases, change must be imposed on an unwilling workforce.

Success Narrative: What Is The Nature Of Success?

A humanly sustainable narrative holds that success includes more than strictly financial measures. Organizations cannot flourish in the long run unless they attend to their customers, suppliers, the people who work in them, and their effect on the world. Community-based agencies and governments use money and other resources to meet the needs and desires of clients, communities and citizens.

Maximizing profitability (in the private sector) at the expense of other values is seen as being toxic to people involved with the organization, and ultimately to the health of the organization itself.

In contrast, there is a narrative that holds profit as the only meaningful measure of success. In this view, all other measures are subordinate, and in most cases they are irrelevant.

What Is The Purpose Of A Business or Government Institution?

The purpose of an organization, in a sustainable view, is to produce goods and services that are of genuine benefit to customers and clients. The contrasting narrative holds that the sole purpose of business is to produce the greatest possible return for its shareholders, and that all else is distantly subordinate.

What Is An Organization?

An organization is a durable web of relationships between human beings that converts resources into action and outcomes. The most valuable thing an organization has is the goodwill and network of relationships between the employees, owners, suppliers and customers and the "wisdom lines" that are created over time. Technology changes, products and services change, competition and distribution are in a constant process of change. The relationships and teamwork between the people in an agency or enterprise is where these changes are met successfully - or not.

What Are Humanly Sustainable Values?

Organizations that adopt the narrative that people want to work and contribute, couple that with values that honor people. Specifically:

Workers, owners, and customers have bodies that need sleep, exercise, and healthy working conditions. That is contrasted with organizations that point proudly to 60 and 80 hour work weeks as demonstrations of loyalty to the organization.

When people's dignity is respected, they take pride in their work. In an organization where people's sense of value is a priority, errors are forgiven. Candid feedback, encouragement and support in the direction of learning and positive change are expressed with respect for the individual.

Organizations that use fear, guilt and embarrassment as motivators suffer evident and hidden damage. Energy bleeds out of the organization in whatever coping mechanism is brought to bear on the perceived assault. When people are afraid, they protect themselves, reducing and editing communications. They can become angry and covertly vengeful, careless or depressed. Quality suffers - when people are angry or afraid, they are not effective, not able to learn, not able to stay connected to the "big picture" or explore possibilities.

Humanly sustainable organizations are engaged in the process of finding and building cooperative, inclusive, interactive teams within the organization. Humanly sustainable organizations think of themselves as constellations of linked teams.

The need for social and technical diversity is recognized within a humanly sustainable organization. Embracing diversity and its contribution to tolerance for what is different or strange, becomes an ongoing practice in accepting new ideas and narratives. Diversity brings new ways of thinking, new language, and new flavors of relationship to an organization. It also is a constant reminder to notice and test background assumptions, to learn to be flexible in our approach. The valuing of diversity builds the capacity to see and hear individuals, and to value individual joy and pride in work well done.

Approach to Change:
Change was discussed as both a threatening disruption and a natural state of affairs that cannot be avoided. Change in organizations creates a scenario where people become beginners in some facet of their work. The capacity of the individual to deal openly and skillfully with this typically uncomfortable stance, and the capacity of the organization to respond to mistakes with equanimity vs. blame, is a crucial element in successful change.

Approach to Growth:
Sustainability implies longevity. It does not necessarily imply immortality. Growth should be nurtured. Excessively rapid growth, typically requiring extended concurrent periods of intense activity without recovery cycles, is seen as being potentially harmful to the organization "Boom and bust" cycles are especially damaging.


Differences in Change Strategies:
Those of us who want to encourage transitions to HSO's will have different strategies depending on which model we use. If change is a natural state of affairs, we are looking to give direction to a process that is underway; if it is a disruption, then we're looking, perhaps, for internal champions of a new way of approaching the work world and the will to make changes.

How to Encourage More HSO's:
Can we make a case on economic benefit - taking care of people pays off?
Can we quantify the investments in HR? (Day-care centers at the workplace)
Can we build a model?
Can we set up the equivalent of a Baldridge Award?
Can we look for a Nobel Prize on this (Economics? Literature?)
Can we do something like Stand and Deliver - media coverage?

What We Can Do:
Directions to go with this vary, based on who's speaking. There is a desire to do more research into this topic - is it a new distinction, a paradigm shift, a bandwagon? Some want to offer services to clients, helping them move in this direction. Some want to continue the conversation, seek to raise awareness, perhaps write a book or article.

Last Thoughts:
We expect to continue exploring and observing these themes, and to continue engaging with the question; "What is a humanly sustainable organization?" We invite you to join the conversation. Please write to us with your thoughts and comments, or request to join our online discussion group.

From one perspective- talk is cheap and we could take ourselves to be merely a group preaching to the choir on this subject. We would like to offer a different perspective. In view of how powerful background narratives are, one of the more powerful change agents in society is our narrative.

We see ourselves as starting/joining a conversation, which has the potential to begin to include many voices, including perhaps yours. Our intent is to ultimately affect the narrative of progressive business, of corporate life, in the direction of more effectively sustaining the human beings who work within them.

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.
Margaret Mead