We live in a machine world. Just look at the language we use in organizational contexts. We run organizations, or we at least determine how they are driven (product-driven, strategy-driven, data-driven, etc.). They are composed of parts that work together so that the whole will work better. We have a chain of command. We re-engineer our processes. We measure outputs. Even the terms we use for managing our people have a decidedly mechanical ring to them–human resource management, or the even less human term that is popular today–human capital management. Our organizations are meticulously divided into divisions, units, teams, and product lines because in machines, each part is distinct and knows its place.
But in the background, social media has collectively grown, expanded, and become more powerful than ANY company or organization out there. Social media actually played an important role in the revolutionary developments in Egypt and Iran, something nonprofits and governments had been working on for decades. Social media took our expectations about organizational success, impact, and metrics and blew them out of the water. But it’s not just the growth and the numbers that are important here. It’s not about followers and likes and now (perhaps) plus-ones. What is important is the way that social media achieved its phenomenal success.
Social media has succeeded by being more human.
Social media succeeded by abandoning the traditional mindset and assumptions of our machine-based organizations, and instead embracing ideas that are much more consistent with what it means to be human. In social media, relationships matter. So does trust. So do things like meaning, humor, transparency, authenticity, and creativity. Social media is built on the principle that control is a thing of the past, and that the results you get are not always the ones that you were seeking when you started. Those principles are much more aligned with what it means to be human, than with what makes machines work well. That is fundamentally why social media has been so explosive. We like being human. We can’t help it. When we get access to something that lets more of our humanity come out, we are drawn to it. That is why we are flocking to social media.
This has huge implications for our organizations and businesses. First, it explains why our organizations are struggling so mightily with social media adoption. How many of you out there are trying to get social media to work in your business, but are hitting snags like different departments all trying to “own” the social media initiatives, or stalled projects because employees at all levels do not feel empowered to participate in the staff social media activities? Maybe you or your colleagues are having a hard time really being yourself fully or sharing openly information from within the organization. Does any of that sound familiar? Even the companies today that are leveraging social media effectively had to push through challenges like those to get where they are now. And to do that, these organizations had to learn how to be more human.
That is actually the most important implication of social media. Learning how to be human could very well be the hidden gem in this social media revolution. At least that’s what Jamie Notter and I argue in our new book, Humanize: How People-Centric Organizations Succeed in a Social World. We used our experience in the realms of both social media and leadership to develop a simple framework for humanizing our organizations.
The framework is organized around four elements of the human organization:
Being open, trustworthy, generative, and courageous are critical to our growth as human beings.
Open, obviously, is the opposite of closed, and our machine-oriented organizations have traditionally been very closed. Control was centralized and concentrated. Decision making was linear and limited. Responsibility was carefully defined. In short, our organizations don’t like options. They don’t like flexibility. They don’t like the inherent openness of an organic system. It’s viewed as messy and inefficient. Open organizations take a different approach. They push the limits on a decentralized culture. It’s not that all hierarchy is dismissed, but open organizations understand the value of a flat hierarchy that enables more action. They also understand the nuances of systems thinking and apply it in all of their internal processes. Open organizations understand that doing something in one part of the system almost always impacts others in the system, even when it is not immediately visible, and they manage their processes accordingly. Open organizations also understand how to develop true ownership behavior in all their employees—not “I’m the owner so I’m in charge” behavior. We mean people taking the right action at the right time in order to solve problems.
Trust is one of those motherhood and apple pie terms that everyone endorses publicly, but does not always live up to where the rubber meets the road. In traditional organizations, information is rarely shared freely. Instead, it is contained or “spun” by marketing or management in order to deliver the right messages. This creates a default assumption that we cannot necessarily trust what we hear. What’s real and what is a façade has become so impossible to discern that many no longer try. Trustworthy organizations take a different approach. They embrace transparency in their culture. They share things strategically, creating a “transparency architecture” that makes sure information flows across boundaries and up and down levels. They actually alter their core processes to ensure that more people speak more truth in all of their conversations. And they embrace authentic behavior, even if it doesn’t match our pre-disposed notions of brand consistency. Trustworthy organizations allow their employees to be themselves fully.
Generative refers to the basic human need to create new things and to grow and develop. This is another one that you would think would receive universal support in our organizations—the alternative, after all, is stagnation. But being generative is a bit scary to traditional organizations. In the machine world, you don’t look for generative. You look for repeatable, efficient, and consistent. You require approval before anything new is generated. You don’t want the boat rocked. That is not how social media has grown, and human organizations understand this. To be generative, they start by being inclusive. Cultures based on inclusion create the conditions for creativity and innovation, which are at the heart of being generative. Generative organizations also build processes that maximize collaboration and they make sure their people have core skills in relationship building.
We saved courageous for last because, frankly, the problem of fear in organizations is arguably our biggest challenge. Fear rules in our machine-based organizations. When we encounter dysfunction in our organizations, it can almost always be traced back to fear, and when we create structures and design processes, they are frequently only work-arounds to our fear, creating a kind of synthetic courage that unfortunately enables an unhealthy avoidance of the problem. That is why people-centric organizations don’t settle for work-arounds—they are actually courageous instead. And courage starts with learning. Human organizations will have cultures that value learning—and that’s above egos, quick answers, and sound bites. They figure out how to bake experimentation into all their processes so healthy risk taking can become the rule rather than the exception. And they are not afraid when their employees develop personally, because at the root of organizational courage are people who are growing and changing.
So what does this all mean for business? It means we need to change. When we create more human organizations, problems get solved. Action gets taken. Innovation becomes a reality rather than an intention. For a long time we have been crying out for better “leadership,” prompting the creation of a slew of training programs, educational sessions, and gurus for hire. It took social media to shine the light on some counter-intuitive truth: that leadership is a system capacity, rather than only an individual skill, and that when we intentionally create systems organized around what makes us human, we amplify leadership in ways that generate the results we have been hoping for. And if it’s a system capacity, that means YOU can do something to make a change. Our book will help, but the buck stops with you.