The other day a friend of mine who also does executive coaching was telling me of how shocked she is by the number of her clients who are reporting that they are on the edge of burning out. From the outside, these people appear to be the epitome of success, prestigious jobs, big salaries, etc. But inside they feel so overwhelmed that they are about to collapse. This is a growing problem. Chances are high that it's affecting you or someone you know.
In his recently released book, Dying for a Paycheck, Jeffrey Pfeffer, professor of organizational behavior at Stanford’s B-School, makes the case that the majority of today’s workplaces have become in his words, “Shockingly inhumane.” “I want this to be the Silent Spring of workplace health,” says Pfeffer, “We are harming both company performance and individual well-being, and this needs to be the clarion call for us to stop. There is too much damage being done.” An estimated 75% of healthcare costs are directly attributable to stress at work. Worse, some jobs actually kill people. Recall the stories of workers at Foxconn committing suicide that made headlines not long ago. In France, the telecom giant Orange saw a rash of employee suicides in recent years and there were calls for some of their executives to stand trial for harassment. The Japanese have coined the word Karōshi, which means death from overwork. Karōshi is now prevalent in Japan, China, and South Korea. The social and emotional costs of our inhumane workplaces – which, thanks to a skewed accounting system – do not show up on a balance sheet anywhere, are staggering. It is no exaggeration to say that in the world of business and industry, there is an epidemic raging that is destroying the lives of the people who work inside of it.
“We are harming both company performance and individual well-being, and this needs to be the clarion call for us to stop. There is too much damage being done.”
Although the picture looks grim, we need to be careful about where we put our attention. One thing I have learned in over 30 years of facilitation is that whatever you ask a group to focus on will become magnified by their attention. People grow in the direction of the questions that they ask. If we only look at the inhumane state of our workplaces and the devastation being caused at both the human and ecosystem levels, then the picture is bleak indeed. However, there is tremendous evidence that things are changing for the better, but this tends to be underreported.
One of the most critical skills needed to bring about more humane workplaces is the ability to be in generative conversations. By generative, I mean the kind of conversations where the status quo is challenged, where people ask deep and powerful questions about what they are doing and why they are doing it. And if they find themselves inside of a dehumanizing situation, they can undertake to plot a course to create something better. In such conversations, people are likely to have diverse views and lots of passion – meaning that things may become heated and messy. Strong disagreements may arise and voices might rise with them. However, the container in which these conversations are held is strengthened by respect and care and held in the service of finding solutions that work for all concerned. If those of us who are working to re-humanize the workplace are to be successful, we will need some skills and competence in bringing together people in what are oftentimes challenging conversations.
Our Collaborative Conversations and Mindful Body workshops provide a solid grounding in those skills. People who have been exposed to this work consistently report that they find themselves able to listen more deeply to others, to stay curious about views that are different from their own, and to establish connections with other people that are rewarding. They leave with a model that helps them to tame complexity, giving them a framework upon which to hang things as they attempt to make sense out of what is going on around them. They also report that they find themselves feeling more at home in their bodies.