Capturing the Human Spirit

Many employees are cynical, apathetic, disillusioned with their work. This is a sad truth of the workplace.

What is also true, though, is that none of us want to feel that way about our employment. We would all rather be motivated than unmotivated, rather be fired up about the work we do than indifferent.

Given that human beings have a fundamental desire to be engaged at the level of the spirit, the question leaders must ask themselves is not Why aren’t these employees engaged? but What elements of my workplace culture are preventing them from being engaged?

We have previously explored how leaders can inadvertently create the very behaviors —hostility, insubordination, apathy, indifference, etc. — they most dislike in employees, through the unintended consequences of their own leadership actions and choices.

But I’m not a tyrant, many might think to themselves. I’m not a bully. I’m one of the nice guys.

This is likely true. We have found they majority of the leaders we have worked with to be sincere and well-meaning people.

Yet it is undeniable that leaders may praise employees’ accomplishments, ask after their families, and remember their birthdays, yet still hold mental models — say, that that employees will not work unless supplied with external reasons to do so — that generate counterproductive and even destructive workplace dynamics.

The crux of the issue, it can be seen, lies in the below-the-line mental models that leaders hold. Do they — do you, as a leader – believe that the average human being can find work a source of satisfaction? That most employees have the capacity to exercise a relatively high degree of imagination, ingenuity, and creativity in the solution of organizational problems? That even frontline employees seek a sense of meaning and accomplishment in their work?

Such questions are far from mere abstractions, for fundamental views about human nature determine, in large part, the culture any leader builds in his or her human system. And that, in turn, shapes the behaviors and choices of the employees functioning in that culture.

The base of knowledge about human behavior in the workplace is not new. And if truth be told, few of its principles are particularly surprising or revolutionary. Just as studies on diet and health regularly emphasize a few well-known concepts—eat more fruits and vegetables, get more exercise— findings on the health and effectiveness of human interactions have been remarkably consistent.

Rather than seeking new answers, then, it seems we would be far better served by holding the mirror up to our beliefs, and considering how closely they match the accumulated body of proven and dependable principles.

Put simply, reflecting on what we truly believe—our theories-in-use, not just our espoused theories—is imperative in capturing the human spirit and developing the human potential of those around us.

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