Humane Organisations: Four steps to creating a great culture

culture perspectives Sep 28, 2016

In our research on cultures, we intimately explore what organisations and people view as a great culture to work in. One key attribute that was highlighted through all the organisations we researched revolves around creating more humane organisations.

The dictionary definition of humane is “showing kindness, care or sympathy towards others, especially those who are suffering”. Some of the ways to create more humane organisations are breaking down silos, being more transparent, being authentic, and creating a ‘safe to fail’ environment. That is, creating a space where it is safe to be oneself in all one’s glory and failings, as well as having a clear purpose for doing so.

Much of the suffering we hear about in organisations relates to the following themes:

  • Lack of care or support (being viewed as a resource rather than a person)
  • Fear of being oneself/authentic
  • Fear of making a mistake
  • Lack of purpose

Not sure where to begin? Here are our four key steps to creating a more humane culture:


1. Humane cultures exist because of genuine care for people

In a humane organisation, care for people is not an initiative or a project facilitated by wellbeing programs or flexible working hours. The care is genuine and goes beyond being “nice” to caring about the development of each person. They are more about meaningful work than easy work. Feedback is the norm; it is received and given with gratitude and positive intent. There is an understanding that organisational potential and human potential go hand in hand.


2. Humane cultures allow and encourage a high level of authenticity

In Kegan and Lahey’s An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organisation the authors remark that in less humane organisations, “nearly everyone is doing a second job that no-one is paying them for – namely, covering their weaknesses, trying to look their best and managing other people’s impressions of them.”

In organisations where the development of each human is the objective, there is no need for the second job as exposing weaknesses is authentically celebrated. Humans are allowed to make mistakes, have bad days, be human, need support.

In creating safe space for authenticity, it’s also safe to challenge ways things are done, seek new alternatives and talk about the organisation’s challenges openly. This supports innovative solutions being a part of everyday conversations and the language of complaint turning into the language of responsibility.


3. Collective Responsibility

 In humane cultures, people involved in projects or decision-making have shared responsibility for decisions, actions and results – both positive and negative. Many of the mindsets and behaviours that erode humane cultures such as blame, looking after one’s own goals and objectives over collective goals and objectives, and short-term thinking can be remedied by collective responsibility.

Collective intelligence is the ability of a group of people to solve a complex problem that cannot be solved by a single person. This requires the group to work productively with conflict and embrace multiple perspectives. This is very different to groupthink where collaboration is espoused, yet in practice it is not psychologically safe for disagreement to occur.

Google research through “Project Aristotle” on how to create the perfect team highlights psychological safety as critical in developing collective intelligence. Members in good teams speak in roughly the same proportion to one another and are good at interpreting each other’s feelings based on non-verbal cues.

In Lencioni’s work on high-performing teams, the ability to be vulnerable and trust each other is the foundation stone for high performance. In teams with high levels of trust it’s ok for anyone, including the manager, to say things like, “I don’t know” or “I think we can do better” without feeling judged or criticised.


4. Purpose and Clear Direction

Purpose and clear direction are also referenced in the Google research on teams. As well as psychological safety, three other key dynamics of successful teams identified are:

  • Structure and clarity: Are the goals, roles, and execution plans of our team clear?
  • Meaning of the work: Are we working on something that is personally important for each of us?
  • Impact of work: Do we fundamentally believe that the work we’re doing matters?

A clear sense of purpose allows us to find a way through change and ambiguity, supporting more adaptive ways of working.



As conditions are created in a culture to mitigate types of suffering, an extraordinary amount of passion, meaning and energy can be liberated for moving the organisation forward. This is the most important turning point we have seen in organisations that become more sustainably successful.

In a coming article, we will take you deeper into what creates humane cultures by exploring how to create a culture of learning – creating a learning organisation vs organisational learning.

Want to learn more about creating an adaptive culture at your workplace? Come along to one of our workshops in Melbourne or Sydney.

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