The Potential of ‘Human Magic’ in the Workplace


by Gael O’Brien

The vulnerability exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic refocuses not just how work is done but how those doing it are feeling and being valued. Executives have learned enough about their employees during the pandemic to realize change is needed.

People and performance are inextricably tied. Remarkably, as burnout rates have increased, performance has generally held steady. A June 2021 Gallup study indicates U.S. workers are among the most stressed in the world. Benefits have increased but there’s been scant progress raising wages for those making less than $15 an hour.

The question is, what kind of work environment will companies commit to?

What if root changes in what drives a work environment are being seeded in a growing number of companies? Skeptics would say it’s a short-lived response to massive employee resignations: a total of 10.9 million at the end of July 2021. with more predicted. Others would point out, as did Edelman’s US CEO Lisa Osborne Ross: “It’s beyond clear that a company’s most important stakeholder is its employees.

Unleashing human magic 

The good news is that many leaders, letting go of what was normal, are rethinking what the spirit of their workplace can be. By their choices, they’ll decide just how important employees are. It’s time for the workplace spirit to set employees up for success, learning from them what will support their excelling in their jobs.

Leaders are rethinking the workplace, but they may not be thinking yet about creating an atmosphere where a key marker would be how employees can flourish. If leaders take up that marker and incorporate it into their company’s DNA, it could enable employees in corporate and remote offices to share making the “possible” happen. Success would become more sustainable when the company flourishes (because its employees are flourishing) and the work environment could be transformed.

Consider, for example, Best Buy, where former chairman and CEO Hubert Joly credits “human magic” with “creating an environment in which individuals flourish.” In his new book, The Heart of Business: Leadership Principles for the Next Era of Capitalism, Joly explains: “…when people are doing what matters to them and what they believe in, they will walk through walls, pouring their energy, creativity and emotions into the job.”

Joly writes that purpose and human connection are at the heart of business. The company’s turnaround was fueled, he believes, by the environment created by five key ingredients:

  • Connecting the company’s purpose with employees’ own search for meaning;
  • Developing authentic human connection – how leaders make others feel, creating a safe, inclusive, engaged, effective, purposeful environment to support performance;
  • Fostering autonomy – the motivation of having more creativity, control, participatory process and agility;
  • Growing Mastery; and
  • Nurturing a growth environment.

Companies can adapt these ingredients or identify their own if they pursue “unleashing human magic.” Integrating into the spirit of workplaces what’s involved in supporting flourishing will make a visible change.

When talking about numbers, the synonym of “flourish” is “prosper” – a critical outcome. However, when talking about people flourishing, it’s individuals’ energy that makes the numbers possible. It’s about tapping into a period of highest productivity, excellence and state of flow, if there is a conducive climate.

Finding Flow

Wharton Psychology professor Adam Grant gave a recent TED Talk on “flow,” identifying three conditions that support it:

  • Mastery: “Psychologists find that at work,” said Grant, “the strongest factor in daily motivation and joy is a sense of progress…. how our projects are going today…” Accomplishments can be small or big wins.
  • Mindfulness: Focusing one’s full attention on a single task has been very hard during the pandemic so Grant suggested setting better boundaries. He cited a Fortune 500 company that tested a “quiet time policy” in one area with no interruptions three mornings a week. Productivity soared so it became a policy.
  • Mattering: “Knowing that you make a difference to other people.”

How might these three conditions support a work environment if they aren’t already?  Teams can talk about: whether or when they experience mastery; what boundaries could help with their focus; and how connecting projects to purpose, when it fits, adds meaning. “Flow” and what supports “flourishing” may be new to team discussions. Acknowledging their value and what increases experiencing them can encourage more flow occurring.   

Well-being challenges

Without well-being there’s little flourishing.  A Kaiser Family Foundation issue brief indicates that during the pandemic 4 in 10 adults have reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder; up from 1 in 10 in 2019.

Since the pandemic started, 88% of companies have been investing more in mental health programs. Company benefits also offer programs from meditation apps to coaching. These programs are valuable (if tailored to what company employees say are needed most). However, it’s also critical to address what about work or the environment is either causing stress or insufficiently supporting people affected. An employee pointed out in an interview: “When you offer a mental health day because you can see someone’s burnt out, but you don’t lighten the workload, it makes the stress worse.”

What’s possible in refocusing workplaces

It could be easy for leaders to see all the things they’ve put into place and believe they’ve already set employees up for success. But their view is only half the equation. What’s possible has yet to happen.

CNN Business interviewed 15 CEOs to address what had changed since the pandemic began and how they see the future of work. Below are three excerpts: one identifying hope, another accountability and the last, possibility:

  • James Loree, CEO, Black and Decker: “The future of work will look like a more caring and compassionate place where employee well-being is prioritized.”
  • Hamdi Ulukaya founder, chairman and CEO, Chobani: Chobani “The future of work must also include fair and equitable compensation, part-time options, … robust benefits packages, parental leave, extensive health and safety programs, and a positive and inclusive environment — these elements should no longer be revolutionary, but the norm.”
  • Stewart Butterfield, founder and CEO, Slack: “Today we have what is likely to be the greatest opportunity we will ever have in our lifetimes to reinvent and re-imagine how work gets done…. everything is open to radical reconfiguration and fundamental improvements…. This is a time for business leaders to build a better workplace and world.”

Those hopes sound terrific. However, reality becomes what companies actually do every day to address the weakest links in their work environment.  Raising compensation is a critical work-in-progress for many companies. Costco and Bank of America have been singled out for their impact in raising internal minimum wages.

However, if companies really believe employees are their most important stakeholders, leaders have a great opportunity in this reset period to bring out the best in their people as well as themselves.

Gael O’Brien is a catalyst in leaders leading with purpose and impact through clarity, presence and connection. She is an executive coach, culture coach, speech coach and presenter. She publishes The Week in Ethics and is also a Business Ethics Magazine columnist, a Kallman Executive Fellow, Hoffman Center for Business Ethics at Bentley University, and a Senior Fellow Social Innovation, the Lewis Institute at Babson College.

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