3 things Gary Hamel tells us to stop tolerating at work

October 28, 2019 Lynette Silva Heelan

4-minute read

Why do we do it? Why do we put up with what we know is wrong, insupportable, silly, or downright disturbing?

I think there are a lot of very human reasons, starting with unconscious bias (we don’t know what we can’t see in ourselves), “boiling frog” syndrome (the situation started very mild and got much worse in subtle, incremental steps), fear (of rocking the boat, losing acceptance, losing position or power), discomfort, lack of tools to handle surprising situations – the list goes on.

No longer tolerating the intolerable was one topic of discussion at our recent Workhuman® Executive Forum in London. Senior HR leaders tackled this and other sensitive topics with courage, vulnerability, a deep curiosity for understanding, and, ultimately, action. Gary Hamel led the way, reminding us, “When you work in HR, you stand on the shoulders of giants … One of our noblest challenges is how to give people the opportunity to use their gifts to the maximum extent possible.”

While known best for his passionate advocacy to “bust bureaucracy” in organizations of all kinds and sizes, his real goal is to free people to use their gifts – something that simply isn’t possible in a highly bureaucratic environment. And that’s why Gary’s main theme about bureaucracy in business is “None of this is OK.”

Gary shared several lessons and learnings with us, which I share below.

3 things we must no longer tolerate at work

1. Blaming humans for being against change

In my role, I often hear that the biggest concern with any new initiative is “change effort” because employees have change fatigue or, worst case, are resistant to change. As Gary reminded us, it’s not people who are resistant to change, it’s the bureaucratic processes cemented into most of our organizations. Humans are highly adaptable – organizations are not. Yet the most fundamental question for organizations today is, “Are we changing as fast as the world around us?”

We must answer this question through our people by enabling their natural, individual flexibility and adaptability because “the world is becoming more turbulent faster than organizations are becoming more resilient.”

2. Permitting “creative apartheid”

Adherence to the traditional organizational chart not only ignores the way work really gets done today (in highly flexible project teams and informal networks), it also creates “creative apartheid.” Even in more flexibly managed and matrixed organizations, there is often strong bias in believing “thinkers are at the top; doers are at the bottom,” which results in those at the bottom (often on the front line and closest to the customer) rarely being asked for strategic ideas.

This “creative apartheid” stops innovation and visionary ideas from ever being born while “people at the top hold the organization hostage to their own ideas and capacity for change.”

3. Preventing people from bringing their gifts to work

Human commodities at work include obedience, diligence, and intellect – any company can hire and pay for these skills and abilities from nearly any source around the world. But people’s initiative, imagination, and passion – those are individual human gifts that people choose to bring to work every day (or not). We must ask, “How do I create a work environment that warrants those gifts from people?”

Answering that question requires us to flip the script from the traditional and typical “Organizations hire humans to deliver products and profit” to “Humans join organizations to have an impact in the world.” When we understand this (and our people believe this to be true in their roles and in the organization), then our humans are far more likely to bring their gifts of initiative, imagination, and passion to their work.

3 things to do instead

1. Create opportunities for autonomy.

Instead of asking, “What are you doing?” ask instead, “How do you think?” Give people the chance to bring their creativity and empower them to deliver new ideas in fresh ways.

2. Create opportunities to learn new behaviors.

In many organizations, we’ve trained people not to think, but to follow processes, follow the bureaucracy. Breaking people out of “how we’ve always done things” – especially in a less bureaucratic, more autonomous and empowered environment – will require training. Areas for training for many will be on how to “think leader” in terms of ROI, ROA, and the impact on the business for any decision and action.

3. Create opportunities for community.

A basic human need is to be in relationship with others. We’re not meant to be alone – and that’s true at work, too. Whether communicating in person at an office or electronically with colleagues around the globe, we crave deeper connections with the people we spend the majority of our days with. Creating opportunities to build those relationships from a base of positivity is critical.

A parting thought from Gary: “We cannot have people engaged in a company unless they are engaged with each other.”

How bureaucratic is your organization? What are you doing (or hoping to do) to bust bureaucracy and bring humanity back to the workplace?

Be on the lookout for more recaps of the remaining Workhuman Executive Forums in Houston and Chicago next month. And reserve your place now for Workhuman® Live, May 11-14, 2020, to join other senior leaders committed to making work more human.


Gary Hamel's key messages from Workhuman Live 2019

A brief history of bureaucracy with Gary Hamel

The end of management as we know it: Q&A with Dr. Gary Hamel (part 1)

About the Author

Lynette Silva Heelan

Lynette Silva is a principal consultant on Workhuman’s Strategy & Consulting team, partnering with clients on change strategies to make work more human.

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