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Re:humanising the workplace – the masks we wear Featured

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Re:humanising the workplace – the masks we wear

There is an interesting tussle going on between psychologists and philosophers at the moment regarding the question of whether our personalities change as we get older. Some say that the building blocks of our personalities are established early on in life, and that any change in our personality is a mere tweak to already existing traits. Others believe that we are constantly changing, either for better or worse, depending on choices that we make. Another school of thought is that as we get older, we become ‘more’ of who we already are.


The question of an individual’s identity – ‘who they are’ - is an essential consideration when it comes time to join an organisation and perform a job. Unfortunately, companies don’t hire you for who you are. They hire you for what you can do. It is this simple, and yet sophisticated dynamic of organisational life that is one of the building blocks of a dehumanised organisation. The common reality is that we learn very quickly to ‘wear a mask’ in order to fit in.


Some people are more aware than others of the corporate persona ‘mask’ that is required to fit in and succeed in organisations. Consider your own career, and you are bound to remember a distinct moment where you realised it was not appropriate to be yourself. Sadly for most, this moment was an initial exchange with your first manager or supervisor. There was either something in the way he or she asked you a question, or responded to a point you raised, that communicated to you in no uncertain terms that your opinion, feelings or potential contribution to a situation was of no consequence.


This corporate persona is a falsification that stems from the management science pressure to standardise and normalise every aspect of the operations of a company. Human personality is seen as too variable to manage and the diversity that it brings is too complex a phenomenon to handle.


There are also times where we put on a corporate mask to protect ourselves. When a colleague or an employee comes to us with a personal story of tragedy, our own response is too intense to bring to the fore, so we hide behind that deadpan face and find a way to talk about the job at hand instead.


In a move away from the typical metaphor of the organisation as a machine – where employees are expendable resources to be ‘utilised’ – a call to restore humanity in the workplace is emerging. This new paradigm encourages a symbiotic relationship or co-evolution between an organisation and its employees, as both entities need to benefit through their mutual association.


Manifesting in business literature all over the world, ideas about happiness, meaning and purpose are becoming ever more important. Interestingly, it’s not only the business thinkers who are promoting the restoration of humanity in the workplace; there is also a growing groundswell of support for this change among employees.


If one listens to the stories employees share about their experiences at work, one would hear painful anecdotes that speak of how ‘human-ness’ has not been prioritised in South African organisations; in some it is even deemed undesirable. But with more and more stories being told about management structures that make staff feel increasingly dependent, powerless, infantilised, bored, and institutionalised, the challenge for leaders is to ‘listen through’ the veneer of these stories, to give this issue its due regard.


Whether or not our personalities change over time will continue to be a widely debated issue. What is not debatable is the fact that we adopt corporate personas incredibly quickly when entering organisations. The hardcore corporate persona has served us well in a world driven by capitalist whims and desires, where delivering shareholder value is the mantra of leaders. However, the business landscape is changing, and it will be companies that know how to rehumanise their people and allow them to remove their masks that will be at the forefront of these shifts.

Last modified on Thursday, 14 March 2013 13:52
Aiden Choles

Aiden Choles

Aiden Choles is a co-founder and the managing director of The Narrative Lab, a niche organisational development and research consultancy based in Johannesburg. With degrees in psychology and theology, Choles has traversed industries and established careers in Secondary Education, Human Resource Management, Public Speaking, Facilitation, Change Management, Research and Consulting.


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