The Good, The Troubling & Kitties: Workhuman 2019

I loaded up my family and headed to Tennessee for Spring Break recently (hello, Smokey Mountains!), and stopped off in Nashville for a couple days of the 5th annual Workhuman conference. Here’s my take on the high points, some lingering questions for people leaders, and my favorite quotes in your crazy aunt’s favorite format.

The high points

Here’s why you should consider attending this conference.

Brene Brown. Honestly, her talk was just a summary of her latest book that I already have (and she said some silly things…more on that below), but come on, it’s Brene Brown. I’ve never had a celebrity crush, but Brene’s combination of passion for all people, a firm grasp of science, and the ability to translate her research into useful concepts get’s her pretty close.

It’s always nice to feel not crazy. The Purpose & Performance team does what we can to encourage each other after those head-banging-against-a-wall conversations we have with people who just don’t understand or believe that treating people with respect and honor produces outstanding business results, but there’s only so much encouragement we can give. Sometimes we begin to feel a little beat down. It’s incredibly encouraging to sit in a room of thousands of people leaders who are standing and applauding at all the right statements by thought leaders. It’s fun to be reminded that there’s a community out there who hold the same values. Gary Hamel and Tony Schwartz were great examples of thought leaders who put words and theory to the beliefs shared by the crowd (see quotes below).

Science is telling the story. Whether it’s Cisco running the data on practices that move the employee engagement needle, Heier’s business performance as proof of concept for progressive org design, Wakeman’s integration of mindset into engagement measures, or Emmons’ studies of the effects of gratitude on health outcomes, the research continues to show that a few central practices build effective cultures and strategies. Organizations built on trust, respect, clarity of mission, learning orientation, and jobs that meet basic human needs will always have an advantage over the competition.

Lingering questions for people leaders.

Unfortunately, there’s this thing called “implementation”.

There’s always a “but”, and here’s mine. Regardless of how nice that first section sounds, and how much metaphorical kool-aid I drank (Gary Hamel’s talk was like slurping down an entire double-can-beer-helmet of 100 proof organization design philosophy), almost every single conversation I had and every audience question I heard can be boiled down to one question: “How do I take ___ theory and apply it to make sustainable change?” Everyone I talked to had embraced the most progressive ideas shared from the stage, but almost no one had many ideas on how they were going to overcome the barriers standing between them and implementation.

Kat Cole was awesome (forget what I said about Brene being my only celebrity crush), but asking your typical director of HR to follow her example and make comparable progress is like asking me to be an effective NBA player. I have the wrong DNA, life experiences and temperament. It just isn’t going to happen.

Workhuman itself provided a great example of how hard it is for even a progressive company to let go of the status quo. The entire event was built up as an inflection point in a movement of more human workplaces. However, before every seminar I stood in lines over 50 people long because some poor intern had to scan my ID tag AND check my phone for the app I was forced to install. My data was clearly still more precious than my human experience. (There’s ways around this that other conferences have nailed.)

And Brene, I know you mean well, and the point you were trying to make was how your work connects with people intuitively on a human level, but I just don’t believe that you can “teach this stuff to leaders in a couple of days” and see sustained system change. As amazing as you are, the systems are stronger.

No matter the beauty of the theory, creating purpose-driven enterprises that provide win-wins for people and bottom lines is messy, complex, situational and impossible to execute from a distance. It typically takes our team 4 or 5 months of consistent work with a client to uncover the root issues that dictate the status quo.

I’ll end this section uncomfortably answerless, because that’s how I feel about those thousands of people trying to go home and figure out the first few steps to sustainable change.

My favorite conference cat posters. Because we can’t end on that last, hopeless statement.

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