It’s been a month.


Just where did January 2020 go?? It’s been a month since we began this new year, launching into the 20’s with optimism and the best of intentions.

We discussed what One Thing we would do to Make 2020 More Human at the December gathering and many of you shared your intentions. And many of you answered with emails and messages describing your intentions and resolve. So many of you are taking bold, loving actions. You are showing up in your humanity to make a difference and to invite others to do the same. Every message from you is encouragement as we gain momentum in this movement to create a more humane and effective way of working and being.

Here’s a sample what you shared, passing it back along to you all for encouragement. Your “One Things” included to:

  • Be true to myself in everything I do.
  • Be more conscious with my words and thoughts.
  • “Play bigger,” to more fully step into my power and do what is mine to do.
  • Always consider inclusion and equity in my work with clients and their organizations. More human centered for me has to mean all humans, especially women, people of color, LGBTQ folks, and people with disabilities.
  • Be a better listener.
  • Think first in love before I reply in speech.
  • Show myself more grace, treating myself with the same love that explodes from my heart for other people. I think that in doing so, I will become a better version of me.
  • Be less judgmental.
  • Help people connect authentically with those who matter most to them.
  • Think first in love before I verbally reply.
  • Take more care of myself in regards to my work-life, so that I'll be less frustrated by work, and more capable of listening with my heart.
  • Be a better listener.
  • Make space for more reflection on how I can be more intentional about everything and in everything. My word of focus for this year? Grow!

What a beautiful list from an amazing group of humans. So how are you doing with your intentions, with your One Thing?

With one month behind us, why not take a few minutes today, to reflect on your commitment to your One Thing…to listening, to love, to inclusion, to self-care, to less judgment, to grace?

As we begin February, reflect and consider, have you noticed anything? What’s helped you live your One Thing? What’s made it hard? What have you learned so far? What impacts have you seen? What will you do this month, just this month, to continue to pursue that One Thing?

This really is about the pursuit, you know. It is not about perfection or even attainment. We will never be perfect but sometimes we will live our intentions, certainly more often than if we weren’t pursuing this at all. We may sometimes let ourselves or others down, but sometimes we will hit the mark and have loving impact! We may forget sometimes, but sometimes we will remember and it will make all the difference. When we fall short, we can always reset, ask forgiveness if needed, start again. We can continue the pursuit of a more loving and human world. Your One Thing matters toward that end.

Interesting and fun that February 2, 2020 (02/02/2020) was a once in 909 year global palindrome. What a perfect and auspicious day, when the date itself looks backward and forward, to take a nudge and look backward and forward on our intentions for Making 2020 More Human!

Kim Sauer

Immigration was the focus of A Human Workplace Olympia on September 27 and included this story by Kim Sauer who works for Washington State’s Liquor and Cannabis Board.

Approximately one in seven Washingtonians are immigrants, and there is no dispute that they are an integral part of our communities and workforce.  Per the National Immigrant Forum, immigrants are twice as likely to start businesses than the U.S.-born. 61% of gas stations are owned by immigrants, 58% of dry cleaning and laundry service, 53% of grocery stores, 45% of nail salons and other personal care services, and so on. But what about business laws and rules? Have they been flexible enough to encompass unique and diverse cultural needs? In my over 20 years in state government, this is the most receptive and accommodating time toward changing the once seemingly untouchable, non-wavering laws and rules impacting immigrant-owned businesses.    

The Liquor and Cannabis Board (LCB) recently worked with the legislature and stakeholders to change laws regarding service of soju (Korean spirituous liquor).  The Korean restaurant owners have been wanting to serve soju by the bottle for years. When I got hired as a Korean bilingual specialist at the LCB, service of soju was the first inquiry by the Korean community to the agency.  The service and consumption of soju carries significant importance in the Korean community. The pouring, handling, and drinking of this beverage observes ancient social customs and protocols that honor age and relationships for those at the table. It is customary for it to be poured from a communal vessel (bottle), which was against state liquor laws. Restaurant owners (many of whom do not speak English as a primary language) often served soju hidden in teapots, as the law did not allow them to serve soju by the bottle.

This year in 2019, the law has changed. LCB leadership responded to the legislative proposals and worked with the legislature, soju industry members, and business owners to adopt the new laws while addressing the agency’s concern over public safety with education and restrictions.  The Korean community has welcomed and celebrated the changes wholeheartedly.

In 2018, LCB also changed rules to acknowledge that ethnic food like pho as a “complete meal” along with other food like street tacos, and tikka masala. Before this rule change, dishes without side dishes like pho were not considered a complete meal which denied certain liquor licensing privileges. 

These types of changes are signs of leadership encompassing diversity, equity, and inclusion in their actions reflected in government policies.  While we acknowledge the current climate in the US toward immigrants and how it impacts people, our talks and combined efforts to improve the climate is making a difference.  We need to keep at it, keep caring for one another, opening hearts and minds toward making a climate where no one is frustrated feeling voiceless or invisible.  Where businesses no longer need to fight for laws and rules that violate their cultures, and where we no longer treat diversity, equity and inclusion as something only good people do.  

Renée Smith

Everyone was silent. Eighty people looked around, shifting uncomfortably, perplexed at my question.

I asked it again.

“What else might we do with our emotions at work besides being aware of them and ‘managing’ them?”

More silence.

This was unusual for this monthly gathering of A Human Workplace Olympia.

What are emotions anyway?

You see, we’d just spent a half hour understanding the basics of emotions and affirming the importance of emotional intelligence.

We’d first recalled that the word emotion [ih-moh-shuhn] has Latin and French origins that mean “to put in motion; a physical disturbance; to excite.” Today emotion is defined as “an effective state of consciousness in which feelings of joy, sorrow, fear, hate, love, or the like are experienced, and are distinguished from cognitive and volitional states of consciousness. These feelings are usually accompanied by certain physiological changes, such as an increased heartbeat or respiration, and often overt manifestations, such as crying, shaking, or laughing.

We diagramed the advent of feelings and emotions this way:

External Stimulus à Universal Physical Reactions à  Individual Mental Reactions

When we experience an action, words, or event, it can bring on bio-chemical and physiological responses that are universal to humans. When we experience a stimulus that is threatening, exciting, hopeful, surprising, worrying, angering, envious, or joyful, our human bodies react consistently. Depending on the stimulus, palms sweat, heartrate increases, muscles weaken or tense up, pupils dilate, breathing quickens, facial muscles configure, throat constricts, and so on.

But what happens next is unique to each of us. Our subconscious mental response where we assign meaning to that stimulus and physical reaction is individualized based on our personality, life experiences, and culture. And that personalized mental reaction feeds further unique physiological reactions.

There is some disagreement about which of these phases are “feelings” and which are “emotions.” And honestly, for our purposes, I don’t think the labels matter. What is essential is understanding that we have a universal physical reaction and then an individual mental reaction when we experience feelings and emotions. And these are a normal part of our human experience.

Enter Emotional Intelligence

In 1996, Daniel Goleman published his seminal book, “Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ.” In this, he coined the term “amygdala hijack” and offered a set of essential skills for effectively managing oneself and others in the workplace when this limbic reaction occurs.

When we experience something that matches up with the need for fight, flight or freeze, the limbic brain kicks in responding fractions of a second faster than the rational brain. It takes control putting us into immediate “amygdala hijack” to protect us from harm mostly, though it can also prompt our joy, humor or love. A core competence of emotional intelligence is to recognize and manage ourselves when we are experiencing an amygdala hijack or when someone else does. Non-reactivity is key to not escalating or expanding a “negative” amygdala hijack.

While others have both built on and questioned Goleman’s work, his original treatise remains popular as guiding wisdom for leaders and teams today. In a 1998 article in Harvard Business Review titled, “What Makes a Leader?” Goleman summarizes on page 9 the five components of emotional intelligence for leaders. They are:

1.     Self-awareness – the ability to recognize and understand your moods, emotions, and drives, as well as their effect on others.

2.     Self-regulation – the ability to control and redirect disruptive impulses and moods; the propensity to suspend judgment – to think before acting.

3.     Motivation – a passion to work for reasons that go beyond money or status; a propensity to pursue goals with energy and persistence.

4.     Empathy – the ability to understand the emotional makeup of other people; skill in treating people according to their emotional reactions.

5.     Social skill – proficiency in managing relationships and building networks; an ability to find common ground and build rapport.

 These five components offer a pretty well-rounded approach to emotions that balance personal competence with social competence and can be learned and strengthened. Taken together these five are solid skills of a good leader; they aren’t the only skills but they are good ones.

Over-Regulating Emotions

The problem is that over time these five have not been taken together as a set. Instead, in practice, the first two, self-awareness and self-regulation, are often emphasized on their own. And while motivation and social skills show up as general leadership competencies in other contexts, empathy, the ability to feel with someone and respond in kind, has been largely absent from popular leadership thinking until recently.

So we’ve spent 20 years strengthening the view that emotions are negative, potentially harmful, and that the emotionally intelligent leader, or by extension an emotionally intelligent employee, should be aware of their emotions so they can manage and suppress those emotions, keeping the ship on an even keel and the trains running on time.

That this skewed understanding emotional intelligence is common makes sense. Think about it: I am a leader who’s already uncomfortable with emotions. I don’t have very strong emotional skills, so I’m glad to learn that it is “emotionally intelligent” to be aware of my emotions so I can manage and limit them. What a relief to not have to deal with emotions! Emotional intelligence becomes an escape from human emotions at work.

Now this is not what Goleman intended; it leaves off the empathy. But it is certainly the convenient understanding and practice that has evolved.

“What Else We Can Do With Emotions??”

No wonder when I asked 80 people what else we might do with emotions at work besides regulate them, no one had any idea. For the last couple decades we’ve been told we shouldn’t do anything else with emotions at work, because emotions had no place at work.

I repeated my question to the group, “What else might we do with emotions at work?”

One person raised their hand and ventured, “We can coach team members and support them to gain emotional control.”

“Yes, we can. And that would be another good example of managing emotions.”

I waited.

Another person offered, “We can model emotional regulation to show how it’s done.”

“True, we can do that too. But what else can we do with emotions at work besides regulate them?”

Finally, after a long pause a third person spoke up, “We can experience emotions as part of being human.”

Yes! There it is! That’s right. Our emotions are not a problem to be solved. Our emotions are not a weakness to be pitied. Our emotions are not a danger to be subdued.

Our emotions are a normal part of our human experience and, in fact, can be a source of wisdom and insight.

So, rather than suppress our emotions, we can experience and learn from them.

The Ultimate List of Emotions catalogs some 400 emotions, to give us more language to use to understand and express ourselves accurately. This source points out that emotions “let you know what to do in a given situation. They can help you avoid danger or a potential threat.” If a customer is frustrated over a determination, that’s your cue to use customer listening practices so they feel heard and understood. “Emotions also motivate you to take action.” If you are worried about pleasing a client, you may be motivated to double check that all their requirements have been met. “Emotions also clue you in on your likes and dislikes. If you feel angry because your colleague is taking credit for your hard work, you may want to sign the projects you send your boss next time. Emotions also help others to understand you and what you feel. Your expressions, body language, and words all reflect your inner world to those around you. Emotions are crucial to effective communication.”

Why would we try to function at work without all the benefits that our emotions can provide? It’s like driving with a flat tire. Actually, as we’ve managed our emotions out of the workplace, it’s like we’ve been purposefully letting the air out of the tire before we drive!

From “Saving the World Solo” (page 9)

by Pamela Sackett

Most people don’t even think about feelings

or think about how they think

about feelings

or whether or not they think favorably about feelings,

so they probably just try to control them—

but you can’t have feelings

and control feelings

at the same time,

and if you can’t have feelings,

I mean really have them,

you can’t think favorably about them.

If you can’t think favorably about them,

you can’t have them.

And if you can’t have them,

you’d have to control them.

If you thought favorably about them

you wouldn’t try to control them…unless you’re an actor.

“But things might get … emotional!”

We do worry that if we make room for emotions in the workplace, they may spiral out of control and distract from our work. Do we risk things getting a little messy? Sure. Can we learn skills to be both compassionate and have boundaries? Of course.

“You seem really sad today. Would you like to take a walk on our break and spend a few minutes talking?”

“I’ve got to get back to work now, but I hope you feel supported. Let’s take a walk again tomorrow and check in.”

“This loss is really hitting you hard. I can understand why. I’m so sorry. In addition to our talks on breaks, you might really find Employee Assistance Program expertise to be helpful. Can I help you get connected to them?”

To be clear, if your employee experiences loss, trauma or hardship it is reasonable, rational and normal for them to experience strong emotions. And it is reasonable, rational and normal for you as a leader to demonstrate care and support for them. It is your job as a leader to acknowledge their situation, and to, at different times, listen compassionately, or approve leave, or rally caring support, or refer them to professional resources, always respecting privacy and preferences.

Looking back on my recent time as a leader, I’ve had the privilege of supporting team members through some difficult times as they faced clinical depression, the death of a parent, anxiety disorder, a child threatening suicide, a grown child with opioid addiction, a wife with a chronic illness, a child with cancer, a parent suffering a stroke, and the loss of beloved pets. None of this was easy and at times the care and support took a lot out of us. But life is like that, and it was the right thing to do to provide emotional support and to be with them in these experiences; it was the human thing to do. And it created a very strong sense of team and mutual commitment.

Our Real Risk

While emotions at work can seem risky, let’s be clear about our real risk. As a society we are not suffering from too much connection, empathy, and belonging. Quite the contrary. We are suffering from an epidemic of isolation, disconnection, and loneliness with serious physiological and psychological impacts. In fact, a lack of social connection creates the same health risks as factors such as smoking up to 15 cigarettes per day, obesity, physical inactivity, and air pollution (Holt-Lunstad et al., 2010). Our risk is not caring too much at work; it is caring too little.

Since we spend the better portion of our lives at work, leaders and teams can make a difference in the physical and emotional health of colleagues and communities by creating stronger human connections, emotional support and care at work.

The good news is that doing the human thing, the right thing, that is building authentic human relationships with social and emotional support, will enhance your effectiveness as a team rather than detract from it. These trusting relationships are the foundation for effective collaboration, problem solving, and improvement. They result in greater loyalty, engagement and morale.

Practicing Being Human at Work

At A Human Workplace Olympia that day, we practiced witnessing and supporting each other’s emotions. It seems strange that we need to practice this essential human skill, but because we’ve been told for so long to suppress emotions, we often don’t know how to be with people experiencing emotions in a professional setting. So we practiced.

Forty pairs gave each other their focused attention. They took a deep breath and consciously opened their hearts to the other. They took turns sharing stories of times when they experienced emotions at work. They described the external stimulus, their physiological reaction, and then their individual subconscious mental reaction. They shared how others responded, what the impact was, and what could have been different.

With some preparatory coaching, partners listened actively without offering advice or asking intrusive questions. They used supportive body language and allowed silence. They were coached to offer a tissue if needed but to refrain from touching the person experiencing a deep emotion. And they expressed thanks for being trusted with their story.

We practiced being human at work. And 80 people went back to work better equipped to make work more human.


Join us October 8 and 9 in Tacoma for the free 2019 Washington State Government Lean Transformation Conference for our breakout session: “A Human Workplace: Experiencing Emotions at Work” for a deep dive into how to support emotions in the workplace.

Tagged: emotions, human-centered, leadership, teams, isolation, emotional intelligence, empathy


Renée Smith

I glimpsed the future of work last week on a live stream. And it was human.

Hanna sat cross legged in her hospital room surrounded by her mom, a handful of friends, and “her team” that included her OT therapist, music therapist, and child life specialist. Upbeat music played in the background as 18-year-old Hanna connected with her friend Malissa in Colorado using FaceTime. They were ready. It was time.

The hand-lettered poster on the wall said it all, “No Hair! Don’t Care!”

Hanna was ready to shave away her long brown and purple hair, and Malissa was ready to shave hers too in support of her friend. Pictures of women with shaved or close-cropped hair had been collected by “her team” for inspiration.

You see, Hanna has cancer. Again. She already beat acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) just a few years ago, but three years after finishing treatment, in May she was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia (AML) a consequence of the chemotherapy used during the ALL treatment itself. Less than 1% of ALL patients treated are later diagnosed with AML.

She was diagnosed a few weeks shy of graduating high school and a few months before heading off to the University of Washington to study medicine. Her school and community rallied and held a full graduation ceremony for Hanna right after her diagnosis. After treatment she will enter UW in 2020. The preferred treatment for AML is a bone marrow transplant, or if a donor can’t be found as in Hanna’s case, an umbilical cord-blood stem cell transplant.

Recently with the progression of treatment, Hanna’s hair began to thin and fall out, and she knew from past experience that it was time to take matters into her own hands. So her hair cutting party was arranged.

As both young women shaved their heads, words of encouragement poured in from “her team” and from friends in the room and on Live Stream. Hanna and Malissa laughed and encouraged each other as they shaved off their hair. Strong and bold, they both look great with their super short hair!

And as I witnessed all this from my kitchen on my phone, it struck me that support for Hanna’s hair cutting party came from her mom, Kelly, who is her constant advocate, and from her team of hospital care givers who made posters, provided music, shared inspirational pictures, and brought along supplies. And her team was present to provide physical, emotional, mental support in this critical moment. They are part of an extensive oncology team at Seattle Children’s Hospital doing all they can to bring Hanna world-class medical treatment AND world-class human treatment.

This glimpse into Hanna’s world provides one example of real human work that machines can’t do. Machines, even smart ones, can’t build meaningful relationships with a young patient. Machines can’t respond with sensitivity and awareness, or gather just the right items, or letter the perfect poster. Machines can’t show up with just the right mix of support and fun in just the way Hanna personally needed it, like Hanna’s team did. No machine can do all that; only humans can.

That is human work and it requires something special: Essential Human Skills.


I’ve been thinking a lot about the future of work. I am awed and fascinated by the technical breakthroughs in the application of artificial intelligence to be sure. And I am equally anxious and sometimes disturbed as I wonder about the place of humanity in this new world, with my children and grandchildren ever present in my mind. What priorities will guide what will be valued, what gets funded, who will be needed, how we will spend our time, how we will make a living, what world view will be normalized? And what unintended consequences will we face?

Three Eras

I found it useful recently to consider the ideas of Rita Gunther McGrath of Columbia Business School, who described the evolution of management science since the Industrial Revolution in her Harvard Business Review article, “Management’s Three Era’s: A Brief History.

Here’s a speedy reminder of where we’ve been in the world of work.

First, with the Industrial Revolution’s division of labor and scale-ability, came what she terms the Era of Execution focused on coordination and optimization. The works of Taylor, Gantt, and the Galbreth’s typify this period. The metaphor of the organization as a machine took hold. With this came command-and-control style leadership, “just do your job and don’t ask questions” edicts, and workers-as-replaceable-parts in the machine. Sound familiar? That’s because this mechanistic way of seeing the world still dominate how we think about work - and workers - to this day.

Next, according to Gunther McGrath, we entered the Era of Expertise with reliance on scientific problem solving, mathematical insights, operations management, and organizational gurus. Eventually those gurus came to see that workers could actually use information not just physical materials and parts to create value. Seems funny now that this was a new idea but it was a revelation at the time.

With knowledge work and the advent of computing I find it interesting to consider the rise of the metaphor of organization as a network, interconnected, less hierarchical, sharing information, but still ultimately mechanistic in its make-up of hubs, switches, bridges, routers, gateways, CSUs, DSUs, NICs, WAPs, and ISDN adapters. The network metaphor essentially still sees an organization as mechanistic, made up of a more modern set of connected machines perhaps, but mechanistic nonetheless.

The third era Gunter McGrath describes counterbalances the first two: The Era of Empathy. The focus of the Era of Empathy is on “creating complete and meaningful experiences” for customers yes, but also for employees. And with this, Gunther McGrath advocates, comes a change in the employment contract. What we agree to when we come to work is not to be a machine or a cog but fully human and a valued contributor to the workplace. Others agree. Metaphors in the Era of Empathy compare an organization to a living organism, or to a conversation, an analogy offered by Anthony L. Suchman, MD, in the journal Medical Care, which provides a very different and decidedly more human way of thinking about what it means to work, decide, learn, have conflict, change, compete, etc.

On Hanna’s live stream hair cutting party, the oncology team members were part of creating a complete and meaningful experience for Hanna, sensitive to her situation. And their employer, Seattle Children’s, supported those team members to bring their humanity to their work in this way. It is part of what makes that place special and filled with excellent care-givers.

Say it with me, “Essential Human Skills!”

In this rising Era of Empathy, our humanity will no longer be merely tolerated at best or if we are lucky seen as a nice-to-have, but instead human abilities will be universally valued by leaders, teams, organizations, and society.  In this Era of Empathy, Essential Human Skills will be highly sought after, seen as essential, and considered to be a competitive advantage.

Please note that I did not say “soft skills.” We need to stop calling them “soft skills.” That language is derisive and diminishing of their true power and value. Instead we need to call them what they are:

Essential Human Skills.

In the Era of Empathy, organizations will seek out those with Essential Human Skills… 

Those who are skilled at communicating will be highly valuable. Listening to understand customers’ stories and actively responding so they feel heard, forging shared meaning on a team, and interacting with awareness and nuance in a multitude of human moments, these skills will be of great value.

And so far, machines can’t do that.

Those who are skilled at collaborating will be highly valued. Creating trust, developing relationships, cultivating self-efficacy, fostering learning, and pointing to a higher purpose, these skills will be of great value.

And so far, machines can’t do that.

Those who are skilled at care, at showing compassion, kindness, love, and appreciation will be highly valued. When customers have specific needs, when colleagues face a personal challenge or are emotionally shaken, those who don’t shrink back but are able to create a supportive environment, those people with these skills will be of great value.

And so far, machines can’t do that.

Those who are skilled at fostering psychological safety, a term and area of study first coined by Harvard Professor Amy Edmondson to refer to group members feeling safe in the group for interpersonal risk-taking will be highly valued. Those who through a sense of acceptance and belonging make it safe for others to speak up, point out problems, and offer ideas, those who are inclusive and welcome diverse views, backgrounds, experiences, and cultures will be highly valued.

And so far, machines can’t do that.

Those who are skilled at creating, who find inspiration in making unexpected connections that form new options will be highly valued. When a team is stuck, when old methods are wearing thin, when new solutions are needed, when whimsy or play are called for, those who can bring forth new experiences or options in unexpected,healing, and innovative ways will be of great value.

And so far, machines can’t do that.

In truth, all these skills are valuable today, as recent research and our own experiences bear out. And the more we understand our essential human needs, the more we can prioritize these in our society, both in the products and services we offer, and expect, and in how we work together.  

In the book, “A General Theory of Love” authors, Doctors Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon, describe the critical importance of being in “limbic connection” with other humans to ensure our neuro-physiological well-being and stability. The limbic center is the part of our brain that allows us to create attachments necessary not only to flourish but to survive. The authors remind us that we cannot be stable on our own; we need each other to be healthy and well. Other studies demonstrate the impact of positive social connections and positive human interactions on our wellness and performance too.

When we understand how essential positive human connections and interactions are, we will prize the ability to create them, and Essential Human Skills will be valued for what they are: The work of skilled professionals, to be highly prized, sought after, cultivated, celebrated, paid, and rewarded.

And as we are freed up from the work that machines can do for us, we can concentrate on the human work that is only ours to do. We can care for the needs and interests of people using Essential Human Skills to do distinctly human work in truly human workplaces.  

That is the future of work.


Tagged: future, work, healthcare, cancer, human-centered, empathy


Renée Smith

Right Now 

I awoke early today and, in the pre-dawn dark, thought through ALL The Things.

You know The Things. You have your list of Things too.

These are ALL The Things I’m tending to and excited for, worried about and pressured by. These are all The Things I’m catching up on after the admitted privilege of being away on vacation: Emails, phone calls, inquiries, and scheduling. These are all the team changes, new opportunities, and old commitments.

It’s all The Things that pack next week’s calendar at work: The gatherings, talks, meetings, facilitations, and workshops. And it’s all The Things that fill this week’s calendar to prepare for next week.

It’s all the changes I’m paying attention to. It’s getting up to speed and merging quickly into the rhythm of the office after being away. It’s the new relationships to develop and the existing ones to nurture.

It’s also The Things I’m guilty of not following up on, a reply, a document, a call, “Today I’ll take care of that one at least!” I promise myself.

And it’s not just The Things at work; it’s all of life. Family members have birthdays coming up; a friend’s baby was born. Another suffered a loss, and still another has a precious child whose cancer has returned. Serious, life-altering things that I want to reach out to people and offer love.

And it’s the mundane Things as well: The weeds are coming on strong in my garden. My house needs cleaning, the laundry needs washing, the bills need paying.

I woke up thinking about all The Things. The overflowing collection of relationships, experiences, and responsibilities that make up my one life. And I love it all. I’m lucky and grateful for the chance to work, and care, and learn, and give. I’m grateful to be able to BE in relationship and in action.

So I surveyed all The Things this morning, considering each, puzzling over things and letting inspiration and insights come to me. But there was one Thing missing. It is the one Thing that easily gets pushed out first when life fills up.

My writing.

Time for writing, the practice of writing was nowhere to be found.

I went through the collection of all The Things, mentally searching through the pile, looking under boxes of responsibilities, and digging through the bags of plans. But I couldn’t find my writing anywhere. This imperfect practice that is essential to me, not just to my work but to my clarity and sense of purpose, was missing.

I considered this in the dark.

When I write, ideally I want quiet. I want cleared decks and a de-cluttered mind with space and time to find flow. But those conditions are nowhere in sight right now. And it will be weeks before I find that kind of mental space again.

Sigh. I brooded.

“Write now.”

I heard the words in my head.

“Write now. Don’t wait for the ideal conditions. Write right now.”

I sat up.

“Turn on the light. Get your laptop open. Write right now.”

So I did.

And I wrote this.

And I already feel better about all the other Things I need to do, all the rest I care about.

You have Things you care about. Work you are doing. Relationships you are nurturing. Responsibilities you are carrying. Obligations and hopes and plans to make and messes to clean up. So many Things.

And I’ll bet that you have some Thing, some practice, some activity you do that feeds you, that makes you better at all the other Things.

Isn’t it shocking how easily we let that most essential Thing go? How we give up so easily the Thing that expresses who we are, that feeds us, that helps us to do and be our best?

I’m not sure why we do that.

But today I’m not wasting time trying to get to the root of that problem. That is for another day. Today, instead, is a day to remedy the situation by just doing the Thing.

For me this was writing, “Write right now!”

What about you? What is your neglected thing? What is your thing that makes you feel like you? But the Thing that perhaps gets dropped from the schedule? Elbowed out?

Is it painting, or cooking, or gardening, or walking?

Is it reading, or running, or playing the piano?

Whatever your Thing,

“Do it right now.”

Do it today. Imperfectly perhaps. But who cares? Just reclaim yourself and do that Thing of all Things.

I promise, you will be glad you did.

Right now, as I survey all my other Things again after writing this, as I look at my calendar, it all looks different. I am more grounded, more present to all the rest. I feel more myself, more ready for everything else. I feel better already.

Today, take a few minutes to do your Thing.

You’ll feel better, ready, glad.

Right now!

Emily Beaulieu

Scott is convinced that Kaleen is the reason that their people are treated so well when they go out into the world. “She really builds the relationships out in the community to make that happen.”

Kaleen pushes back and says, “Or…maybe I’m treated so well because they are doing such an amazing job out there.”

This is a prime example of how these two interact--jockeying back and forth to give credit to anyone but themselves while being full of pride for the work being done by their agency.

I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Kaleen Cottingham, Director, and Scott Robinson, Deputy Director, of the Recreation and Conservation Office (RCO) to talk about what makes them a great place to work. The way that they talk about the people that work there showed a deep level of respect and loyalty. They never said the word employee; it was always, “our people.”

RCO’s job satisfaction scores on the employee engagement survey have been in the mid 80’s or higher for three years straight. It is not just about open doors, brown-bag lunch sessions, reviewing their data, and Kaleen’s monthly blog. There is a deeper level to the care and concern provided to the people working at RCO. Taking care of people is a high priority for them. They take actions big and small to support people, from bringing in grief counselors to help their people deal with an unexpected event, allowing someone to telework when their family moved away or getting a webcam installed so Kaleen can mentor a team member across the state.

This “people first” strategy of providing room to be your authentic self at work seems key to the way they operate on a day-to-day basis. That tone is set from the top. Scott says it is important to “walk around with your head up”. He explains that you have to consider all the factors that are influencing people’s lives and do your best to provide people with the resources, time and space to process changes and events. Kaleen displays her true personality every day and does not make excuses for being herself; the product of being raised in a loud, gregarious and curious family.  This level of authenticity in leadership sets the tone to make it safe for others to show up as they are, not as they imagine they should be.

RCO leaders admit that they are blessed with the “luxury” of having a small agency and knows that their style could be a challenge for a larger agency. However, each of us, no matter what size our organization, can take away pieces from how they do things.

If you get the opportunity to visit RCO, I suggest you take it. You may get to meet Spencer, the seagull who sits outside Kaleen’s office, or hear about the upcoming pizza party (because Kaleen did not want to cook), but one thing is for sure--you can come as you are.

Renee Smith

“All that love and safety sounds great, but what about accountability?”

Whenever I talk with people about the need to eliminate fear and indifference and increase love and safety in the workplace someone inevitably brings up the question of accountability. And when they do, others nod their heads in agreement and concern. 

We are really, really worried about accountability.

And no wonder. Almost everyone has suffered co-workers who perform poorly or behaved badly but are allowed to continue at their jobs unchecked. These challenging team mates get away with producing poor quality work, showing up late, or creating unnecessary conflicts. Meanwhile the rest of us slog along picking up the slack and putting up with their behavior because no one "holds them accountable." It's frustrating and exhausting making up for all this neglect. So we have legitimate worries about a workplace that is just too soft, too lenient, too permissive.

But here’s the thing. It isn’t love or safety that make us neglectful, lenient, or permissive. It isn’t our love and safety that are too soft. It’s our commitment that is too soft. It is low commitment to the work and to the customer that cause us to neglect the hard work and sometimes difficult decisions that need to be made concerning under-performance or bad behavior. If we want greater all around performance and outcomes, then we need to increase our commitment. And when we do that in conditions of love and safety, we actually get something far beyond mere accountability. But first things first.

First, how do we strengthen commitment?

Commitment is strengthened when we better understand customers’ expectations and when we know how the customer is impacted by our work. Commitment is improved when we have the tools and information needed to do our jobs. Commitment goes up when we know how our decisions impact others downstream from us, or when our work processes are well designed and safe. Commitment increases when we are recognized and appreciated for our contributions. Commitment increases when we know how the work in question contributes to the organization's purpose and vision.

So what happens when commitment increases? Two basic scenarios are possible (also see image below.)

Scenario 1: High commitment in a fearful workplace creates a culture built on compliance. A system of compliance works to ensure that everyone does what they are supposed to do and that no one gets away with bad behavior. Feet are held to the fire. We verify that minimum standards are met…and usually nothing more. Workers are made to "account for" their every move. The threat of punishment looms. In this negative environment, we are only likely to give and get the bare minimum. 

Scenario 2: But a loving, safe workplace with high commitment creates the more sustainable option, a culture of mutual responsibility. In this culture, I am responsible for my part; you are responsible for your part. And together we are responsible for delivering what customers need. We know we belong; we trust each other and collaborate. We back each other up. We pursue ever better ways of working and improve quality, cost, timeliness, safety, flow. Because we care about and respect our shared commitment, we are more likely to uphold that commitment and deliver results. 

One research interview participant described the mutual responsibility born of high love and safety and high commitment on her IT team: “Knowing that our team has so much love for each other has made such a difference. Our relationships are collaborative and we look out for each other. There is a unified feeling. We are not afraid to have unfiltered debate. A couple of us will be having a conversation in our team space, then the team gathers round. We start bouncing ideas and options around, and it becomes a debate. Before you know it, a unique, creative solution comes out of it. We can do this because of the trust and comfort we have with being transparent and honest."

So no, we don’t have to worry about love and safety being too soft or too permissive. Instead, when love and safety are paired with commitment, they create a better and more sustainable way of working: mutual responsibility.

I want to acknowledge and thank Jim Benson  and John Shook  for our conversations about accountability. Their keen insights and practical observations helped refine my thinking.

Have you experienced a team with either a culture of mutual responsibility or a culture of compliance? What was that like?

Visit the rest of our website for more news and events, books recommendations, background on how this started, and information on research. Join the mailing list to receive notice of new blog posts and news.

Please help spread the Love by sharing this blog with your friends and colleagues. We appreciate you re-posting on social media or forwarding the link. Thank you!

Renée Smith


Everywhere I go I meet people who just want to be human at work.

We want more from our work than just a paycheck. We want to be valued. We want to contribute. We want healthy relationships with our colleagues. We want to be ourselves. We want to find meaning. It doesn’t seem like too much to ask. But apparently, it’s hard to come by.

I’ve talked to so many of you from government, from corporations and small businesses, from many different fields and industries, from many different places and cultures around the world. The struggle is real and all too common.

But by being part of this community of people trying to make work more human, you have raised your hand for a more human workplace.

“Raising your hand” can mean you are saying at least three things:

1.     “I want a human workplace.”

2.     “I need help to make more work more human!”

3.     “I am willing to do what I can to create a human workplace.”

While it may take a bit of courage, raising your hand for the first two things is really not too difficult.

But it is harder to step up to the third, to say, “I am willing to do what I can to create a human workplace.” At first it can seem even harder to put that willingness into action.

When you are discouraged and uncertain, it is hard to own the things you can do right where you are in your imperfect, messy, perhaps fearful, wounded, and confused workplace.

But transformation doesn’t start when everything is rosy. If things were grand, then there’d be no need for transformation. Rather, transformation starts when things are a mess, when things are difficult. It starts with each of us, from the middle of that mess, taking responsibility for our presence, our choices, our influence, and our impact.

As author David Berry says in his post Choosing to Make It Better, it starts with “the three foot circle…that surrounds you everywhere you go.”

You can make your work more human today, right where you are. It starts with your willingness to create a more human workplace, and then it continues when willingness turns into influence by choosing to act with love.

That means choosing to be kind, to be positive, to assume good intent, to inquire, to extend grace, to forgive. Maybe it means choosing to invite others to a conversation over a break about compassion in the workplace. Maybe it means organizing practical support for a colleague with an illness. Maybe it means apologizing. Maybe it means stopping to say hello to someone who you’ve not taken time to know before and inviting them to coffee.

You can make your work more human by starting right where you are and then everywhere you go.

Tagged: a human workplace, culture, leadership, influence

April 21, 2019
Renée Smith

We spend a lot of time meeting, without really meeting.

That is, we spend a lot of time assembled together with colleagues in a formal room without really knowing those with whom we are gathered.

We don’t know who they are, what they care about, what they’ve experienced, what they value, what their talents are. We don’t know what they’ve just come from or what they are carrying. We don’t know if they are distracted or worried. But never mind all that. It’s time to be a professional and get to work.

This approach is common in the United States, and in many Western cultures, though I’ve also experienced and suspect this to be different in many non-Western cultures.

But here in the US, we assemble and we get to work.

We feel compelled to get to work.

We are afraid not to get to work.

Often someone, if not most everyone, in the meeting makes sure that we get to work. No matter our background or cultural values, we have all been assimilated into this way of doing business. Don’t distract with anything personal. Don’t waste time. Focus on the purpose of the meeting. Get to action. Show your value and remember, action is valued most. We’ve all learned to adhere to these rules.

With a strong time orientation, with a drive to get things done, we dive in. We stick to the agenda. We don’t waste time on chit chat. We stay focused. We don’t venture questions outside our scope without fear of rebuke. We have to get this work done and get to the next meeting.

If some new idea comes up as part of the discussion, some deviation from what was expected, then we schedule another meeting. After all, we have deadlines to meet, mounting pressure of our competition or our constituent’s expectations, and So. Much. To. Do.

As I describe this you may be thinking, “Well of course this is what we do. Otherwise we’d get nothing done. What else would we do?”

But this is not the only way to run a meeting nor to work, and it is not even the most functional. Not for the short term nor the long term. Not in a way that will sustain a culture where people want to stay and work and where we are not losing people to burnout and suffering the high costs of turnover and replacement.

It is not functional because we human beings don’t want to be treated like gears in a machine.

Instead, according to my research interviews and lots of feedback from my talks, workshops and blogs, most people want three things:

1.       We want our leaders to care about us as human beings.

2.       We want our teams to care for each other.

3.       We want to have support if we face a personal crisis.

When our leaders and teams make sure these things happen, we are able to get to work. We deliver on our commitments. We improve and innovate. We go the extra 10 miles. We become the rare 15% who are engaged rather than the 85% according to Gallup in 2017 who are not.

We can adopt many practices to help us be more human at work, but in the next few posts I am going to focus on humanizing meetings. For better or worse, meetings are the building blocks of our organizational lives. And actually, meetings can be incredible opportunities for creating human-centered cultures and effective workplaces rather than dehumanizing experiences.

So next post, we will start by looking at one simple meeting practice that can help humanize meetings: The Check In.

Meanwhile, how do you make meetings more human?

February 14, 2019
Renée Smith


I love poetry. I love it when a handful of words chosen and assembled “just so” say what it might take pages or hours to say otherwise, if ever. A few lines of poetry can make all things clear in an instant, or can join us as humans around universal understanding, or can challenge all that I thought was real, in moments. I love that.

At A Human Workplace Olympia we often include poetry. We’ve written a group poem about public service from the prompt, “My public service is…” Last time we were together learning about resilience, a participant wrote and shared a poem on the spot drawn out of the words of another poem we’d just read. It was beautiful. We’ve held a Poetry Table, an entire gathering focused on using poetry to better understand our human experience at work. I even wrote a poem on the bus that expressed the growth of this new movement.

So when I was getting ready for work a few weeks ago, I was delighted to hear NPR’s Morning Edition host Rachel Martin and her regular guest poet Kwame Alexander invite teachers to give their students the prompt, “Love is…” and then to share back what their students wrote. 2,000 did just that and the results were combined by Alexander into an inspiring, insightful crowd sourced poem, “A Day Full of Hugs” and shared on the air today, on Valentine’s Day. You can listen to the full radio segment from NPR.

In the segment they also interview a first grade teacher from Manassas, Virginia, Emory Stevens. She describes using this “Love is…” prompt with her first graders. She shares about the classroom exercise, how they responded, how she uses poetry in the classroom, and why that’s so important for children. Then three students share their poems; they are profound and moving.

Here’s what got me next, and what was so familiar to our efforts to Make Work More Human.

In the classroom, she first invited the students to write about sadness. They all did, easily with lots of details and without hesitation. They all had sad experiences to share and had lots to say about sadness.

Similarly in my research interviews, I first ask people to tell me a story about a time when they felt afraid at work. They do this easily and without hesitation. Everyone has a story, and those stories often take a long time to tell, have lots of detail and are often emotional.

In the classroom exercise, the teacher then invited students to write about love, using the prompt, “Love is…”

But students resisted this with, “Ooooo! Gross!!!”

You can imagine the squirms and giggling.

That balking, discomfort, and hesitation at the word love is totally familiar to me in my work with adults. It is not much different from what sometimes happens when I ask in my research interviews, “Now, please tell me a story about a time when you felt loved at work.”

People sometimes hesitate and squirm. Sometimes they say, “Well, I wouldn’t use the word love, but I’d use the word…respect or care or empathy or trust or inclusion…” They just aren’t comfortable thinking of love as anything other than romance so they pick a word that is a subsidiary of love. And then they go on to tell me amazing stories about how a leader cared about them as a person, about their team being like a family, or about being supported at work when they faced a personal crisis. These acts of humanity at work make us feel loved. And when we feel loved we do better work. Period.

But we are conditioned to flinch at the word love. And apparently in Western culture that squirming and hesitance starts at a very young age. Apparently we learn very early that the experiences and feelings of love, that we need to thrive, are taboo.

In that first grade classroom, the teacher had to explain to students that love isn’t just about “hugging and kissing and other gross stuff.” Love can be “loving an animal like a dog, or loving a country like Mexico, or loving a food like popcorn. And that there are no wrong answers.” With that explanation, the kids got over their initial “love is gross” response and wrote things like, “Love is when your dad comes home from war.”

I also see this when I speak to adults in workplaces and at conferences and tell them that we need to decrease fear in the workplace and replace it with love to make work more human.

Now no one has ever actually said, “Oooo! Gross!” But some people are initially stunned, some gasp, and many are obviously uncomfortable that I’ve said the word “Love” in a professional setting. In fairness, many people are overjoyed and excited to hear love discussed at work, too. But many people think love is a taboo topic, and they have a huge mental barrier to overcome to be able to really explore what’s possible when we create optimal conditions for human beings to thrive with love.

You see, love is not just a romantic experience. Love is a human experience that manifests in feelings, emotions, and actions in all parts of our lives. We love when we help a stranger on the street. We love when we bring in the garbage cans for our neighbor who is ill. We love when we support the ideas of a colleague who is part of a minority group, who’s voice is not usually heard. We love when we trust someone to take on a new assignment. We love when we cover a colleague’s work so they can grieve the death of a parent.

This is what it is to be human. This is what it is to love. And it’s not gross.

Today on Valentine’s Day, let’s resolve to stop whatever it is we are doing, saying, showing and teaching our children that would make them think think that love is only “yucky romantic stuff.”

Instead, let’s begin to teach children that they are loved, and that we love each other, and that love is a normal and essential human experience. Let’s help them to see that love is compassion, kindness, trust, respect, inclusion and so much more. Let’s make love normal for our children and for each other too.

Then perhaps in 20 years we won’t have the mammoth task of healing wounded adults who have a stunted idea of love. I work for a day when human beings are free to see and experience love as a necessary, integral and normal part of their daily lives, including their work lives.

Happy Valentine’s Day, with love,