Bringing the human back into the workplace

Employees are not robots, and HR should not forget to treat them as people.

   About the author


   Dr. Mariam Sha, Founder and Director of Awakening Excellence

There is a Charlie Chaplin movie Modern Times. Chaplin is portrayed as a factory worker employed on an assembly line. There, he is subjected to such indignities as being force-fed by a malfunctioning "feeding machine", and an accelerating assembly line where he screws nuts at an ever-increasing rate onto pieces of machinery. He finally suffers a nervous breakdown and runs amok, throwing the factory into chaos.

From caveman days and prior to the industrial revolution, it seems that man took responsibility for his life, made decisions favourable or not, but took ownership for those decisions.

The industrial age through to the manufacturing age introduced division of labour and specialisation, a time when one or a few individuals made decisions. The phrase often heard “you were hired to work, not to think”, strips man of using his most liberating asset, which is “his brain”. What then became of man was merely “a robot with a pulse”. Modern Times provided a glimpse into the role of the employee through those ages.

Now in the digital age, we expect people to keep up, to make decisions, to think for themselves, to innovate and lead; but the pattern of behaviour created over time will not allow for this.

How do we create work environments that encourage thinking, people taking ownership and responsibility for their deliverables and decisions, becoming solution focused, creating opportunities, and being leaders?

A more relevant question is why do we need to have these changes in the work environment? From an organisation point of view, it is vital that we have solution-focused thinkers in the workspace. Many individuals’ collective actions and behaviour create the culture of the organisation, and ultimately impact the all-important bottom line.

Gone are those days where a few senior leaders could make a decision and see the results of that decision as planned. Do you often wonder as a manager or leader why plans and decisions do not transpire into results?

From an individual perspective – we have always made decisions. It’s part of our make-up. If we don’t re-programme our brain we will be left behind amongst those that allow others to drive us in our personal and professional lives while remaining in the passenger seat with little or no say. When we reach our destination, we wonder how we have arrived and how life has passed us by without an active role and choice in designing it.

Here’s what you could consider as HR;

1. Have awareness of your pattern of thinking and behaviour. What do you do and say? What reaction and result do you get from this? And if the behaviour or programme is not working, consider an alternative and observe the results.


2. You spend over 70% of your life at work – choose the work you do that puts you in a flow. Motivated people are healthier, happier, and more engaged.


3. We don’t have all the answers. Seek information and collaborate with people around you. Be with people who support and empower, not those that pull you down.


4. Take responsibility and make decisions, be a leader in your space.


5. Seek feedback from friends, family and colleagues – continuously learn, grow and improve in all that you do. Build relations don’t break them.


On a macro level, what do high performing organisations do?

  • Encourage thinking – give people permission to innovate and be creative.


  • Learn from mistakes – continuously improve


  • Coach people – ask questions from people; peer, subordinates and managers to discover solutions to problems and challenges


  • Clarify roles and responsibilities and decision making authority – support people in decision-making


  • Recognise and appreciate people for their contribution


  • Create trust in the work environment by being human


Ultimately, we should bring the human being back into the workplace. A thinking person is healthy, happy, engaged, and high performing.

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