Humans of Organizations

Last week I heard Iffit Qureshi speak at a TEDx event in Oslo. Iffit is a Scottish woman of Pakistani origin who has lived in Norway for over 20 years - a global citizen by any standards! For many years she was an activist and political commentator on gender and race inequalities. In her talk, she recalled a stage of her life when all she used to notice were the differences between people. Now what she focuses upon, and what she photographs for her website Humans of Oslo, is people’s shared humanity.

The terrible event of 22nd July 2011, when Norway’s peaceful way of life was shattered by the brutal mass murder of 77 people, including 55 teenagers, was the tipping point for Iffit. Norway is a small country and an estimated 1 in 4 Norwegians personally knew someone affected by the tragedy. Iffit’s experience of shock led her to begin to take photographs of people – all types of people – in an effort to rediscover a sense of humanity, something she felt she had lost in the aftermath of the massacre.

Her talk made me wonder: do we need to wait for an event as brutal and shocking as what happened that summer in Norway to remind us that we are all human? A feeling of dehumanisation is prevalent in large organizations. What can we do to buck the trend to forget how much we all share? For the truth is that we share so much more than we differ, both physically and psychologically.

Six Actors by Paul Ekman

This picture of six actors displaying different emotions formed part of a ground-breaking piece of psychological research in the 1960s by the American academic Paul Ekman.1 He had the idea that there was a set of ‘primary’ emotions that all humans could recognise. He took the picture around the world, including to isolated tribes in Papua New Guinea, and discovered that in every language there were words for surprise, anger, fear, disgust, sadness and happiness (clockwise from bottom left). Whilst his first pictures used only Caucasian actors, in later trials he used many different ethnic groups and the results were the same.

Though Ekman’s hypothesis that these emotions were ‘distinct’ (like primary colours) has since been disproved by neuro-scientific research, his core idea - that emotions are universal - is valid. They are also functional. Emotions are more than just feeling-states. They are deeply linked to our actions and have evolved to help us survive, not only as individuals, but also as people in relation to one another. Our conscious awareness of our emotions, and indeed our ability to empathise with the emotional experience of others, is one of the universal characteristics of being human.

So why does this aspect of humanity so often seem to disappear once we set ourselves up in organizations? Partly it’s down to the sheer size of the modern organization. Humans evolved in groups and tribes that typically ranged from 20 to 200 people. The gigantism of multi-nationals is a very recent phenomena and not one that we are ideally suited to. This is really noticeable in the data we collect on happiness at work. People in small organizations are 25% more likely to be happy at work than those in large ones.

Large organizations have to work harder to make workplaces fit for humans. I like how my favourite large organization, Zappos, deals with the issue of scale. Each morning when employees log in to their computers, a picture of a colleague appears on the screen, with a choice of three possible names. People have to guess their colleague’s name – or better still display their knowledge of it. In this way Zappos systematically encourages the barriers between people to be broken down.

There are no doubt many more ways to make workplaces more human. Perhaps starting a “Humans of our Organization” project would be a fun thing to do – and something fun would be a good place to start. Because I am convinced that getting businesses to understand the common humanity of all the people that work for them is essential if we are to create organizations that are fit for the challenges of the 21st century.

If you have an idea for a way to humanize your workplace, why not share with us at

  1. Universals and cultural differences in facial expressions of emotion.
    Ekman, Paul, Nebraska Symposium on Motivation, Vol 19, 1971, 207-283.

Nic MarksNic Marks is the CEO and founder of Happiness Works. Nic’s work in happiness and wellbeing research methodology is world-renowned. His love of using applied statistics to ground wellbeing and happiness in hard evidence has led to worldwide acclaim and the realization that happiness is a serious business.

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