Humanizing the Enterprise

Leadership Matters

Leading UX transformation

June 5, 2017

Is your company failing to innovate and, consequently, finding itself the target of disruptive innovation? Is the ability to deliver stellar experience outcomes eluding your enterprise? Are you having a hard time attracting and retaining the best employees?

In today’s rapidly shifting business environment, many large enterprises are struggling with all three of these challenges. The reason: meeting each of these challenges requires a highly engaged workforce and, unfortunately, such workforces are rare.

If, as a leader within a large enterprise, you need to solve one or more of these problems, you should think about how you can humanize your enterprise and make it a place in which people can do their best work.

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In too many enterprises, there is a high level of dysfunction that makes them challenging environments in which to work. For example:

  • Deep hierarchies put all of the power, decision making, responsibility, and privileges in the hands of a few and devalue the contributions of employees at the lower levels of the hierarchy. This inequality creates adversarial relationships between management and front-line employees.
  • Long-term planning is out of sync with today’s rapidly changing marketplace.
  • Decision making is far removed from the front-line employees who interact with customers.
  • Fear-based management destroys trust and demotivates employees.
  • Management’s focus on squeezing ever greater efficiencies out of teams stifles creativity and innovation.
  • Overly large teams make it difficult to establish the team feeling that collaboration requires and often engender internal competition.
  • Excessive bureaucracy, rules, and systems of governance obstruct progress and make it difficult to work efficiently.

In Maverick: The Success Story Behind the World’s Most Unusual Workplace, Ricardo Semler wrote:

“The heart of the problem is the pyramid, the basic organizing principle of the modern corporation. It gets narrower as it rises, rewarding the few who keep climbing, but demoralizing a far greater number who reach a plateau or fall by the wayside. What can be expected of employees at the lower levels, whose opinions are never sought and to whom explanations are rarely given?”

Employee Engagement

According to the results of a 2015 Gallup survey, employee engagement in the US has stagnated since 2000, with just 32% of employees describing themselves as engaged. Most employees are either not engaged (50.8%) or actively disengaged (17.2%). The situation is even worse worldwide: only 13% of employees feel engaged in their work. Gallup defines employee engagement as their “having an opportunity to do what they do best each day, having someone at work who encourages their development, and believing their opinions count at work.”

Engaged employees are highly committed to their work, their team, and their organization. They care about serving the needs of customers and users. They work in harmony together to solve challenging problems. They feel invested in their company’s success. In contrast, employees who are not engaged behave as though they’re just doing time. They make the minimum effort necessary to keep their job. In many cases, employees feel disengaged because they’re receiving little or no support from their management. Employees who are actively disengaged are actually hostile toward their employer and their behavior at work is often disruptive.

Creating and sustaining an engaged workforce is a key leadership responsibility. Leading an engaged workforce means respecting employees, taking responsibility for their welfare, setting clear expectations, communicating with candor, assigning employees to projects that provide opportunities for growth, helping employees succeed by providing mentoring and training, giving employees whatever they need to be successful in their work; fostering a healthy, cooperative, collaborative culture; and providing a compelling mission. To attract and retain the best employees, you must create a great workplace and lead employees in a way that enables them to achieve their full potential. For a more in-depth discussion of effective leadership, see the columns that Jim Nieters and I wrote on this topic: “UX Leadership, Part 1: The Nature of Great Leaders” and “UX Leadership, Part 2: What Great Leaders Must Do.”

A highly engaged workforce is critical to business success. High levels of employee engagement correlate to critical positive business outcomes such as high earnings per share. Only with an engaged workforce can you achieve the levels of excellence that will differentiate your enterprise.

Satisfying Your Employees’ Social Appetites

Recently, I read Paul Herr’s excellent book Primal Management: Unraveling the Secrets of Human Nature to Drive High Performance. In his book, Herr makes the case for five social appetites that ensure human survival by engendering feelings of pleasure and pain. These social appetites provide the motivation that drives human achievement—both in people’s personal lives and within organizations. In Table 1, let’s consider how each of these appetites affects employee motivation in enterprises and how, as a leader, you can leverage your employees’ social appetites to create a highly engaged, productive workforce and ensure positive outcomes.

Table 1—Herr’s five social appetites
  Social Appetite Outcomes Organizational Implementation


Cooperation Appetite


Employees’ desire to invest in and bond with the people, ideas, places, and things they value

The desire to belong to a tribe lies at the heart of employee loyalty and engagement; fosters deep collaboration and highly coordinated teamwork; and engenders feelings of mutual accountability and ownership over outcomes.

In contrast, when people feel that they are being excluded from the tribe, they experience painful feelings of alienation.

To create a cooperative workforce with shared goals:

  1. Bond with your employees by learning to value them and understand what’s important to them and by investing in mentoring them. Bonding takes at least four months.
  2. Flatten the hierarchy, break down bureaucracy, delegate, and empower employees.
  3. Encourage employees to form invested, trust-based relationships and engage in mutual mentoring.
  4. Promote accountability among employees.
  5. Persuade employees to volunteer for a compelling mission.


Competency Appetite


Employees’ desire to master the essential survival skills of their tribe, develop expertise, employ their expertise with confidence, and gain self-esteem

This appetite is the force behind a tribe’s culture. Group consensus determines what skills and assets are valuable to the tribe, defines its values, and emotionally affirms socially desirable behaviors.

This appetite rewards mastery and punishes incompetence. Depending on employees’ success in achieving skill mastery, or competency, they will experience feelings of high or low self-esteem. If an employee lacks an essential skill, the resultant feeling of low self-esteem prompts the acquisition of that skill.

To develop a workforce of competent experts:

  1. Encourage employees to engage in continuous learning and master skills that are valuable to the tribe.
  2. Respect all employees as experts.
  3. Heal the psychic wounds that result from past failures. Another psychic occurs because of the common perception within hierarchical organizations that the roles of those at the bottom of the hierarchy are less important than those of management. This leads to low self-esteem among front-line employees that you’ll need to overcome.


Skill-Deployment Appetite


Employees’ desire to deploy their skills successfully in achieving their tribe’s goals

This appetite ensures that employees repeatedly deploy their skills to achieve their tribe’s goals. Because bonded employees care about their tribe, they want to contribute to its success.

Depending on employees’ success in deploying their skills and attaining these goals, they will experience either the exuberance of winning or the pain of loss.

To create a rewarding workplace that resonates with the joy of achievement:

  1. Make sure employees value the work, understand the big picture and their role within it, and are committed to contributing to its success.
  2. Ensure a fair workplace in which everyone gets to participate and strong efforts result in energizing wins.
  3. Encourage employees to follow their passions and look out for emerging opportunities.
  4. Provide positive feedback to employees, especially when objective performance criteria don’t exist.
  5. Whenever possible, establish clear performance standards, tailoring them to the individual employee.
  6. Allow employees to swap roles and learn new skills.


Innovation Appetite


Employees’ desire to satisfy their curiosity, enjoy the experience of novelty, and solve difficult problems within a complex, ever-changing environment

For human beings, innovation is an essential survival skill. This appetite encourages people to explore, experiment, adapt, and seek the peak experience of a Eureka! moment during ideation.

There are two types of innovation:

  1. Incremental innovation—Within enterprises, most innovations are small, incremental improvements to existing products and services. In aggregate, these improvements can result in significant change over time.
  2. Disruptive innovation—These innovations cause radical shifts in the marketplace and result in the creation of entirely new classes of products or services. For most enterprises, disruptive innovation is an elusive goal.

To foster innovation:

  1. Give employees the freedom to explore and experiment.
  2. Listen to new ideas with an open mind.
  3. Provide enough resources to determine whether an idea has merit.
  4. Encourage employees to evangelize their ideas within a marketplace of ideas. The tribe will determine which ideas move forward. If ideas don’t get traction, encourage employees to try again.
  5. To adapt to today’s world of rapid change and unexpected threats and opportunities, decentralize planning and instead delegate decision making to front-line employees who make decisions in real time, based on their knowledge and understanding of an emerging situation.


Self-Protection Appetite


Employees’ desire to protect themselves and their social assets from harm

This appetite results in either feelings of security or, when employees feel that they are at risk, fear and anxiety.

Within a highly functioning enterprise, this appetite provides the motivation employees need to get mundane tasks done.

However, within a dysfunctional organization, where fear-based management is prevalent, this appetite prompts destructive impulses such as selfishness, mean-spirited competition, jealousy, and anger.

To create value and avoid triggering the self-protection appetite and its destructive, fear-based emotions:

  1. Treat every interaction with your employees as an opportunity to communicate that you value them.
  2. Demonstrate your confidence in employees’ ability to work autonomously.
  3. Treat everyone as an equal.
  4. Keep groups small enough to function as tribes.
  5. Focus on doing excellent work, not on making money.

Based on Paul Herr’s Primal Management

According to Paul Herr, “Hierarchically organized corporations are not united or tribal and do not take full advantage of nature’s motivational mechanism. Rather, they starve the social appetites and end up with motivationally malnourished employees. … A cool, impersonal approach to management ignores the motivational mechanism and is, therefore, harmful to everyone involved—management, shareholders, customers, and employees.” In contrast, employees “function best in intensely personal, committed, and invested workgroups. … Companies that align themselves with human nature are both incredibly productive and incredibly rewarding places to work.”

Transforming into a Humanistic Enterprise

Transforming into a trust-based, humanistic enterprise is the only way to engage your employees and mobilize your workforce to do great things. However, achieving cultural transformation is difficult.

Getting an enterprise’s leadership to recognize the need to transform and motivating them to commit to the effort such a transformation entails is itself a significant barrier to overcome. However, to motivate leadership to drive cultural change, try leveraging the innovation imperative that exists for enterprises and the necessity of creating superior experience outcomes to meet the demands of today’s experience economy. Both of these essential endeavors require a humanistic workplace, in which people are passionate about their work.

What has to change for an enterprise to be capable of innovating? As Joseph L. Bower and Clayton M. Christensen wrote in their Harvard Business Review (HBR) article “Disruptive Technologies,” “The problem is that managers keep doing what has worked in the past: serving the rapidly growing needs of their current customers.” However, disruptive innovations require a company to sacrifice “performance along dimensions that are important to current customers” and, instead, create products whose benefits those customers do not yet value.

This shift away from focusing on the needs of current customers, coupled with the way enterprises calculate the potential value of a new product or service, are the key reasons established enterprises typically fail to invest in disruptive innovations, according to the HBR article “Meeting the Challenge of Disruptive Change,” by Clayton M. Christensen and Michael Overdorf. In this article, they also wrote about selecting the right structure for innovation, which in most cases, requires the formation of a “heavyweight team dedicated exclusively to the innovation project, with complete responsibility for its success.”

Establishing such a heavyweight innovation team provides the perfect opportunity to inculcate both an innovation culture and an experience-first culture into your organization. Both require humanistic cultures that create a highly engaged workforce. Once this heavyweight innovation team has demonstrated the efficacy of such a humanistic culture, it can serve as a model for transforming the entire company into a more humanistic enterprise.


Outperforming the competition by doing great things—whether creating innovative products or services, achieving service excellence, or creating stellar experience outcomes—requires an engaged workforce. The highly motivated, tribal workforces of experience-first companies care deeply about serving the needs of the people who purchase and use their products. They are also capable of driving disruptive innovation by discovering, understanding, and meeting the needs of future customers.

A highly motivated, tribal workforce can accomplish anything. For a description of the qualities that are characteristic of the people who make up a deeply humanistic workforce, see my article “13 Human Qualities You Must Have to Succeed in Work and Life.”

Would you rather be part of a hierarchical power structure within a bureaucratic enterprise or belong to an egalitarian, self-motivated, self-organizing tribe? 

Principal Consultant at Strategic UX

Founder, Publisher, and Editor in Chief of UXmatters

Silicon Valley, California, USA

Pabini Gabriel-PetitWith more than 20 years working in User Experience at companies such as Google, Cisco, WebEx, Apple, and many startups, Pabini now provides UX strategy and design consulting services through her Silicon Valley company, Strategic UX. Her past UX leadership roles include Head of UX for Sales & Marketing IT at Intel, Senior Director of UX and Design at Apttus, Principal UX Architect at BMC Software, VP of User Experience at scanR, and Manager of User Experience at WebEx. Pabini has led UX strategy, design, and user research for Web, mobile, and desktop applications for consumers, small businesses, and enterprises, in diverse product domains. Working collaboratively with business executives, multidisciplinary product teams, and UX teams, she has envisioned and realized holistic UX design solutions for innovative, award-winning products that delighted users, achieved success in the marketplace, and delivered business value. As a UX leader, she has facilitated conceptual modeling and ideation sessions; written user stories; prioritized product and usability requirements; established corporate design frameworks, standards, and guidelines; and integrated lean UX activities into agile development processes. Pabini is a strategic thinker, and the diversity of her experience enables her to synthesize innovative solutions for challenging strategy and design problems. She is passionate about creating great user experiences that meet users’ needs and get business results. A thought leader in the UX community, Pabini was a Founding Director of the Interaction Design Association (IxDA).  Read More

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