There is a famous parable1 in the social sciences about the malleability of human behaviour. During a 48-hour London Underground strike in 2014, thousands of commuters scrambled to find alternative routes for their daily commute. After the strike, not all who switched routes returned to their usual ones; some presumably found a more convenient or cheaper way to get around. In other words, an unexpected shock had induced lasting changes in people’s behaviour.
The global COVID-19 pandemic has similarly set off ripples in the workplace. Remote working and the erosion of work-life boundaries have brought mental wellness to the fore.2 Many have been spurred by the extended periods of isolation to rethink their careers.3 As they weigh push and pull factors, some will eventually quit and pursue new opportunities, contributing to what has been termed ‘The Great Resignation’. The rise in turnover as the global economy recovers will alter not just an organisation’s workforce but also its leadership pipeline and pool of institutional knowledge.
The Importance of Organisational Health
Workplace wellness, staff attraction and retention, pipeline resilience: these are all aspects of organisational health. They are barometers for an organisation’s ability to align its members with its mission, deliver high quality execution, and renew itself when the need arises.4
In the private sector, organisational health is emerging as a key pillar of companies’ Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) goals as they seek to tackle people issues like workforce redundancy, pay inequity, and staff activism. The shift in focus from profits to people is perhaps best encapsulated by the call by Larry Fink,5 head of the multinational investment management firm BlackRock, for CEOs to link corporate purpose to the benefit of not just shareholders but all stakeholders, including employees. Other business leaders have voiced similar concerns.6 While some of the rhetoric may be typecast as corporate virtue-signalling,7 there is no doubt that greater public scrutiny will pressure management to be more accountable for organisational health.
An organisation's health is its ability to align its members with its mission, deliver high quality execution, and renew itself when the need arises.
ENVIRONMENTAL, SOCIAL AND GOVERNANCE (ESG) INDICATORS IN THE PRIVATE SECTOR
ESG objectives track the sustainability of a company’s operations along three dimensions:
For the Singapore Public Service, the need to keep tabs on organisational health will only become more important as we strive to attract and retain our fair share of talent. This is not just a simple calculus of manpower inflows and outflows. Beyond the figures is the more fundamental question of whether we can enable our officers to flourish in their various capacities. It is a question that is becoming more challenging to answer as we face fiercer talent competition and a new generation of officers with more diverse career aspirations and greater workplace expectations.
The Humanistic Approach
How can organisations help their workforce and leaders to flourish? As a first attempt at an answer, we can turn to an emerging body of practice known as humanistic management: HR and organisational design practices that emphasise the centrality of the employee as an individual person. The humanistic approach asserts that, fundamentally, people have intrinsic motivations.8 They can be motivated to adopt a growth mentality, strive to become better versions of themselves, and serve a higher purpose. Conversely, they can also engage in unhealthy competition or harbour feelings of resentment for their colleagues and organisations.
Taking care of people’s motivations through the right policies and processes that give due consideration to these emotions—irrational as they may sometimes be—is therefore one important aspect of HR. A healthy organisation is one that engenders feelings of trust and fulfilment amongst its employees by effectively channelling these motivations towards productive aims.
The humanistic approach asserts that, fundamentally, people have intrinsic motivations.
This approach contrasts with more traditional management methods, rooted in Taylorism,9 that have tended to view individuals as self-optimising, rational agents who can be incentivised to exhibit productive behaviours simply through carrots and sticks.
Some researchers go one step further by saying that humanistic management should additionally promote employees’ ‘self-determination’—that is to say, the fulfilment of their innate needs for autonomy, competence, and sense of belonging to their teams or their organisations.10 This is a tall order, since it requires HR interventions to actively shape employees’ sense of self-worth as they progress in their careers.
Below are two concrete examples of how humanistic management might be applied to improve organisational health.
A healthy organisation is one that engenders feelings of trust and fulfilment amongst its employees by effectively channelling these motivations towards productive aims.
#1: Diversifying pathways to success
The humanistic approach begins with the insight that people are driven by the innate need to be accepted as part of a community, and therefore seek rank as validation that they are being valued. Through highly visible symbols like job roles and other social clues, we measure where we sit relative to others within real and imagined hierarchies. This gives rise to invidious comparisons, especially when claims to validation are scarce —there can only be one CEO, just a couple of Executive Directors, not more than a handful of Senior Vice Presidents and so on. Yet the contenders are many, most of whom will eventually be disappointed along the way.
Seen in this light, promotion exercises and career management in general are not just rules-based procedures: they are levers that directly impact employees’ dignity and sense of self-worth. And when the roads to success are far and few between, employees clamouring for status and validation can become fixated on climbing the corporate ladder, creating unhealthy competition, departmental strife, and unnecessary stress.
People are driven by the innate need to be accepted as part of a community, and therefore seek rank as validation that they are being valued.
One humanistic response to this is to diversify the roads to success. Instead of having a single, cookie-cutter career track whereby every individual is evaluated on the same scorecard, having multiple career tracks that reward for different skillsets can prove to be a more realistic way of validating employees. It can take the form of different developmental pathways as an economist, a counsellor, or even a UX/UI designer, spanning entry levels to senior leadership roles. It may entail creating dual career tracks by identifying new specialist roles at every level so that progression need not be only via managerial or generalist roles. As new niches emerge and as organisational priorities change, new pathways may be added, or existing ones consolidated, to keep a nimble structure that continues to recognise employees’ worth in the various roles that they play.
Alternatively, there could be multiple ways to pursue the same career track. For example, employees may be offered more freedom in curating their own developmental postings both within and outside the organisation for extended periods of time. They can also be granted sabbaticals to pursue their interests in a personal capacity, such as by setting up a company or engaging in freelancing work in a related area. Performance appraisals can be made more flexible to recognise these and other alternative experiences.
Diversifying the roads to success encourages employees to sort themselves into niches that best suit their capabilities and comparative advantages . This has several benefits:
• At the individual level, more differentiated pathways reduce our tendencies to compare ourselves with others in reductionist ways. Alleviating unnecessary competitive pressure allows more room for introspection; individuals are freer to reflect whether certain career paths are meant for them without fearing adverse social judgement if they chose another. In other words, there is no longer the proverbial need for a fish to be judged by its ability to climb a tree. In turn, they would be less likely to leave their organisations for lack of ‘career fit’.
• At the organisational level, having multiple career tracks encourages employees to experiment with different professional experiences. As they pursue different interests and gain new perspectives, they become more entrepreneurial. Greater workforce diversity in skills and competencies—some of which may be specialist in nature—also adds to the organisation’s versatility, a key trait that has been shown to enable it to weather crises better.11
• A further benefit to the organisation is stability. The sociologist Jack Goldstone has written about the curse of “elite over-production”: societies that produce too many competent people but offer too few positions of high status have tended to create resentful cadres who were never graced by the velvet touch of success at the top.12 This has historically incited conflict in opposition to the successful. Similarly for organisations, there is a need to balance the demand for talent and the supply of high-paying and high-status jobs. Having different pathways allows greater latitude to create more of such jobs at the top across different domains, thereby keeping destabilising behaviours at bay.
In these regards, the Singapore Public Service is taking steps in the right direction. As more officers serve their postings in the private and people sectors, and as we welcome mid-career entrants, there are now more opportunities to build and formally recognise alternative pathways. Done right, diversifying pathways can bring about greater fulfilment and deeper meaning for employees in their careers, while organisations benefit from a more polyvalent and resilient workforce.
Diversifying the roads to success encourages employees to sort themselves into niches that best suit their capabilities and comparative advantages.
#2: De-linking fulfilment from vertical mobility
Besides career progression, a second and often contentious area is in career transitions. As career lifetimes lengthen, organisations will have to grapple with increasingly top-heavy population pyramids. At a time when most people are accustomed to the idea that career progression can only mean upward mobility, many will eventually face the unwelcome choice of either moving laterally or quitting their jobs.
How do organisations usually encourage their employees to move laterally? Standard narratives run along the lines of employees being given a chance to acquire new skills in new areas or build new networks across departmental silos. Unfortunately, these benefits are framed from the organisation’s perspective and therefore hardly persuasive to employees themselves. They further gloss over the simple fact that sideways career moves can be disorienting to some, especially if they are uprooted and transplanted into an unfamiliar job function.
How do organisations usually encourage their employees to move laterally? Standard narratives are framed from the organisation’s perspective and therefore hardly persuasive to employees themselves.
Tempting as it may be to write these effects off as ‘frictional’ and a necessary part of the process, there are real implications for organisational health. Employees in transition—especially those who expected a promotion but who were instead told to move into an adjacent position at the same level—may feel displaced, short-changed, anxious, or inferior. Staff morale and retention are common casualties. In more severe cases, transitioning older employees could raise suspicions of age discrimination and expose organisations to legal risk.
In contrast, a more humanistic approach acknowledges the salience of these sentiments and focuses instead on: (i) how to overcome them in the short term; and (ii) their potentially positive effects on the growth of the individual over the longer term.
First, instead of avoiding such inconvenient issues, the humanistic approach looks at how resources may be diverted to cushion the psychological impact on employees. For example, it is useful to already have a culture of differentiated assignments, agile and cross-functional teams, job-shadowing, and short-term rotations even before career transitions take place, as these features tend to soften portfolio boundaries and normalise the practice of taking on different roles.
For those already in transition, besides having a suite of skills-based training programmes, it is also useful to build informal support networks amongst those in similar situations to assure them that they are not alone. Profiling those who have transitioned and subsequently thrived in their new roles can provide useful role models and social learning opportunities. The crux is to create organic platforms to smoothen transition, as people tend to be more receptive to guidance from others who have similar lived experiences compared to top-down boilerplate narratives.
The second aspect relates to the longer term: how employees in transition themselves can deal with the disorientating effects in a more positive way and emerge a better version of themselves after the transition.
The crux is to create organic platforms to smoothen the transition, as people tend to be more receptive to guidance from others who have similar lived experiences.
One useful perspective is the model of ‘positive disintegration’, proposed by the psychologist Kazimierz Dabrowski.13 This model describes personal development as a series of inner conflicts. When faced with stressors like a change in career trajectory, individuals are thrown into disarray and forced to confront uncomfortable narratives that challenge pre-conceived notions of ‘the way things are’—in this case the idea that career progression is always upwards. Deviating from this path through a lateral movement, according to the status quo, represents a fall in social standing and a threat to the individual’s future in the organisation. Their sense of security and self-assuredness collapses.
The ‘disintegrating’ individual then faces two possibilities: either (i) regressing into frustration and self-doubt, being unable to escape the grip of real or perceived social judgement; or (ii) progressing by consciously reviewing existing assumptions about their life and career, replacing outdated mindsets with refreshed narratives that give purpose to their new circumstances. These new narratives may for instance be about the simple joy of learning new things, gaining more self-awareness, and a greater exercise of personal strengths.
In other words, the initial disequilibrium that career transitions may provoke can also generate opportunities for individuals to grow and find new meaning in their subsequent careers. The question, then, is how to ensure that employees facing these psychological headwinds tend towards the second outcome rather than the first.
While this requires a certain degree of discipline and self-management by employees, managers in their new roles can provide an environment that facilitates positive disintegration. Managers can consciously staff their new employees with work of increasing complexity—for example, from filling out mechanical paperwork at a family services centre to handling live cases of family dysfunction that demand a degree of judgement call. Handling more complex work overtime also confers more agency to the individual to formulate solutions and take ownership of his own recommendations, thereby giving the individual a sense of purpose and agency in his new role.
The initial disequilibrium that career transitions may provoke can also generate opportunities for individuals to grow and find new meaning in their second subsequent careers.
Caveats and Some Food for Thought
This article has argued that career interventions carried out from the perspective of individuals’ innate motivations are sharper tools to tackle day-to-day and often visceral people issues in areas which are increasingly relevant to organisational health.
Encouragingly, the Singapore Public Service is taking steps to humanise key moments in the HR lifecycle. For example, our career coaching networks can be a valuable resource for officers to resolve career barriers. Other initiatives such as Structured Job Rotations and Talent Attachment Programmes facilitate greater porosity with the people and private sectors. For public sector leaders, the Mid-Career Leadership Track accords greater recognition for time spent outside the Public Service. These are all steps towards allowing for more diverse and fulfilling career pathways.
To be sure, the humanistic view is not without its pitfalls. The most common criticism is that it is unrealistic to implement.14 Some organisations, and especially profit-driven companies, may not have the budgetary wherewithal to put in place the right developmental or support programmes. Managers may also not be enlightened or capable enough to support their staff in the right ways.
It is also hard to measure the efficacy of humanistic interventions: we can only find noisy proxies for employees’ sense of fulfilment and self-actualisation, themselves nebulous concepts to begin with. At best, pursuing the right policies may show up secondarily and with a lag in lower attrition figures and higher employee engagement.
The crux is to create organic platforms to smoothen the transition, as people tend to be more receptive to guidance from others who have similar lived experiences.
This may be a problem for organisations that pride themselves on making data-driven decisions: interventions with benefits that are intangible—and which fail to move the needle on quantitative dashboards that capture staff sentiment or manpower flows—may not receive management’s buy-in, important as these interventions often are.
It is hard to measure the efficacy of humanistic interventions: we can only find noisy proxies for employees’ sense of fulfilment and self-actualisation.
But organisations ignore the humanistic aspect at their own peril. Recent research in several countries, including Singapore, shows that employers often underestimate the importance of relational factors that drive attrition.15 Such factors include the need for employees to have a sense of belonging and to feel valued by their organisation and manager—all of them basic needs that a more humanistic approach can respond to.
As labour markets adjust to the post-pandemic normal, organisational health will likely be top-of-mind for employers and employees alike. Perhaps it is time to think about how we can better enable individuals to flourish in their best possible selves. And what better time to relook at HR practices in the wake of the pandemic with The Great Resignation in full swing? After all, we should never pass up a good opportunity—the London Underground commuters certainly did not.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Soh Zhi Liang is Senior Analyst in both the HR Policy and Strategic Planning & Research teams in the Public Service Division, Prime Minister’s Office. Before joining the Public Service, he worked in the private sector, in corporate strategy and investment banking.
This article was written in the author’s personal capacity; the opinions in the article are the author’s own and the article does not reflect the view of the Public Service Division or the Singapore Government.
- Shaun Larcom, Ferdinand Rauch, and Tim Willems, “The Benefits of Forced Experimentation: Striking Evidence from the London Underground Network”, The Quarterly Journal of Economics 132, no. 4 (November 2017): 2019–2055.
- A study by Oracle and Workplace Intelligence found that 2020 was the most stressful year people have ever experienced in their working lives, with 78% of the 12,000 workers surveyed globally saying that the pandemic has negatively affected their mental health. See AI@Work Study 2020.
- Herminia Ibarra, “Reinventing Your Career in the Time of Coronavirus”, Harvard Business Review, April 27, 2020.
- Organisational health is defined along these lines by Scott Keller and Colin Price in Beyond Performance: How Great Organisations Build Ultimate Competitive Advantage (John Wiley & Sons, 2011).
- See Larry Fink’s 2019 Letter to CEOs, Profit & Purpose.
- Prominent figures include Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase, who in his Letter to Shareholders on 7 April 2021 wrote about demonstrating “compassion” for employees and communities “while still upholding shareholder value”; Marc Benioff, founder of Salesforce, who spoke on the pitfalls of shareholder primacy at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos, 21 January 2020; and Paul Polman, former CEO of Unilever, who called the COVID-19 pandemic an ‘acid test’ for stakeholder capitalism during an interview in 2020.
- A particularly humorous rebuke of ESG virtue-signalling can be found in Elad Roisman’s Keynote Speech at the Society for Corporate Governance National Conference, in which the former commissioner of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission called for “Everyone [to] Stop Grandstanding”.
- For a more technical treatment, see Domenec Melé, “Understanding Humanistic Management”, Humanistic Management Journal 1, no. 1 (August 2016): 33–55.
- For example, see Stéphanie Arnaud and David Wasieleski, “Corporate Humanistic Responsibility: Social Performance through Managerial Discretion of the HRM”, Journal of Business Ethics 120, (2014): 313–334.
- Punit Renjen, “5 Attributes of Resilient Organizations”, The Wall Street Journal, January 25, 2021.
- Jack Goldstone, Revolutions (Oxford University Press, 2013).
- A summary of the theory is provided by Krystyna Laycraft in “The Theory of Positive Disintegration as Future-Oriented Psychology”, Annals of Cognitive Science 4, no. 1(July 2020): 118–126.
- David McGuire, Christine Cross, and David O’Donnell, “Why Humanistic Approaches in HRD Won’t Work”, Human Resource Development Quarterly 16, no. 1 (Spring 2005): 131–137.
- McKinsey surveyed 5,774 people of working age in Australia, Canada, Singapore, the United Kingdom, and the United States across multiple industries. See Aaron De Smet, Bonnie Dowling, Marino Mugayar-Baldocchi, and Bill Schaninger, “‘Great Attrition’ or ‘Great Attraction’? The Choice Is Yours”, McKinsey Quarterly, September 2021.