Building a Human-Centered Culture

Q&A with Warren Wright, Second Wave Learning, and Farzin Farzad, Critical Equity Consulting

Originally published on Leader’s Edge by Sandy Laycox

Prominent organizational development practitioners Farzin Farzad and Warren Wright led an interactive workshop at The Council’s 2022 Legislative & Working Groups Summit in D.C., introducing the concepts of inclusion and psychological safety, humanocracy, and the new demands of leadership.

Leader’s Edge caught up with them to dig deeper into practical ways to change an organization to make it more human centered and to build a more unified culture.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What is a human-centered culture? And why is it important right now for us to be focused on that?

Farzad: Human-centered culture puts people first. As cultures shift over time, we’ve recognized that people want a more positive experience in the workplace. For the longest time, I think people have felt alienated from their jobs, they have felt almost harmed at times to the point where it’s damaging and reduces engagement and then eventually reduces productivity. “Human-centered” literally just means putting people first—your employees, the contributors to your organization—and philosophically changing your mindset to focus on that primarily.

Wright: You also asked why now. In March of 2020, a giant reset button was pressed. People were not only reevaluating where they work—home or office—when they work, and how they work but also why am I working, why am I here. And, of course, there’s been the Great Resignation and a lot of issues with the labor markets. What’s happening from a macro standpoint is employees are having a greater voice in the decisions that are being made in organizations. Leaders need to have a sense and awareness of what is going on and how people are feeling about that. The companies that are going to be excelling in the next 10 years are the ones that really focus on this human-centered culture, those that really value the individuals as contributors to the outcomes and output of the organization through the people.

One of the major things you talked about was psychological safety. Can you discuss what that is and what its effect is, both positive and negative, when you don’t have it versus when you do in an organization?

Farzad: Psychological safety is one of those concepts that took off over the last few years. A few people have contributed to the literature, mainly Tim Clark [author of The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety] and Amy Edmondson [author of The Fearless Organization], but it really took hold after the Project Aristotle report by Google, which found that psychological safety was the number-one determinant of higher productivity, greater engagement, and high-performing teams.

What it is, according to Clark, is an environment of shared vulnerability. The idea is to create an environment where you’re reducing the walls, you’re able to speak more freely, contribute effectively, and have your opinions and input valued. That’s on one end. On the other end, it’s for you to be valued for who you are—your authentic self, your identity. Those are the two main ideas of psychological safety: who I am and what I contribute are very important core elements of the concept.

The exact opposite of a psychologically safe environment is a fear-based environment. You’re afraid to speak up, you’re afraid to contribute. There may be times where something happens or is about to happen and you know the answer but you’ve been shot down over however many years so you’re reluctant and almost insecure to say something. And that could change the outcome in the moment. A lot of it’s just autonomy, being able to address the issues that need to be addressed in the moment. Without it, you have toxic environments, you have environments that promote microaggressions, biases, stereotypes, all these things that detract from these more open and honest environments. So psychological safety is a key ingredient of not only just positive performance but also your experience in the workplace as well.

Can you talk about what happens when you have fear in decision making?

Farzad: Fear will stop you from contributing and being your authentic self. When you’re fearful in a work environment, if you’re new to the environment, the first few weeks are always the honeymoon period—you feel good, everything’s positive—but then you notice some things and the practices are a little off, some comments are being made that are off, and then you get these nudges of you shouldn’t be saying that, you have a place here and that’s not for you to speak. And then it becomes an environment of fear because, if you do speak out on certain things, there’s going to be negative repercussions for that. That interrupts the flow of what Tim Clark calls intellectual friction, which is the positive tension that exists, where you’re having interactions that result in very positive, synergistic, innovative ideas. When you’re in a fear-based environment, you feel insecure about who you are, all of the identity spaces that you occupy, from your race, gender, ethnicity, ability, status, and that means also that you’re fearful to contribute effectively and contribute well beyond the bare minimum.

You showed a really interesting word cloud demonstrating what people wanted from their leaders before COVID and post COVID. What I noticed about the post-COVID word cloud was that the words that had gotten bigger included clarity, honesty, communication, certainty, truth. None of those words were nearly as big in the pre-COVID word cloud. To me, those are all words about needing to feel a certain way. Can you talk about what those words mean?

Wright: The research was fascinating. We were doing research with the World Bank and polled people for the words they associate with leadership. As a follower, what are you looking for in a leader? In February of 2020, the words transparency, clarity, some of the ones that you mentioned, came up. We asked the question again three weeks later after the great crisis in March. The word that came up the most was empathy. Empathy was a very small word in the word cloud pre COVID, but afterwards, people were feeling really vulnerable. They were feeling very unmoored. They were feeling very much like, “What do I do now? Where do I go? Is anybody going to listen to me?” What people want from their leader is just someone who cares, someone who has empathy. Remember, go back to how we felt at that time. We didn’t know what was going on and what was going to happen. This notion of empathy really embodies and fits in very nicely to the model of a human-centered organization, because in human-centered organizations, we’re practicing empathy every day. This is who we are and what we do and how we operate.

I worked for Gallup for 10 years, and George Gallup always said, “If you want to know the will of the people, just ask them.” I think the fundamentals of that are you’re opening your ears and you’re listening to what people are saying. Empathy is one of those things that came up really, really highly.

There’s a saying: “A manager does things right, and a leader does the right things.”


Let’s talk about the distinction between being a manager versus a leader.

Wright: There’s a saying: “A manager does things right, and a leader does the right things.” What’s really meant by that is that a manager is working on the details of a project, they’re making sure the T’s are crossed and the I’s are dotted, they’re making sure that the team is assembled and everybody is aligned toward a mission. Leadership today is more of an embodiment of your authentic self and who you are. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, for example, has increased the market capitalization of Microsoft [by] billions and billions of dollars. If you ask him how, he’ll say that they moved from a “know it all” organization to a “learn it all” organization. They learned to be humble. Nadella would often ask his employees how they want to develop a product or serve the client. He would say, “I’m the CEO; how should I know? I have to rely on my front line to do that.” In an environment that facilitates psychological safety, it allows for that to happen.

Farzad: The manager is a very hard, firm, set, codified role. I think leadership is much more dynamic. The future organization is much more distributed. Power is diffused. It can be cultural or it can be structural as we go into self-management, but I think people want to step up, they want to take on projects, they want to use their expertise and experience in ways that often have been quite limited in organizations of the past. People enjoy doing that. And it’s better for the organization, because it leads to more productive, innovative outcomes.

You talked a lot about how to have effective conversations. How do we have them?

Wright: If you’re a leader, or if you’re in a position of authority or power in a conversation, you’re the one that should be talking about 20% of the time, and the other person 80% of the time. It’s good to have that frame of reference. We like to say that your new role is a “listener in chief.” As a leader, it’s your job to figure out what’s on people’s minds and what’s going on. Of course, if it’s not a psychologically safe environment, people aren’t going to talk. So you have to lay the groundwork for that. But I would say that listening is probably the best tool that leaders have to move an organization forward.

Farzad: There’s a few strategies to think about when you’re going into conversations that may or may not be determined as difficult. From talking with somebody about work performance to something more serious, something outside of work, one thing to think about when you’re going into these conversations is recognizing the power you hold in the situation. Is it a leadership/direct report dynamic? Is it a lateral? Are you talking as a colleague

Second thing I think is important is to come at the conversation in good faith. Part of active listening is that you’re actually deeply listening to the individual, not waiting to cue up a response to negate what they’re saying. That person is speaking to something real to them, and that must be respected. Other things include being mindful of the kinds of things you say and the impacts that they elicit. One of the things that I like to say is assume good intent in the conversation but own the impact of it. If you do say something unintentionally problematic, it’s your responsibility to apologize, because you hold the power in that situation. When you have this mindset of a positive experience, that we’re trying to go at this to get something positive out of this, we’re not butting heads, we want to break down walls and get to reality here, that leads to more positive outputs.

One of the things that really stuck with me when you were talking about effective conversations was you have to accept someone’s truth in the moment. Can you explain what that means?

Farzad: Fundamentally, nobody perceives reality objectively. The things that people experience, they can experience it through their past experience, through their parents, through their ancestors. So certain types of comments, for example, elicit traumas that are centuries old. One of the examples that I typically use is, when you level a microaggression around laziness, you can trace that directly to that comment being used for enslaved people 400 years ago. This comment has morphed over time and endured itself; it’s about extracting as much human labor as possible and putting that person in a situation where they feel harmed. That means when somebody experiences something, their response is typically born out of something real. People just don’t react for the sake of reacting. People react because something has happened in the past that led to this point. So recognize that, when people have the bravery and courage to tell you, “Hey, this is problematic,” that comes from a very real place and that needs to be respected.

You also talked about bias and interrupting your bias. Can you explain how you do that?

Farzad: Two ways: challenge or reframe. We’ve all been through bias training; we know that everybody has biases. Power is a very important missing ingredient to that conversation around bias. The more power you give an individual in the workplace, the more rigid these bureaucratic systems are where ultimate decision-making is at the top. You’re also giving a lot of power to that individual’s biases as well. What’s much more beneficial is if there’s a group using a collective mind to check one another’s biases and recognizing, “Hey, that may be a problem that may lead to this. We’re missing this. Who’s benefiting? Who’s being left out of this conversation?” That’s the psychological safety we’re talking about so we can open up the conversations and have a free flow of information.

If you’re in a position where you’re making a decision and you want to make sure that you make the least biased decision as humanly possible, there’s two ways of doing it that I propose. Challenging, which is basically completely negating that information that’s going to lead to that bias through new information. I look up the facts; this isn’t true at all; why would I make this decision in this way if the facts don’t prove that way? The other way is switching that on its head, or reframing. Before it gets to a bias, it’s rooted in stereotypes. So something that may be perceived negatively, you can view it as a positive. If somebody is very loud or comes off as what you would perceive as aggressive in the interview, are they really that way? Or are your biases taking hold? If it was somebody else, would you view them as passionate? Would you view them as really interested in the job? So it takes your ability to slow down, use the two types of cognition, your fast brain and your slow brain. Your fast brain is where the biases really take hold; your slow brain is when you slow down and then think it through. It’s like, why am I thinking this way? Is it rooted in anything real? Is it rooted in any objective criteria?

Great leadership is not hoarding power. Great leadership is creating environments where you’re taking on the role of the person that’s going to carve out room for safety and positive dialogue and good conversations that lead to positive outcomes and innovation.


A lot of this has been around what leaders can do and how to create this kind of new organization. What if you are not a leader, you don’t have a position of power, and you are a bystander to some sort of bad behavior in an organization? What can you do?

Farzad: One of the things we talked about was methods of bystander intervention. If you witness something problematic being said or done, how do you be an effective ally? How do you show up for colleagues? There’s a lot of methodology behind this, but there’s a few simple things.

You definitely want to make sure that it stops. That’s how you create a culture of accountability. You can do that in the moment if you feel comfortable, or you can do it after the moment, talk to that individual who has levied that problematic comment. The framework for the bystander intervention is the four Ds: direct, deflect, delegate and disarm.

Disarming is basically you intervening, you show up and you ask for some clarification. Maybe they said something problematic that they didn’t really intend, and you ask a very neutral question like, “Oh, can you elaborate on that? What do you mean by that?” but on a softer level. Deflecting is basically changing the subject, just to interrupt that moment so that person who’s being harmed takes a breath. Direct is when you directly confront that individual and tell that individual that what they’ve said was highly problematic and these are the reasons why. You can use a call-in approach as opposed to calling them out, meaning bring the person into a conversation rather than going at it very aggressively, which may come back and harm you. And then there’s methodology after the moment. Show up for your colleague, you stand up for them, you invite the person who levied the comment, the person responsible, you go to the person responsible and say, “Hey, I heard you say this. That’s not cool. Let me tell you why.” You call them into a conversation, and then you ask for a change. Because as a bystander, as a witness, you may be being harmed as well, so you have a stake in it.

These are methodologies, but the idea is interrupt the behavior, interrupt the comment in the moment or after; it doesn’t matter, but make sure that we’re creating an environment where we’re holding each other accountable to, at minimum, stop harm from perpetuating. Obviously, you want to get into psychological safety, which is on the positive end, creating a more positive work environment. Psychological safety is really eroded when you have these negative behaviors like microaggressions that perpetuate in workplaces.

Give us one takeaway, as a leader or someone in an organization who wants to promote a more human-centered culture.

Wright: I would say humility and being humble. There had been an expectation in the ’80s and ’90s that leaders were tough. They were hardscrabble; that was what leadership was. It was very machismo and paternalistic. Whereas what the research shows and what literature shows and what Aristotle talked about a very long time ago was that wisdom comes from knowing what you don’t know. And asking questions. Good leaders have humility, they’re humble, and they’re curious. I would say those are the core elements of what makes a great leader today.

Farzad: I think mine is very similar. The only thing I’ll say is to recognize the power you hold in every space you’re in. Whether that power is unearned and societally bestowed upon you or it’s the power of your role or it’s the power of your charisma or it’s the power of your ability to speak. Are you hogging up the room? So always, in any situation, assess the power that you hold. That’s what great leadership is. Great leadership is not hoarding power. Great leadership is creating environments where you’re taking on the role of the person that’s going to carve out room for safety and positive dialogue and good conversations that lead to positive outcomes and innovation.

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