Touting a people-first culture can sound silly on its surface. What else are you going to have? A cubicle-first culture? A puppy-first culture? Anyone working from home with a canine may already be living that last one. Yet, it’s the people-first approach that gets the attention. This article provides an overview of what a people-first culture really involves.
Jokes about fluffy yet frustrating officemates aside, what is a people-first culture? At its core, this is an approach that values your people over profits. As “The Leadership Guy” Peter Economy wrote in Inc., “As a leader, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying the thrill that comes with running a company performing at its best. But it’s important to remember that your employees are the ones making those numbers go through the roof.”
Putting the people-first approach in capitalist context
The people-first approach is a more socially conscious and sustainable model, says Dale Partridge, in his book People over Profit, noting, “Pursuing just profit was never going to fulfill the longings of the human heart.” So, he co-founded Sevenly, a lifestyle brand which donates $7 from every transaction to a different cause each week.
Partridge says in his TEDx talk that all companies start in the people over profit stage where they are captivated by their values. They are all about craftsmanship, integrity, honesty, being exceptional and authentic. Look at early Ford. It was the first company worldwide to offer a 40-hour work week back in 1914.
The thing is that as a company evolves it moves to pursue greater efficiency and more growth. People and profit might both be valued. Then, greed takes over and the company makes unacceptable and unethical decisions (e.g., Ford releasing its Pinto having made the decision that lawsuits would be less costly than fixing the car’s problems). Companies can’t stay here and will move into the apologetic era trying to resurrect the core values and rectify their wrongs.
Yet the four era cycle Partridge attributes to capitalism doesn’t have to remain the overarching approach to business. People over profit can “break the system.” That leads us to ask what people over profit leadership really looks like. Partridge suggests it’s like living at work the principles you learned in kindergarten. Let’s look at this in more detail.
Tell the truth.
There are many ways of looking at this in a professional environment. Telling the truth is about being honest with your people, immediately. As Inc.’s leadership guru puts it, “When you tell the truth, you build trust. And when you build trust, you build powerful business relationships that will take your business to a higher level of success.”
You might also think of truth as accountability and transparency. Being open about what you want to accomplish or what challenges lie ahead can earn people’s loyalty. Being accessible and honest helps people to feel more engaged as yours becomes a culture that invites their views.
Authenticity enables individuals to thrive. Instead of doing their best to conform, your people can contribute their own backgrounds, values, and perspectives. Without this freedom, people put up a facade that can create “a sense of dissonance,” lead to depression, and see employees “less engaged and less committed…with more intentions to leave.”
As is true with all the components of a people-first culture, it needs to be a top-down message. If managers are authentic, individual employees will be more likely to do the same. Leaders can foster a culture that offers psychological safety, lets people take risks, and invites individuals to voice their true concerns.
Generosity can’t be underestimated in a people-first environment. With the rise of cloud technology, process automation, machine learning, and artificial intelligence our work world is increasingly digital. However, you can continue to foster belonging by continuing to show compassion and appreciation. Connect with employees as humans, telling them what they’re doing well and acknowledging their skills and strengths.
Mentorship programs are another way to implement sharing in the work environment. More senior employees generously provide their time and experience to the younger generations to help them learn and develop. The relationship emphasizes personal growth, which supports the people-first priority.
Take care of each other.
A people-first culture takes care of its people. Do this by providing meaningful work, offering opportunities for progression and professional development, and valuing work-life balance for all employees.
Every employee in a people-first culture should feel respected and that the company cares for them individually. You might:
- Share methods for people to take care of themselves.
- Encourage people to take their paid time off.
- Provide regular feedback in one-on-one sessions.
- Survey employees about their interests and aspirations.
- Provide support for mental health and care-taking responsibilities.
- Foster an environment of collaboration.
Of course, the search for work-life balance isn’t new. Yet, the emphasis on achieving it is now much more pronounced (especially in the wake of the pandemic). Continuing to offer work-from-home options and other flexibility is a highly effective way to take care of people, and benefit from enhanced productivity along the way.
Empathy is foundational to any people-forward approach. Being able to “recognize, understand and share the thoughts and feelings of another person” will help you to actually engage with your people. To better empathize try:
- Listening and letting people share their experiences
- Keeping your body language neutral to show responsiveness
- Focusing on hearing what the person needs to say rather than questioning the accuracy of specific details
- Showing that you care rather than jumping to provide a solution
You’ll also want to avoid relating to the individual by making it all about you. In your eagerness to show you understand, you might be tempted to compare what that person is saying to something you’ve experienced. That’s counterproductive when you’re trying to demonstrate empathy.
Building your people-first culture starts before employees even join your organization. Recruit individuals for cultural fit and talents more than what they write on their resume. As Entrepreneur First’s Alice Bentinck told McKinsey, “new talent doesn’t join an organization; they join a mission that they can be proud of.”
Your business can also demonstrate its people-first focus by treating all employees fairly and taking issues like bullying or low morale seriously. Put clear policies in place for people to raise concerns. Then, follow through on those concerns to ensure you really are hearing what employees say.
Think also about the importance of language when communicating with team members and connecting with customers.
Planning for a people-first culture
As Partridge puts it, “good morals make for great business.” Companies that value people over profits are still profitable, if not more. Want to learn more about people-first culture? Our next article in this series will look at the benefits of a people-first approach. In another article, we’ll examine the how of putting people first with examples from organizations globally. In the meantime, to learn more about what people need to feel first in your organization, start asking questions and take your employee experience to the next level.