Having HumanDebt Is the Biggest Risk Factor Modern Enterprises Face Today

By Duena Blomstrom, Co Founder and CEO, PeopleNotTech

Following the 2020 pandemic, working in modern enterprises will never again be the same What is now needed is a firm focus on the humans who do this work. Now, with the changes in the ways of working, we need flexibility, resilience, healthy team dynamics and collaborative, fearless, open, emotionally invested and ultimately happy teams. Without them we aren’t going to grow, become or remain competitive. The “people work”, — both at an individual, but especially at a team level — is now the key to sustainability.
The amount of work we each have to do is directly proportional to how much HumanDebt™  we have and having HumanDebt is one of the biggest risks companies are carrying these days.

What is HumanDebt™?

“HumanDebt™ is the equivalent to Technical Debt but for people. All of the initiatives, the projects, the intentions we (the organisation) had to do better by our employees, but we abandoned halfway. All of the missed opportunities to make their lives and their work easier and more joyful. All of the empty talk on equality, respect, lack of blame, courage and trust. All of the missing focus on empowered teams and servant leadership. All of the lack of preoccupation or resources for building better team dynamics. All of the toxic culture created by these. That’s Human Debt.”

The reason why HumanDebt is problematic and can overthrow every other strategic goal any organisation may have as its effect spill into every aspect of the organisation’s life in an insidious and pervasive manner.

It isn’t solely the fact that it increases every HR-related risk from loss of talent to lack of engagement, but that, if the HumanDebt is high the ability to be productive and measure up with complex and ambitious KPIs is inexistent so it translates directly in the bottom line if wrapped up in every other enterprise health indicator.

What to Do about It?

Teams have the power to diminish the amount of HumanDebt themselves, and with the right tools they do not even need any external help in doing so – in a sense, by working intentionally on aspects of their team dynamics, teams engage in a form of CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) but for their group – they recognise negative behaviours and learn to avoid them but they also can heal old patterns.

In order for teams to be able to do this work, they have to be empowered by the organisation to do so, the process of empowering and enabling autonomous teams and that of redeveloping managers to teach them the associated leadership style needed is the big push enterprises need to have in place to tackle the huge HumanDebt.

Once teams are empowered, a focus on Psychological Safety is the key to jumpstarting the work and achieving at high performing levels meanwhile.

What is Psychological Safety?

Studied extensively by academics, the concept of psychological safety was heavily researched and written about by Harvard professor Dr. Amy Edmondson, but it was only really made popular by how it was featured as the number one sine qua non condition to having a high performing team, when named top of all contributing factors in Google’s “Project Aristotle” – a massive workplace study aimed at finding what makes teams most performant -the findings of which were then replicated by 2019’s State of DevOps Accelerate Report.

In Professor Dr. Edmondson’s definition, psychological safety “is a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking”. In other words, a state of psychological safety in the team is one in which the dynamics between the team members allow them to believe they are completely free to speak up and never fear a loss of image should they engage with each other truthfully and authentically. This of course, is the basis of any innovation and collaboration, and therefore essential to achieving high performance in team work. When further dissected, in these always-changing dynamics- which are worth constant close inspection and tweaks, hence the CBT-like aspect discussed above- a few good behaviours around courage, openness, learning, close emotional bond, empathy and flexibility become evident, and these positive behaviours can be encouraged and cultivated, while the opposite is true for the negative ones.

Who has HumanDebt?

Everyone. Irrespective of size or industry really. That said, if we look at the companies heralded in terms of doing Agile well and winning technology-wise, be it Google, Netflix or any of the digital-first scale-ups, we see they do each and every one of these. In their case, it’s more preventative than therapeutic as they haven’t yet amassed as much HumanDebt as the incumbents or those of us who have had to go through major transformation.

We have to admit that incumbent organisations therefore need this work the most. In our company’s work, we have met hundreds of teams from incumbent big organisations and some have managed to make great progress, from the retailer that organised a massive educational campaign to socialise the importance of doing the human work, complete with a rewards system for those doing the most; to the public servants who found a way to involve their own teams in creating new bespoke team plays and actions that pertained to their own situation; to the technology enterprise that quantified the habit formation when it came to creating human-actions-tickets in the sprints to reinforce the organisational support when it comes to the human work.

They each saw every positive behaviour of psychological safety and therefore dropped considerable amounts of HumanDebt.

We know TechDebt is bad and an extreme risk factor for organisations; chances are HumanDebt is worse, and once you’ve seen it, you can’t “unsee” or ignore it. Doing the work is not easy, but it is essential; every other piece of practical work can and should wait if we are to be focused on the sustainability and growth of high performing teams and on reducing the massive risk of having this debt around.



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