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Essay: Unleashing the Human Capacity in Your Organization

As post-bubble organizations are forced to consider more ethical business models to protect consumers and investors, three corporate mindset types are bound to arise.

One type is the organization that has learned little from the scandals of deception and continues to operate with the exclusive focus on “beating” the competition and increasing revenue regardless of cost to the soul. A second type begrudgingly adheres to the “new ethics” merely because they believe the market demands it, but secretly misses the good ol’ days of revenue through scheming and manipulation. In these instances, building a value-based culture is rarely considered a means of leveraging the power of human capacity and productivity.

The third type has captured this moment in history as an opportunity to completely transform the way they treat their business, employees, customers, and families.

If you are a leader in the third group, you would be considered intrinsically motivated. That is, you believe a steady stream of fulfillment will come to you and those you influence as a result of an adherence to certain values and principles. Extrinsically motivated individuals, on the other hand, are dependent on the external rewards to bring happiness, thereby stuck in the never ending race to get more.

So why do intrinsically motivated people believe that the right thing to do is the best thing to do? Because they have a strongly held belief that doing the right thing has a way of bringing out the very best in people, and doing the wrong thing brings out the worst in people.

Psychologists commonly refer to the best in people as the real self, made up of unique talents, gifts and preferences as well as a set of universal traits or “capacities.” A short list of the universal capacities of the real self are: creative problem solving, creativity, spontaneity, optimistic, self-initiative, desires challenge, curiosity, displays congruence between belief and behavior, enjoys the pursuit of goals, links growth with excitement, desires mutually rewarding connection to others, and engages in constructive conflict when necessary.

“The worst” in people frequently referred to as the false self or the “calculating self” is characterized by self-aggrandizement, harshness, critical, aloof, posturing, exploitive, and defensive, or overly passive, overly compliant, pessimistic, victimized, and helpless.

CEOs would readily jump at the chance at harnessing the power of the real self, but few organizations take deliberate steps in creating the conditions upon which the real self can thrive.

Accessing the capacities of the real self requires a delicate balance between providing a healthy means of attachment (building bonds) and a healthy means of autonomy (trusted to make decisions and act on them). There must be shared emotional experiences through which to meet the individuals’ need for both attachment and autonomy. The manner in which a culture treats these two needs will determine the cultural climate and the degree to which the real self is expressed. I see cultures on the following continuum:

Destructive – Survival – Good Enough – Creative – Thriving

Destructive cultures provide unhealthy or no means of attachment and no opportunity for the recognition of unique talents and interests. Survival cultures foster dependence on the group or leader with no opportunity to contribute individually. Good enough cultures settle for limited means for attachment and autonomy. Creative cultures have the beginnings of tapping the potential for human capacity, yet hold back in certain areas or conditions. Thriving cultures are those exceptional organizations that seem to operate with excitement, team work, productivity, and constructive conflict, while having fun in the process.

I believe the conditions for building a Thriving culture are:

Establish, model and reward adherence to specific values and principles.

  • Provide challenges that fit the individuals’ talents and passions.
  • Provide mutually agreed to, clear expectations and methods of accountability.
  • Provide opportunity for team and organizational attachments.
  • Encourage and reinforce autonomy by authentic trust and releasing ownership.
  • Provide substantial opportunities for growth, stimulation and learning.
  • Encourage curiosity and sharing of information.
  • Emphasize direct communication, with no tolerance for complaints behind closed doors.
  • Encourage a “freedom to fail” climate filled with humor.

People really do have powerful capacities yet to be fully tapped. They have a hunger for challenge and purpose. Set up these conditions with a hope and commitment and watch your people come alive.

Definition of a thriving culture:

An environment offering shared emotional experiences between people who treat each other as unique and valuable contributors around challenges toward the creation and sustaining of a product or service that helps meet the needs of the world.

David Mashburn earned his doctorate in clinical psychology in 1986. He is in private practice in Bellevue, Washington. He is also a partner in a Seattle-based company, Tidemark, a provider of workforce staffing solutions. He writes and speaks on the science of human flourishing. See his blog at workpuzzle.com.By David Mashburn


David Mashburn has nineteen years of clinical practice as a psychologist, winning the “expert psychotherapist award,” from the University of Washington in 1999. He has recently launched Mashburn Associates, an organizational and leadership consulting firm. He is also a partner in a Seattle-based company, Tidemark, a provider of workforce staffing solutions. He writes and speaks on the science of human flourishing. See his blog at workpuzzle.com.

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