Moving America Forward

Bringing Radical Humanity Into Our Work Culture

February 10, 2020
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Bringing Radical Humanity Into Our Work Culture
An illustration of people working together to build a brain out off puzzle pieces.
At a time when most Americans report feeling lonely, some organizations are building a culture of connection and support.

Amy Mar had been working at a new job in San Francisco’s tech sector for eight months when her father was diagnosed with brain cancer. Her mother couldn’t care for him alone, so Mar began helping but soon used up all of her paid time off. That’s when her coworkers began transferring their vacation time to her.

That simple act of kindness, of being there for a new coworker, is not unusual at the web development company where she works, Dayspring Technologies. The values of connection, support and interdependence are enshrined in company policies and practices. 

Dayspring is among a growing number of organizations that are intentionally adopting a culture of compassion and interdependence over efficiency and competition. These companies view their work as fostering quality relationships among coworkers, customers, collaborators and the community, and not as a simple set of outputs and transactions. Just as relationships are unique, so are the ways each organization supports them.

For example at Dayspring, employees meet twice a week to connect over conversation and reflect on shared values. The company and its employees donate their time, skills and money to a local private middle school that serves many lower income kids and those who would be the first in their family to go to college.  

Salary differences, too, are kept in check: The salary of Dayspring’s CEO is no more than three times the effective salary of the person who cleans the office. Contrast that with the wages of the average CEO in the U.S., who earns more than 200 times the median employee salary. Dayspring’s co-founder, Chi-Ming Chien, believes a larger difference would “break down the ability of people to be in community with each other.”

Companies like Dayspring are rebelling against the modern business culture — one in which people are treated as a set of skills to be maximized and management books urge organizations to aggressively rank employees as A, B, and C and then treat each group differently. 

New York Times columnist David Brooks argues that this extreme meritocracy, where people compete against each other to work harder and stand out, is ripping apart our social fabric. He says the form of meritocracy embedded in today’s culture excludes most people. There is another way to work, however, which Brooks refers to as an open meritocracy. This system — like the one Dayspring and others are building — is designed to include, support and develop people to their full potential, rather than rank and weed them.

Dayspring’s culture, says Chien, grew out of a spiritual mission to embody and bear witness to God’s redeeming of the workplace, marketplace and community. “‘God’s redeeming’ is maybe language unique to us,” he says. “What it’s trying to express is that the way businesses operate is broken.”  

Dayspring strives for a culture of service and grace toward error. It emphasizes quality work that can be completed within set boundaries — for example, where projects are planned so that employees rarely have to work over 40 hours a week to meet client needs. Instead of hurting success, it may fuel it. Chien says the tech company has averaged just 5.4% staff turnover (less than half the current tech industry average of 13%) while maintaining 10% growth per year over the last two decades.

“We’ll do better work if we can bring all of ourselves to work and see each other in our fullness.”  – Xiomara Padamsee

Similarly, Xiomara Padamsee founded Promise54, a talent solutions nonprofit, after years as a consultant “navigating a world that can be sharply competitive, where we were stepping on each other to get ahead.” Padamsee says she assimilated and left parts of herself behind in order to be valued. She watched other colleagues of color do the same. 

At Promise54, people practice what they call “radical humanity,” which puts trusting and authentic relationships above all else. “We’re complex beings with big lives,” she says. “We’ll do better work if we can bring all of ourselves to work and see each other in our fullness.”  

“We’re bringing our whole selves to work whether we like it or not, so we may as well talk about that,” says Banks Benitez, CEO of Uncharted, a social impact accelerator in Denver. Joe Santini, a program manager at Uncharted, remembers Benitez crying tears of joy after a successful accelerator summit that Santini, then an intern, had helped prepare. “I was like, my work from the last three months has amounted to something really special. And also, my male CEO is comfortably crying and being vulnerable in front of 50 people. That was a powerful moment for me.” 

Uncharted and like-minded companies are part of a movement working to change the unhealthy parts of today’s organizational culture, says Bart Houlahan, co-founder of B Lab, which supports those using business as a force for good and shared prosperity. “If we think about the business paradigm for the last hundred years, the objective has been to maximize the return to shareholders or the creation of private wealth.” Houlahan notes that more and more organizations are choosing to create cultures in which goals include not just profit or product, but valuing and supporting people as well.

These companies recognize that their stakeholders include more than owners or investors; they include employees, customers, suppliers and the communities they work in. This shift is recognized in their legal status, too: many are classified as B Corps, which stands for “benefit” corporations. Houlahan’s B Lab helps organizations move to a business paradigm that treats all stakeholders with care and respect. 

But it’s not just business culture that needs reform, argues Brooks; it is the culture underpinning all of American society – a culture that prioritizes individualism more than meaningful relationships and community. A survey of 10,000 people done last year by the health insurer Cigna found that three in five Americans report feeling lonely. Those who said they didn’t have good coworker relationships or a satisfactory work/life balance had significantly lower scores on a standard loneliness index.

Brooks created Weave: The Social Fabric Project at the Aspen Institute in 2018 to highlight and support people across the country who are quietly rebelling against this culture of hyper-individualism. These Americans are prioritizing connections and mutual support whether it be at work, at home, with friends or in their neighborhoods.

“No wonder our society is fragmenting,” Brooks writes. “We’ve taken the lies of hyper-individualism and we’ve made them the unspoken assumptions that govern how we live. We talk a lot about the political revolution we need. The cultural revolution is more important.”

Before joining Dayspring, Amy Mar worked as a secretary at a doctor’s office. “Routinely, if he made a mistake, he would get on the phone and talk about the fact that his secretary had made some mistake and throw me under the bus.” But atDayspring, Mar says, “People practice what it is they say they want to be about.  I’m proud of the fact that I work for people I can trust.”


This article was created by Weave: The Social Fabric Project of the Aspen Institute. Weave supports people who live in a way that puts relationships and community first. These “Weavers” lead with love and defy a culture of hyper-individualism that has left Americans feeling more lonely, distrustful and divided than ever. See their stories and learn more here.

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