How Human-Centered Thinking Drives Higher Performance

Over the past few weeks I’ve been reading the recent studies from GallupSHRM, and the Rand Corporation that describe the current experience of employees in the American workplace. The results from these studies present an interesting and contrasting, portrait of work in the U.S. today.

On the one hand, we see that only about 1/3 of employees are engaged at work[1], just over half of all workers say they are actively looking for a new job[2], only 23% of employees strongly agree that their manager provides meaningful feedback[3], while just 18% of employees strongly agree that employees who perform better grow faster at their organization[4]. But the most distressing statistic is that nearly 1 in 5 American workers report being exposed to hostile or threatening social environments at work[5].

Of course, the news is not all bad. All three studies call for a shift in the way work is managed and measured to create a more human workplace and there are data points that suggest that some workers are beginning to see the benefits of organizations that understand that focusing on creating environments where employees can flourish is good for employees, the organization, and ultimately, the communities in which we live.

For example:

  • Four out of five workers report that their job provides at least one source of meaning[6]
  • 58% of workers describe their boss as supportive[7]
  • The trend toward support for remote work arrangements and flexible work times is increasing[8],two job characteristics that are important to many workers

While these three studies looked at the private sector workforce, I believe that in many ways the experience of workers in public sector, and in Federal government is not all that different from what study participants reported.  And with the current mandate to streamline and reform Federal agencies, creating a human-centered workplace should be the central strategy for achieving the Administration’s aims while continuing to deliver high-impact citizen services that meet the needs of American taxpayers.

As you begin the process of rethinking the way your agency delivers value, here are three ways you can infuse human-centered thinking into the (re)design of your organization:

  1. Prioritize purpose to drive performance – Most agencies are really good at defining high-level strategic priorities and goals using language that is clearly linked to their overall mission. But, as those goals cascade to lower levels of the organization and drive day-to-day work of agency personnel, it’s easy for language to drift and for purpose to get lost. In a human-centered workplace, it is foundational to make clear and meaningful connections between the work each individual does and its place in the value chain for delivering impact to citizens.  As you think about how you will reform your agency (or team), focus first on the why of each role and activity, and use that why to guide the identification of measures of performance and effectiveness.
  2. Replace discussions about risk with conversations about resilience – Understanding the risks that are inherent in your work is important. But, too often a focus on risk creates an environment where the goal becomes avoiding risk, rather than creating an organization that is resilient enough to recover when a risk becomes a reality.  Your workforce needs to have confidence that they and the organization can withstand the turbulence that is inherent in today’s workplace.  Creating that confidence requires leaders who work to create resilience in their teams by providing the resources needed to enhance coping skills and create support networks, as well as in their organization by creating communities, integrating capabilities across the organization, and optimizing redundant systems.
  3. Extend engagement in key decision-making activities – In many organizations, when faced critical decisions where there is significant complexity and uncertainty, the natural tendency is to gather a small group of key leaders and charge them with coming up with the best course of action. For Federal agencies figuring out how to respond to the mandate to streamline operations, it’s easy to stand up a small team of folks who can dedicate time and focus to sorting out the best path forward.  While this is an effective strategy, part of becoming a human-centered workplace is recognizing the unique value that each individual brings to the organization and identifying ways to engage and leverage the value for the benefit of the organization.  Doing this requires leaders who actively engage a broad set of stakeholders at all levels of the organization to gain insight and understand the implications of decisions that are being made.  And, while a broad engagement strategy may add time to the decision-making process, you’re likely to gain insights and ideas you would not have otherwise obtained while generating a better sense of inclusion and positive regard from employees.

Building a human-centered workplace requires focus and commitment.

But, with sustained uncertainty in the Federal environment and a mandate to improve performance and streamline operations, attending to the human systems in your organization offers a way to turn this challenge into an opportunity that will pay dividends for the workforce and the citizens who depend on your agency’s services.


[1] Gallup, State of the American Workplace

[2] Gallup

[3] Gallup

[4] Gallup

[5] Rand Corporation, Working Conditions in the United States

[6] Rand Corporation

[7] Rand Corporation

[8] Gallup

Written by:
Tim Bowden
Human Capital & Human Resources



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Building Sustainability For Your Funding
Building an Organization's Performance Culture