A Social Complexity Perspective: Rehumanizing Organizational Culture with Human Centered Management for Long-Term Sustainability

Rehumanizing Organizational Culture with Human Centered

Management for Long-Term


Jan Willem Nuis and Pascale Peters

Narrative 1

The organizational cultural transformation program did not work out as intended. Francesca, a classic Human Resource manager of a mid-sized logistical firm had put in all her energy to promote a healthy organizational culture focused on encouraging employees to prepare and assume increasing responsibility for individual and shared decision-making to face surmounting disruptions in the work environment. With support from top management, she had developed a wide range of activities, including memos, fitness activities and mailings, aimed to entice employees across the organization to become healthier, agile and more productive. Additionally, all employees in the office received fresh apples with this message: Take a bite into your own health. To her surprise, employees were talking behind her back about such a personal health and lifestyle intervention. The deterrent effects of a healthy approach to improve the workplace induced Francesca to cancel her change program based on criticism and grievances from supervisors and the works council. What had happened?1


Deep changes affecting organizations and impacting the wellbeing of people in the workplace (Ochoa, Lepeley, & Essens, 2019), including work-life balance (Kelliher et al., 2019), the war on talent, mismanagement of employment relationships, aging and multi-generation workforces, among others, are pressing to advance to meet the demands of the 21st century moving away from obsolete strategic human resource management (HRM) or humans-as-resources approaches and to assume responsibility for human-at-the-center of organizations, what Lepeley (2017) calls Human Centered Management (HCM).

HRM perpetuated from the industrial past guided primarily by shortterm financial outcomes in many instances at the expense of employees’ wellbeing and ignoring important factors that stimulate work engagement (Lepeley, 2017). In the last decades, organizations have discovered the benefits of change and are increasingly seeking human centered approaches required for long-term organizational sustainability and regeneration and organizational improvement centered on the wellbeing of people to advance inclusive societal capabilities (cf. Biicker Peters, & El Aghdas, 2019; Ehnert, Harry, & Zink 2014). The transformation from these traditional HRM approaches toward HCM implies that scholars and organizations need to pay more attention as to how to manage employment relationships effectively to substitute retrograde viewing of people as mere organizational resources (Janssens & Steyaert, 2009).

In her book Human Centered Management. The 5 Pillars of Organizational Quality and Global Sustainability, Lepeley (2017) presents basic arguments driving the paradigm shift from the mainstream but unsustainable HRM to perspectives that see human wellbeing in the workplace as a necessary condition for 21sr-century organizations to attain long-term sustainability. She challenges the traditional humans-as-resources view on human employment that were instrumental in shaping Taylorian and Weberian formulas of scientific management a century ago but are no longer valid in the Knowledge and Information Age.

The human centered approach pays attention to dimensions that affect people’s wellbeing and their work such as physical and mental health, employability capacity, including continuous skills and competencies upgrading and personal development and personal vitality, such as motivation, engagement and resilience. All these dimensions of employee wellbeing are necessary for individuals to develop sustainable careers in changing global labor markets (De Prins, De Vos, Van Beirendonck, & Segers, 2015) and in volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) environments (Ochoa et al., 2019).

Growing attention for these human centered approaches runs parallel with new organizational imperatives for flexibility, adaptability, agility and resilience (Lengnick-Hall, Beck, & Lengnick-Hall, 2011). They correlate highly with emerging trends focused on individuals’ need for autonomy, assuming higher levels of responsibility, deeper involvement in decision-making, voice and accountability for increasingly flexible and value-based careers in the contemporary VUCA environments (Inkson, 2006). In this context, much in line with the philosophy of HCM, Ehnert, Harry, and Zink (2014) refers to the emergence of Sustainable HRM. Both Ehnert et al. (2014) and Lepeley (2017) signal a shift from a static, resource-based perspective on the employment relationship to a newly emerging human centered perspective emphasizing people’s needs, values, expectations, assumptions and responsibilities that give purpose and meaning to life and work. This shift implies organizations to engage in radical cultural change processes that affect stakeholders’ values, attitudes and behaviors across organizations and societies.

Scholars and managers alike show great interest in the subject of organizational culture and effective management models that enhance a new management fashion (Chatman & O’Reilly, 2016). In mainstream management thinking, organizational culture is often, although mostly implicitly, regarded as a concrete object, or something an organization has. This view, however, entails a rather modernistic and instrumental understanding of what organizational culture entails (Stacey, 2012). More specifically, mainstream management thinking states that culture is, or should be, experienced and enacted similarly by everybody who works in the organization, regardless of their position, experiences, beliefs or background. Moreover, it assumes that cultural experiences can be managed and sustained intactly over time. But it is increasingly questionable whether this notion of organizational culture is helpful to assess and promote values, attitudes and behaviors necessary to foster the HCM principles presented above.

In this chapter, we build on social complexity literature (Stacey & Mowles, 2016; Stewart, 2001) to advance the deployment of HCM discussing an alternative conceptualization of organizational culture that enables the adoption of the Human Centered Management paradigm (Lepeley, 2017). More specifically, we argue that the instrumental, static and object-like view of organizational culture, central to mainstream management literature (Chatman & O’Reilly, 2016), impairs the advancement of HCM in environments ad hoc with the hypothetical case of Francesca and her position as human resources manager.

This chapter presents an alternative aimed to rehumanize organizational culture, which here is conceptualized as a fluid process constantly emerging, changing and adapting. In this view, organizational culture as a process emerges out of daily, local and meaningful human interactions.

In our model, organizational culture is considered to be embedded in and often overlooked, power relationships between people. It has a dynamic character that can be a source of paradoxical tensions that need to be harnessed by organizational stakeholders (Janssens & Steyaert, 2009).

The following sections discuss the social complexity perspective which is central to the understanding of the micro-foundations of organizational culture as an ongoing process in organizations. It outlines key concepts of the social complexity perspective which we apply to the hypothetical case of Francesca the HR manager. The chapter concludes with a discussion of implications of the proposed alternative of a human centered organizational culture as a process to foster long-term sustainability for all stakeholders.

A Social Complexity Perspective 65

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