How Your Association Can Be More Human and Less Machine

By: Jamie Notter

Many years ago organizations forgot that they were made of human beings and started to act like machines. To thrive in the future, associations need to reverse that trend and start to build systems based on what makes us human. (Titled "We Are Not Machines" in the print edition.)

We all know the story of Sir Isaac Newton, the apple that fell on his head, and the theory of gravity. OK, maybe it wasn't that simple, but Newton and other scientists in the early 1600s did achieve some revolutionary scientific breakthroughs, allowing us to accurately predict the behavior of basically everything in the universe, from falling apples to shooting arrows to orbiting planets.

These breakthroughs changed our world in ways we don't always recognize. The laws of physics ushered in an age of machines that has been expanding ever since. Newton himself was attracted to the machine metaphor, describing the universe at one point as a divinely designed clock, and that worldview has been dominant for the past 400 years. Machines are central to our society not only in the way we use industrial technology to improve productivity but also in the way we think and organize.

Just look at the language we use in organizational contexts. We run organizations. We have a chain of command. We reengineer our processes. We measure outputs. Even the terms we use for managing our people have a decidedly mechanical ring to them: human resources, or even human capital. Our organizations are meticulously divided into divisions, units, teams, and product lines because, in machines, each part is distinct and knows its place.

I'm not sure we planned this. It simply happened as a result of our centuries-old philosophy, but we definitely run our organizations like machines. And this is a problem.

What Social Media Taught Us

Our machine organizations have been letting us down. We have been falling far short of our potential, leaving proverbial money on the table as we settle for results that are good enough, or maybe a couple of percentage points better than last year. This may not be obvious to you, given the amazing progress our society has been making over the centuries. But an interesting new development opened our eyes to the way our machine-focused organizations are letting us down:

Social media.

Yes, social media. Active user or not, you have probably realized it is not just a fad. Social media has collectively grown, expanded, and become more powerful than any organization out there. Social media played an important role in the revolutionary developments in Egypt and Iran, something nonprofits and governments had been working on for decades. And did your association recently add 200 million members in nine months? Facebook did. Social media took our expectations about organizational success, impact, and metrics and blew them out of the water.

But it's not just the growth and the numbers that are important. Your association is not Facebook, nor should it be. It's not about "followers" and "likes." What is important is the way that social media achieved its phenomenal success. And it might not be what you expect:

Social media has succeeded by being more human.

Social media abandoned the traditional mindset and assumptions of our machine-based organizations and has instead embraced ideas that are much more consistent with what it means to be human. In social media, relationships matter. So does trust. So do things like meaning, humor, transparency, authenticity, and creativity. Social media is built on the principles that control is a thing of the past and that the results you get are not always the ones that you were seeking when you started. Those principles are much more aligned with what it means to be human than with what makes machines work well.

That is fundamentally why social media has been so explosive. We like being human. We can't help it. When we get access to something that lets more of our humanity come out, we are drawn to it. That is why we are flocking to social media.

This has huge implications for our organizations. First, it explains why we are struggling so mightily with social media adoption. How many of you are trying to get social media to work in your association but are hitting snags? Perhaps different departments are all trying to "own" your social media initiatives, or projects may be stalling because employees don't feel empowered to participate in staff social media activities. Maybe you or your colleagues are having a hard time being yourself fully or sharing information openly.

Does any of that sound familiar? Even the associations that are leveraging social media effectively had to push through challenges like those to get where they are now. And to do that, these organizations had to learn how to be more human.

The People-Centric Organization

Learning how to be human is the hidden gem in the social media revolution. At least that's what Maddie Grant, CAE, and I argue in our new book, Humanize: How People-Centric Organizations Succeed in a Social World. We have used our experience in the realms of social media and leadership to develop a simple framework for "humanizing" our organizations. Social media has demonstrated that this can be done. With action in mind, the framework shows how anyone in an organization can address issues of culture, process, and behavior, which are all needed to create more human organizations.

The framework is organized around four qualities that describe the human organization:

  • Open
  • Trustworthy
  • Generative
  • Courageous

These qualities are critical to our growth as human beings. We could have chosen happy, sad, violent, fickle, loving, generous, or a thousand other adjectives, but we chose these four carefully. We feel they are the critical skills we need to master personally, interpersonally, and organizationally in order to develop our organizations in a way that will allow them to thrive.

As we look at our organizations today and their failure to keep pace with the innovation embodied by social media, we realize that we need to set our sights higher. Open, trustworthy, generative, and courageous are aspirational characteristics. We think they will drive our economy in the years to come, and that is why we need them to be more prominent in our organizations. Here's what these terms mean:

Open. Our machine-oriented organizations have traditionally been very closed. Control is centralized and concentrated. Decision making is linear and limited. Responsibility is carefully defined. In short, our organizations don't like options. They don't like flexibility. They don't like the inherent openness of an organic system. It's viewed as messy and inefficient.

Open organizations take a different approach. They push the limits on a decentralized culture. It's not that all hierarchy is dismissed, but open organizations understand the value of a flat hierarchy that enables more action. They also understand the nuances of "systems thinking" and apply it in all of their internal processes. In other words, open organizations understand that doing something in one part of the system almost always affects others in the system, even when the impact is not immediately visible, and they manage their processes accordingly. Open organizations also develop true ownership behavior in all their employees, rather than "I'm the owner so I'm in charge" behavior. People take the right action at the right time to solve problems.

Trustworthy. "Trust" is one of those motherhood and apple-pie terms that everyone endorses publicly, but we don't always live up to it in real life. In traditional organizations, information is rarely shared freely. Instead, it is contained or "spun" by marketing or management to deliver the right messages. This creates a default assumption that we cannot necessarily trust what we hear. What's real and what's a façade has become so impossible to discern that many no longer try.

Trustworthy organizations embrace transparency in their culture. They share information strategically, creating a "transparency architecture" that makes sure information flows across boundaries and up and down levels. They alter their core processes to ensure that more people speak more truthfully in all of their conversations. And they embrace the unpredictable and perhaps quirky behavior of their employees, even if it doesn't match our predisposed notions of brand consistency. Trustworthy organizations allow their employees to bring their whole selves to work.

Generative. This term refers to the basic human need to create new things and to grow and develop. This is another one that you would think would receive universal support in our organizations; the alternative, after all, is stagnation. But being generative is scary to traditional organizations. In the machine world, you don't look for generative. You look for repeatable, efficient, and consistent. You require approval before anything new is generated. You don't want the boat rocked.

That is not how social media has grown, and human organizations understand this. To be generative, they start by being inclusive. Cultures based on inclusion create the conditions for creativity and innovation, which are at the heart of being generative. Generative organizations also build processes that maximize collaboration, and they make sure their people have core skills in relationship building.

Courageous. We saved courage for last because, frankly, the problem of fear in organizations is our biggest challenge. When we encounter dysfunction in our machine-based organizations, it can almost always be traced back to fear, and when we create structures and design processes, they are frequently only workarounds to our fear, creating a kind of synthetic courage that enables an unhealthy avoidance of the problem.

That is why people-centric organizations don't settle for workarounds; they are actually courageous instead. And courage starts with learning. Human organizations will have cultures that value learning—and that's above egos, quick answers, and sound bites. They figure out how to bake experimentation into all their processes so healthy risk taking can become the rule rather than the exception. And they are not afraid when their employees develop personally, because at the root of organizational courage are people who are growing and changing.

Humanizing Your Association

So what does this all mean for associations? It means we need to change. This isn't about whether or not you are one of the "good guys." Having an inspiring mission and trying to make the world a better place does not exempt you from the machine mindset. Associations may be naturally focused on human communities, but as organizations we are firmly ensconced in the mechanical model. Associations love their repeatable best practices and linear strategic plans. They are known to seek efficiencies and incremental margins over innovation and real learning. Associations frequently cling to control, even when it doesn't serve them.

The world has grown impatient with that approach, so now is the time to make our associations more human. It's going to be hard work, and no one is going to hand you an easy answer on a silver platter. You will need to dig into your organization to see how humanizing is going to make a difference.

Think about your organization's culture. Where are the opportunities to make it more human? We all have governance structures that we have inherited, and many of them are at the root of a centralized culture. Where can you change that? Are there places where you can give someone other than the authority figure a chance to speak? Who we allow to speak is a huge part of our culture, and when we give a voice to a broader group of people, we can shift toward a more decentralized culture. Are there places where you can delegate decision-making authority closer to where the problem exists? Who we let decide also defines our culture.

Distributing both voice and decision making is something many of us can do in our associations, even outside the executive director position. Those collective choices can come together to create a more open organization.

And what about your processes? In addition to making them effective and efficient, try changing them in ways that would make them more human. Have you considered, for example, how basic reporting structures might affect how much truth is spoken in your organization? We all have reporting relationships, but most of us also work on crossfunctional teams. So what happens when a problem involves people from different departments? The usual result is a cascading series of emails and meetings up and down each chain to make sure we don't "step on toes" as the problem is addressed. This discourages us from being truthful and direct with our coworkers. In human organizations, we figure out how to design those relationships in ways that encourage people to speak directly to each other when solving problems.

These examples address just two of the elements of a human organization: open (decentralized culture) and trustworthy (processes that support truth). Humanizing your organization will require attention to all four elements, and it will stretch beyond culture and process and get into specific individual behaviors. And as the examples illustrate, creating more-human associations is not about being cool or jumping on the social media bandwagon. It is about better results. When we create more-human associations, problems get solved. Action gets taken. Innovation becomes a reality rather than an intention.

For a long time, we have been crying out for better "leadership," prompting the creation of a slew of training programs, educational sessions, and gurus for hire. It took social media to shine the light on some counterintuitive truths: that leadership is a system capacity, not just an individual skill, and that when we intentionally create systems organized around what makes us human, we amplify leadership in ways that generate the results we have been hoping for.

Jamie Notter is vice president, consulting, at Management Solutions Plus, an association management company based in Rockville, Maryland. He and Maddie Grant, CAE, are coauthors of the newly released book Humanize: How People-Centric Organizations Succeed in a Social World. Website:; Email: [email protected]

A More Human Organization Through Trust

Jamie Notter, vice president at Management Solutions Plus, explains how associations can become more human by being trustworthy and how to become more trustworthy through transparency.

Online Extra: Organizational Trust and Conflict

Read more from Jamie Notter on conflict in leadership, building organizational trust, and using truth in leadership in these articles online:

  • "Conflict and Trust: Expressions of Culture and Keys to Organizational Success," by Jamie Notter and Madelyn Blair, Journal of Association Leadership, Fall 2004
  • "Who's in Charge?" by Jamie Notter, Associations Now, November 2007
  • "The Truth as a Leadership Imperative," by Jamie Notter, Associations Now, June 2010

Jamie Notter

Jamie Notter is cofounder of the consulting firm Culture That Works, LLC. He is coauthor of Humanize: How People-Centric Organizations Succeed in a Social World and When Millennials Take Over: Preparing for the Ridiculously Optimistic Future of Business.