Bringing Humanity Back into the Workplace: Lessons from the Rwandans

On a recent humanitarian trip to Rwanda, I discovered a country that has been through the absolute darkest times, yet is now filled with the kindest and gentlest people I have met. A mere two decades after a horrific genocide that left no citizen untouched, Rwandans today exemplify kindness, strength and resilience.

What caused this remarkable transformation? Although most Rwandans have nothing tangible to give, the wealth they distribute is measured in their attributes: patience, consideration and compassion.

Upon returning home, I began thinking about the strength of these qualities and the roles they play in our daily workplace interactions. Too often, we become consumed with fears of scarcity of praise, power or money. Such anxieties can result in "every team for itself," or worst, "every person for him/herself" attitudes that separate and deteriorate relationships that are vital to a team's success. In Rwanda, we saw how these same attitudes led to the near ruin of their society. What can we learn from their journey that can improve our workplace interactions and businesses?

Creating Connection
Each month in Rwanda, neighbors come together for a half day of mandatory community service, called Umuganda, which translated means, "coming together in common purpose to achieve an outcome." This is a proactive step to move forward from a genocide in which neighbors attacked neighbors. The common purpose of community members working side by side on projects brings them together and helps heal the differences among them; instilling a sense of connection to advance as a united nation.

Creating strong feeling of connection among staff members and across departments is a common challenge for managers, especially in today's economic climate, where mergers and acquisitions often force former competitors to join forces and create a new team. If employees felt connected and invested in their team, and looked out for each other with a sense of concern and compassion, how would our workplace look different? If team members supported and lifted up fellow employees who were having a hard time, would workplace attendance and productivity increase?

Proactive Resilience
Most firms are in a constant state of corporate change to remain relevant in their industry. Change, by nature, is unnerving and potentially paralyzing when individuals are unsure of what will come next. This can be costly in both employee morale and productivity.

It may be a change in a project direction or the acquisition of a new company, but with it brings the fears of 'what does this mean for me?' Rwanda has shown the world how to make a proactive choice to come together, rather than letting change drive a divide. In fact, Rwanda aggressively pursued their Millennium Development Goals, a world-wide initiative, which resulted in a million people being lifted out of extreme poverty within 10 years and making primary education accessible for more than 95% of children.*

Proactive resilience can be practiced in our workplaces as we choose to move forward as a team in the face of corporate, strategic, or project-level change. When people are connected and invested in their goals, they care more about what they do, how they do it and who is by their side - and it materializes in their performance.

Umuganda Every Day
Since returning from Rwanda, I have declared Umuganda in my office every day. I'm lucky enough to work on a tight-knit team who approaches projects and problems together. This strong sense of a common purpose was crucial during a recent brand launch project where we had to negotiate individual preferences and opinions, evaluate internal and external feedback and make very difficult decisions to arrive at the best strategy that will carry our company forward. Change is constant and the fear falling down always lingers. But we come together to arrive at the best solution, rising and falling as a team.

Rwanda has shown me that intangible, immeasurable changes in human interaction and connection can bring about positive change. It is a powerful lesson to take to our daily workplace. These incremental changes in interaction are not immaterial. Bringing humanity into our workplace isn't a luxury; it is a necessity to succeed.