Applying Complex System Science to WorkHuman

Angie and I recently attended the WorkHuman Conference in our home town of Austin, Texas. The event is pioneered by Globoforce, a leading provider for social recognition solutions, who is dedicated to creating more human-centered workplaces.

We were eager to attend WorkHuman for many reasons. Their speaker lineup was definitely a major draw, for it included well-known leaders Brene Brown, Shawn Achor, Salma Hayek, Simon Sinek, and Amal Clooney, among others. However, there were more compelling reasons for our excitement. We desired to learn more about this movement, to be a part of their mission and play witness, and to contribute to the conversation with our own testimony about how complex system science can help transform workplaces for the better.

We wanted to learn more about what made their mission so compelling and how they could “galvanize leaders worldwide to harness the transformative power of people”. We began looking for patterns or themes that underpinned the event and the messages that were presented. Before long we realized there are many underlying factors that guide our humanity, personally and professionally, and there is no divide between our home and work life. What we need more of in the workplace is what we need more of in life. We need more:

Real Connection









Healthy Boundaries


After jotting down this list of what we need more of, we couldn't help but also wonder, what is getting in the way of what we need? So, here is what we believe might be getting in the way:

Command and Control Leadership

Fear of Uncertainty




Scarcity Mindset


A profound lack of systemic thinking, a desire to control, and a debilitating fear of uncertainty all reside at the core of what is broken in our humanity. We are not facing reality together. Like Anais Nin has said, "we don't see the world as it is, we see it as we are." 

The final question is, how can we go about restoring our humanity in order to get more of what we need? Here’s what we have learned after connecting ideas from our podcast to our experience at WorkHuman.

How you show up matters. The messages shared at WorkHuman were not just for leaders. If we want the workplace to change, we have to change. It is often uncomfortable and not easy, but rest assured that uncomfortable feeling is your ticket to growth and freedom. Lean in to this feeling and watch the magic happen. There are small moments everyday for us to practice showing up. We can listen when we want to talk. Share when we want to stay quiet. Ask someone a question when we want to judge them. Assume good intent when we want to assume the worst. Pause when we want to react. Ask for feedback when we are afraid. Ask for help when we need it. Admit when we don’t know something. Take responsibility when we want to blame others. Let’s practice mindful living and show up to our lives, even when we don’t want to.  

We cannot change what we are not aware of, and once we are aware, we cannot help but change.
— Sheryl Sandberg

Give yourself a clear path. In order to successfully navigate complexity, we need a clear path with our feet grounded and our eyes fully open. The tricky part is we are the only ones who can create our path. No one can do this for us. Beyond mindfully showing up, we need to define our values, what is most meaningful to us, and live our lives with the intention of fulfilling our values. Our intention is our clear path. “Your values reflect what is important to you. They are a shorthand way of describing your motivations. Together with your beliefs, they are the causal factors that drive your decision-making.” Our values ground us with self-knowledge and provide a map for us to development and grow in harmony with the world around us. It is also important to realize that our values might change throughout the different stages of our lives. We have to check in with our values as often as we can. Let’s live from the inside out.

The best way out is always through.
— Helen Keller

Connect through storytelling, a powerful gift. Humanity has been sharing stories since the beginning of time. Stories help us come together and make sense of the world. Complexity requires storytelling. Individual stories can inspire action and collective stories can shape cultures and cultural values. Values and stories are the glue that hold our networks together. We all need to be listening, especially to the voices that are severely underrepresented. We need stories from everyone, every walk of life, because without the whole story, we are all lost. We are lost without each other and our humanity is hidden among the missing pieces, the missing stories. If we want to glue ourselves back together we have to courageously listen without judgement and without motive. We also have to practice vulnerability and trust one another with our stories, realizing that our individual story is incomplete on its own.

There were several speakers at WorkHuman who shared their stories and more importantly the stories of the underrepresented. It was wonderfully powerful and a great reminder that our humanity depends on storytelling. Let’s share our story when others have earned the right to hear it and open our hearts and provide space for others to share theirs.

Everyone in a complex system has a slightly different interpretation. The more interpretations we gather, the easier it becomes to gain a sense of the whole.
— Margaret Wheatley

It’s not all about you. Winning and success are admirable goals in most of Western culture, maybe a little too admirable. Competition is necessary and it is just as important as cooperation in complex systems, but problems can arise when winning becomes more important than cooperation and the context in which competition exists is important. As our past podcast guest Laurie Marshall said, “competition in nature is always in the context of an overriding, interconnected mutualism where all organisms benefit from keeping a balance." Balance is key.

Human ego can get in the way of our cooperation and can stifle system goals because our ego wants to win, above all else. Those who overexert their ego and focus on winning are playing a finite game because once they win the game is over. On the other hand, those who focus on cooperation and the system’s cause or goals are playing the infinite game because they play to keep the game going. 

At WorkHuman Simon Sinek said, “business is an infinite game” because there’s no such thing as “winning” in business. There is also no such thing as winning in life. We are all a contributing member of an ecosystem, which is much larger than us. We contribute to this system, we do not control this system.

ego eco.jpg

There is no ego in eco, as much as we want to believe otherwise. So, let’s embrace uncertainty, play the infinite game, and let go of our egos because life will happen in spite of us not because of us.

By replacing fear of the unknown with curiosity we open ourselves up to an infinite stream of possibility. We can let fear rule our lives or we can become childlike with curiosity, pushing our boundaries, leaping out of our comfort zones, and accepting what life puts before us.
— Alan Watts

When we really dig deep into understanding what it means to be human, a complex adaptive system with interacting parts and emerging collective behavior, we begin to see that our reality is interwoven and we participate daily in our own evolution, both individually and collectively. We cannot escape our interconnection. No matter how badly we want to believe we are separate; we are not. Humanity’s greatest gift is that we are all in this together, all we have to do is accept it.

Connection is why we are here.
— Brene Brown

You can listen to the HumanCurrent podcast here and don't forget to subscribe in iTunes. Listen to our recent interview with Erica Keswin, Founder of the Spaghetti projectand speaker at the WorkHuman Conference.

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