Are Your People Someone Or Something?

Dr Anthony Howard

July 15, 2020

Many of you have heard the aphorism ‘people are your greatest asset’. Some of you may believe this and live by it. However, is this sentiment reflected in both culture and the way leaders lead? For the most part the answer is no. And there’s a reason for that.

The advent of industrialisation and algorithms drove a thirst for measurement. Unfortunately, people are not immune from that, and so a consequence of the mechanisation of business is the mechanisation of thinking and the association of people with cost, resources, or property.

Somewhat paradoxically, while customers demand a high touch and personalised service, the people with whom we work are often treated as a tool to be used to deliver that service to customers. We often care more for the people who pay us money than the people who enable that service to be delivered.

You may know what Bridgett does for you at work, but do you know who Bridgett is as a person? Are you even interested in her life outside of work, what she hopes for herself, what her dreams are? Or is Bridgett simply a cog in a machine, to be used as needed and discarded when she outlives her usefulness – or becomes too costly. Often in business, anything and anyone is expendable in a quest for efficiency.

Tools have always been used by people. Whether an axe, a windmill, a printing press or a telephone, tools have helped us improve our quality of life. Someone used something for some reason. However, with the advent of advanced technology such as the internet, mobile phones, artificial intelligence, and so forth, it seems that this role has reversed. The person is now a servant to the tool. We have become the datapoint and in turn, lost our sense of being a person who can make their own choices, and shape our own life. The results are that now someone works for something.

Tools have always been used by people. But now, the tools we have created, are using us as a means to an end

The solution is not to abandon technology, because this is the world that we live in, but to protect people. In perhaps a world first, the Polish court in 2019 recognised this reality, ruling in favour of employees against Amazon regarding the day-to-day dehumanising reality of their workplace. The attached image shows Amazon employees united behind a sign that reads ‘We are robots, not humans’. Workers reported: ‘The scan gun I used to do my job was also my own personal digital manager. Every single thing I did was monitored and timed. After I completed a task, the scan gun not only immediately gave me a new one but also started counting down the seconds I had left to do it.’ Amazon employees claimed these expectations created an atmosphere of panic, isolation and monotony.

In its justification, the court said Amazon distorted the employment relationship by granting itself the right to dismiss the least efficient employees on the ground their results were worse than the other ninety percent. In the court’s opinion this allowed Amazon to treat their employees as mere objects, confirming the employer was focused solely on profit.

Technology has enabled businesses to enforce a pace of work with no room for inefficiency, squeezing every drop of downtime out of their employee’s day. The more human a worker is, the less productive and ultimately desirable they are in the cold eyes of the market.

The Amazon examples sets an important precedent, showing people are not simply a means of economic production but a someone. The idea that a person is a distinct being and not a datapoint is poorly understood, as shown by the court’s judgment. But human workers are crucial to the conversation, creativity and emotional capability that a business needs in order to survive. So, we suggest, in order to grow businesses, leaders must first grow their people.

Just as the compass on a ship points to magnetic north, enabling the navigator to chart a course with confidence, so too our moral compass needs to be grounded in some reality against which it can be measured or checked.

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About the Author

Dr. Anthony Howard

Dr Anthony Howard is a CEO, entrepreneur, thought leader, philosopher, and author who focuses his energies on helping high level leaders excel in their leadership. People started calling him ‘the CEO Whisperer’ over a decade ago, as they recognised his uncommon insights about people in complex challenging leadership roles, combined with an understanding of the true nature of leadership, and how it impacts communities and corporations.

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