The Duel of Dehumanisation
Is it a battle playing out in your organisation?
When I wrote that disengagement was dehumanising, I thought I was being bold and controversial. It seemed a little brash to be equating an HR indicator with the most frightful of human behaviours. And yet, when leaders permit physical and mental harm to befall their people, what other explanation could there possibly be but that employees are seen as less-worthy beings? My thoughts were confirmed today when I came across the research into organisational dehumanisation, which shows that it not only exists, but it just may be the precursor to many of the issues we are discussing today such as disengagement, distrust and burnout.
What Is Dehumanisation in the Workplace?
When we think of dehumanisation, our minds naturally turn to the most extreme forms such as the persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany or the treatment of African slaves in colonial America. These examples show clearly that dehumanisation is a process of making a target group seem less human than others. It seeks to strip away any notion of these people thinking or feeling as we do or being worthy of the treatment we expect for ourselves. Fundamentally, dehumanisation is a tool we use to escape our moral boundaries of mistreating other humans. By dehumanising others, we can continue to either ignore or punish them with much less moral baggage. By making others less worthy of care, we free ourselves to harm.
While the examples above are standouts in the history of dehumanisation, it is still present today and has finally been recognised as also existing in the workplace, albeit in a much less overt and savage way. The definition of organisational dehumanisation is:
“the experience of an employee who feels objectified by his or her organisation, denied personal subjectivity, and made to feel like a tool or instrument for the organisation’s ends”[i] (Bell & Khoury, 2011, p. 168)
It occurs when the needs of the “organisation” are seen to be more important than those of the people who serve it. The people feel that they no longer exist as full and free humans at work — they are subjugated to being just one cog in a machine operated by others. When people are dehumanised at work, they are no longer complex and curious beings, they are simple, single-dimensional beings who have one goal — to deliver on the task of the day.
Evidence of Organisational Dehumanisation
It is easy to imagine that such an approach was rife in the Industrial Revolution, where workers were seen solely as a means of production. The workers were not seen as people, but merely machines, expected to endure dangerous conditions, long hours (16-hour days were not unusual) and all with no basic rights[ii]. While our work methods have evolved, and unions exist to champion worker rights, we need to acknowledge that the human psyche is largely the same as it was 200 years ago. As Brené Brown recognises, this means we are still:
“all vulnerable to the slow and insidious practice of dehumanising.[iii]” ~Brené Brown
It Begins With Language
“Dehumanising always starts with language.~Brené Brown[iv]”
The first place dehumanisation begins is with language. The use of words to crush compassion is evident in the extreme examples above, where Jews were called rats and the N-word was used to express the perceived inferiority of the slave population. However, as noted by Sherry Hamby[v], dehumanisation is not always indicated by such acute and cruel choice of words. It occurs also when a person is reduced to one single characteristic and the full complexity of their lives is ignored. For example, when you call someone an addict, a diabetic or a prisoner, you are no longer acknowledging all of the other parts of their lives. The singular focus on this one dimension allows you to see them as less than human.
So, it is not a long bow to draw then to consider the words we use for the people we work with also dehumanising. When we refer to our:
we are also relegating these people to a mass of unidimensional beings. We are indicating that the only part of them we care about is the labour that they provide, the work that they can do and the stock of capital that they contribute to. Is it so hard to call the people that turn up every day to serve actual “people”?
It Moves On To Violence
“Dehumanizing others is the process by which we become accepting of violations against human nature, the human spirit, and, for many of us, violations against the central tenets of our faith.” ~ ~Brené Brown
The violence evident in today’s organisations is not necessarily the physical forms of earlier eras. It is recognised that violence is the use of any power or force used to injure or damage something or someone, and so can manifest as physical, psychological, sexual and even economic violence.
If you look at the Queensland State Public Sector, the evidence of violence is clear. In the last published reports (2020) around 27,000 people reported experiencing bullying in their workplace. In addition, almost 60% of people reported negative health impacts as a result of their work. Both bullying and burnout have serious consequences for a person’s physical and mental health. These statistics are alarming, and for me indicate the clear presence of violence at work. Power is being used to damage people. If this is not violence, then what is it?
It is one thing to conduct violations against human nature, another to allow these violations to endure. Further results from the Working For Queensland Survey[vi] show that the leaders in the public sector have been aware of the rates of burnout for years, and yet have made little headway in making the workplace safer.
Moreover, while bullying is rife, they have established such a culture of fear that the majority of people choose not to report it, and most don’t believe any action will be taken.
This inaction leads the majority of people to believe that their well-being is not considered important.
If you don’t care about the wellbeing of a person, then for me, this is direct evidence that you also consider them less than human and worthy of care, or at the very least, less important than yourself. The indifference shown to suffering indicated is further evidence of the inhumanity present in our workplaces.
“The worst sin toward our fellow creatures is not to hate them, but to be indifferent to them: that’s the essence of inhumanity.”~ George Bernard Shaw
It Culminates In Ostracism
In the dehumanisation that occurs within society, the target group are generally removed from society. In Nazi Germany, this took the form of remote imprisonment and physical extermination. In colonial America, it was displayed as degrading racial segregation. In today’s organisations, we see an interesting version of ostracism though, in that people banish themselves psychologically from the organisation through the process of disengagement.
Disengagement in the workplace is a form of apathy and a sign that people have checked themselves out of caring about trying to make a difference. Apathy can be viewed as being even a more dire situation than employee dissatisfaction. With dissatisfaction, employees are still likely to feel compelled to address their unsuitable situation, or at least to whinge and whine about it. They at least feel something. When they are dissatisfied there is still some concern with their situation, and some spark left to fix it. However, with apathy, employees no longer care about seeking improvement. Disengagement is contrary to the natural human state, which seeks happiness through contribution. In this way, disengagement can be seen as an indicator of dehumanisation in the workplace.
Apathy is evidenced in the latest survey results from the Queensland Public Sector, where the response rate was only 43 per cent. According to Dr Shoobridge[vii], this is a very poor response for a web-based survey and a clear indicator that people do not have any faith in their ability to make a difference through their responses. They have given up, detached, disengaged and now ignore any offer to participate in information-gathering exercises.
Why Does Dehumanisation Happen At Work?
Dehumanisation happens in organisations for the same reason it happens in society — fear. People become insecure and fear losing their power, position, privilege and pay. They may become afraid of losing their leadership, and so need to make themselves look like a hero. One sure way to do this is to create an enemy out of other people, and the easiest to make an enemy of are those who are most vulnerable.
It may be a subconscious process, but as Constantin Lagios outlines, it trickles down through the organisational ranks. Those in positions of privilege (aka the organisational leaders) seek to maintain their status and can choose to do so by distancing others through dehumanisation. When the layers of management below the leaders experience dehumanising treatment though, they don’t just suck it up. And they also cannot retaliate due to their relatively low position of power The result is that they undertake displaced aggression — transferring their frustrations onto those less powerful than themselves.
In this way, the proverbial sh*t of dehumanisation flows downhill, creating a stink across the whole organisation. It is not surprising then to find that of the cases of bullying reported in the 2020 survey, 70% per cent were perpetrated by people in superior hierarchical positions. The mistreatment of subordinates is a sure and very sad sign that the people above them have also been mistreated but have not had the insight, capacity or courage to fight the flow.
When Dehumanisation Becomes A Duel
Much research and writing have focused on the trickle-down process of dehumanisation from the top to the bottom layers of an organisation. But one thing that is missed is the equal and opposite reaction that occurs bottom-up. Just think about it — if you begin to believe that someone does not care about you and is knowingly treating you badly, then it is easy to think that they too are less than human. If they are unable to show empathy and care, then they are less civilised, less moral and less worthy than yourself. Those in power become known collectively as the:
Or they are referred to by their titles — DG, GM, CEO. etc or just as “them”.
The suppressed slowly begin to use language to simplify and separate themselves from whom they see as the perpetrators of pain.
Because of their lower levels of formal power, those who have been dehumanised then rely on much more passive and covert forms of violence, being conservation of resources, often manifested in absenteeism, reduced productivity, withholding innovative behaviours and knowledge hiding[viii]. This is captured in the following summary, called the Duel of Dehumanisation.
The Duel of Dehumanisation
If I feel like the leaders are not working for my benefit, I will conserve my energy and not work for theirs.
If I feel they are not taking any actions on issues that are hurting me, then I will not help resolve problems that will help them.
If I feel like the leaders don’t value my skills, experience or knowledge, then I will hold them close and keep them safe.
If I feel that the leaders do not acknowledge my humanity, I will deny theirs.
As you could imagine, and perhaps as you have even experienced yourself, no one wins in this duel, and in fact, it becomes more of a destructive downward spiral of mistrust, anger, disconnection and apathy.
“As we take sides, lose trust, and get angrier and angrier, we not only solidify an idea of our enemy, but also start to lose our ability to listen, communicate, and practice even a modicum of empathy.” ~ Brené Brown[ix]
The employees see the leaders as selfish, uncaring and cruel and their behaviour as threatening to their wellbeing. The leaders see the employees’ behaviour as recalcitrant, lazy, subversive and threatening to their position of power.
Inherent in this process of dehumanisation is distress, for all parties. It creates an environment of anxiety in the workplace, and if it is allowed to fester, the outcome is the further distance between the sides, punctuated only by thrusts and parries of fear. It is incredibly difficult to drop the swords, make peace and restore relationships, and yet it is possible.
You Can’t Fight Dehumanisation With Dehumanisation[x]
The only way to reduce dehumanisation in organisations is to introduce more humanisation, and this is through the practice of empathy. Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Why would anyone, especially in positions of privilege feel compelled to do this? Sure, you can make the argument that it results in increased productivity and performance that will help boost their position (that is using self-serving arguments), but it would be ideal if people in positions of organisational power do it because it is just the right thing to do.
The other thing to consider is that all empathy is not equal. Without wisdom, we may erroneously encourage just cognitive or emotional empathy[xi]. While these forms are nice, they can result in taking on the burdens of the world and contribute only to further distress, despair and burnout. What is required is dedicated guidance to build compassionate empathy, which does not just stop at understanding, but moves forward to do something to reduce suffering. It goes beyond feeling to action.
I can’t help but be blown away by how similar the notion of compassionate empathy is to my definition of love in the business context which is as follows:
- Who will be the first to bring in compassionate empathy?
- Who will be the first to build love in?
The question then becomes, where dehumanisation exists:
Who started the battle is a moot point. The only important thing is ending it for the well-being of all involved.
[i] Bell & Khoury, 2011, p. 168 as quoted in Organizational Dehumanization, Supervisors’ Abusive Behaviors, and Subordinates’ Well-Being and Attitudes: A Trickle-Down Model — Work, Stress, and Health (workstressandhealth.com)
Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com.