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People are not resources

Transforming organisations starts with changing our language

The word “resource” gets used, without a second thought, to mean people. It’s so pervasive and normalised that I’ve heard myself slip into using it. I intend to continue refusing this inertia.

Photo by Marcus Wallis

Resource. If you stop and think about it, it’s a terrible way to speak about people. A resource is something you take and use. Applied to people, it carries dismissive and devaluing undertones.

“resource” says “you don’t matter to me”. That’s a toxic dynamic for any human endeavour.

We’re good at detecting these cues and reading the signs. Where the implications of what’s said are at odds with the message being put out, it creates contradiction and dissonance. The response to that dissonance in 85% of cases is disengagement.

As we speak, so we are

Our language reflects our underlying beliefs, whether conscious or unconscious, and that speaks louder than words. “Resource” carries an implicit message that people are not individually valuable, they are replaceable units of function.

I don’t intend on being a commodity capability. I guess you don’t either?

I once heard an idea that clicked for me. I’ve long lost the reference but I reckon it was a TED talk (if you know it please get in touch). The idea is this: in the theatre, managers are only of “things”. Stage manager, lighting manager and so on. People are not things so they don’t get managed. In this case, managing is what you do to the environment — to actual resources — and it’s a good environment which enables people to do great work.

Redefining management

That’s not to say people don’t need support. It takes kindness and care to help people be their best selves. When that happens, it’s a win-win for both the individual and the organisation, not to mention the team.

I draw a clear distinction here between “kind” and “nice”. Kind is not always nice.

Kind comes from a place of care and fundamental respect for the dignity of the individual. We usually refer to a person responsible for others as a “people manager”, but the language trips us up and nudges us to manage people as if they were inanimate resources.

To improve the language, perhaps people management should be reworded as “mentor” or “coach”. From this standpoint, a manager would be more like a director in a play or a conductor in an orchestra: making the whole greater that the sum of its parts.

Human Resources is an oxymoron

I’m forthright in my opinion of HR. It’s not that there isn’t important work to be done. There are even some good people. But when the very name “Human Resources” is an oxymoron, there’s got to be a more thoughtful way of designing the part of your organisation that is intended to curate your most important asset.

People are your greatest asset

You know what? It turns out this isn’t true. You may have gathered I’m a big believer in people, but Jim Collins points out in his perennial classic Good to Great that one of the features of organisations that consistently outperform over the long haul is Disciplined People: “who” before “what”. Using a metaphor of getting the right people on the bus before heading to a destination:

In fact, leaders of companies that go from good to great start not with “where” but with “who.” They start by getting the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats. And they stick with that discipline — first the people, then the direction

The point he makes is that people are not your greatest asset. The right people are your greatest asset. This underscores the idea that people are not resources. If people were interchangeable units, you’d only need the right type of people on the bus. In reality, it’s the individuals and the relationships between them that matter.

What to do?

Assembling the right team (and not necessarily an all-star team) is key. If you think of a team as a system and apply systems thinking to that team, it becomes clear that focusing on interactions is vital.

Probably the most fascinating book I’ve been exploring recently is The Culture Code. The introduction points to research showing that teams made up of preschoolers outperform teams made up of business school students. That sounded baffling to me at first, but it points to just how important healthy team interactions are. The energy of business school students was directed away from the task, discerning social order and status in the group. Preschoolers simply didn’t have this outlay so could focus more energy on the task, leading to better performance.

Simon Sinek has a great snippet on how good leadership moves us away from resource thinking: “at the end of the day, great leaders are not responsible for the job. They are responsible for the people who are responsible for the job”. It’s not about lining up the right set of resources, but about connecting individuals to form a collective intelligence.

To me this is what leaders do, regardless of their job. Leadership is not positional. If you’re doing what you can to create a space where people are seen and heard as individuals, bringing people together and encouraging the best of those around you, we’ll be the better for it. You’re making the world a more human place and that’s transformational work.

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On 5th October 2020 Notbinary became a part of Foundry4. To continue to read our latest articles and blogs head over to foundry4.com

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David Carboni

David Carboni

Hands-on culture and techology. Work hard be kind. CTO at Policy in Practice (https://policyinpractice.co.uk)

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