For some time now I notice a physical reaction in my body whenever I hear the term “to get the best out of our people”. It’s been bugging me for a while so I was contemplating it on my walk this morning. I think it goes to the heart of the employer/employee relationship – and I might be being a bit provocative here – and to the psychological foundation for that relationship. I believe the words we use are really important and for a long time, I’ve realised that the alternative meaning of the word ’employed’ is something that is ‘used’. This may still be the unconscious foundation for many work relationships. Even those companies who have worked to establish fair and equal cultures of diversity and inclusion, still battle the unspoken status bias and assumed power plays that go back to the start of the industrial revolution (or before) when people were treated as resources to be ‘used’ to reach profit and efficiency goals. Oh my, did I not realise what Frederick Winslow Taylor was teaching in scientific management in my university days! Then it sounded like de-humanising production processes was a good thing because it made ‘companies more efficient’ and so could make more money more easily. Today we are waking up to the fact that it’s not ok to treat any human being as inferior to another. So even in power structures within organisations, I feel we need to really look into our hearts and ask how we might be ‘using’ people at their personal expense in pursuit of results. There’s just been a feature about clothes factories in mid-England where people are working for much less than minimum wage (£2.50 per hour) in unsafe conditions, all in the pursuit of cheap consumer goods. These employees are being ‘used’. No question about it. It’s not too extreme to say they are modern-day slaves. It’s inhumane and it’s happening in our own towns and cities. Most of us are not directly involved in those types of organisations. Yet our words carry weight wherever we are. I heard a high-level coach recently use those same words: that teaching leaders to be more coach like, would help to ‘get more out of your employees’. This coach showed no awareness of how contradictory that language is to the underlying intention of shifting the leader/team member relationship to a more human-respecting level. Really listening to the needs of people and building cultures and structures to support and inspire people as human beings seems to me more important than ever. Like Corona, our language can be another unseen or unheard virus that spreads with unfathomable impact and outcomes. It invites us to listen deeply to the words we use and to get rid of many of the cliches that we’ve inherited from earlier forms of business and organisation. I know we can change our world by changing our language. I see it all the time in coaching conversations – how one word can make a difference to what someone believes about themselves and to how they then choose to behave.
Your turn: what phrases do you hear yourself say automatically without thinking what they really mean? Please listen out for anything along the lines of “to get the most or best out of our employees” and reconsider what you really mean. A new world demands new language. What words would you change to honour people as human beings rather than used as ’employees”? #Lead Boldly