When People Matter

This week’s essay has connections with my previous two blogs in different ways. I suspect you will easily make those connections as you read on.

I was reading some material that I had archived and stumbled across a quote from James Autry. Autry, an American Fortune 500 CEO (and poet) published a book in 1992 which was called “Love and Profit – The Art of Caring Leadership.”

Those of you who have read a few of my blog essays and perhaps have some understanding of my management philosophy and my general philosophy on life, would understand why such a title would appeal to me.

Autry began his little book with this statement:

“Despite the mechanisms of promotion, you don’t become a manager because someone appointed you to be one. Hanging a title after your name and putting you at the top of the organisation chart, doesn’t make you a manager. It only makes you a boss.

Management is, in fact, a sacred trust in which the well-being of other people is put in your care during most of their waking hours. It is a trust first, by those who placed you in the job; but more important than that, it is a trust placed upon you, after you get the job, by those whom you are to manage.”

And all of that strikes a chord with me. But this is not the quote that grabbed my attention. It was this:

“They leave a lot out of the Personnel Handbooks. Dying, for instance.”

I was only twenty six years old when I accepted my first management appointment. It was at a reasonably remote location in those days. Within the first twelve months of my appointment an employee suffered a cerebral hemorrhage at work. I bundled him into the back of my car with a first aider in attendance and drove as fast as I could to meet an oncoming ambulance. We duly met and transferred the patient. He was taken to the local regional hospital but never recovered.

The employees of this power station were domiciled in a village which was also my responsibility to manage. Not long after, one of my line managers collapsed at home. After a call from his wife we sped to his house and despite administering resuscitation and oxygen he passed away before an ambulance could arrive.

And then over the years I was called because children of my employees had died and I had to break the news to them. And they were employees for whom I had great affection and respect.

Then later people came to me and had to report they had terminal cancer, and even worse, in some ways, their children were so smitten.

Now don’t get me wrong, I am not relating this to you to gain your sympathy because of some of the dreadful things I have had to do as a manager. And no doubt many of you have had to contend with far more difficult situations than I have. Hard as it was, I felt privileged to be able to help people deal with the most distressing things that they could possibly endure. And after all they were enduring greater trauma than I was.

I am relating this to you because it is essential for managers to know that there is no escaping life at work. Work is merely a setting, a context where all the aspects of life still touch us. But I would have to say that Autry was right: they don’t say much about dying in the personnel manuals. You expect to be involved in the tragedies of your family and those closest to you. At work you are exposed to, and as a manager often become a major player in the tragedies of people you hardly know.

These are the things we do not train for. These are the things that challenge us as leaders and human beings. In many ways we are these experiences. They make us and mold us as we ingest them into ourselves.

Many things happen to us in life, many that go unnoticed and many barely remembered. But I know these moments of shared pain are lodged as firmly and securely inside me as my own heart, or my own bones. When we in honesty and solitude think about those things that have impacted us most, that penetrated our psyches, it is not likely to be the day we achieved our financial targets or when we got the Quality Award, but the day Les died, the day Pam came back and told us she was in remission, or the night we stayed with Nancy when her son was unconscious.

It is common in organisations to talk of Human Resources, as though people who come to our workplaces are mere factors of production. (One of my brightest young managers who had learnt about my sensitivities in this area used to talk about “human factors of production” just to get a bite from me. But what can you expect from an economist?) Some of the models of organisations portray them as machines that transform raw material into products. If we subscribe to such models and we determine that our people are either the raw material or the cogs or the pistons we can easily fall into the habit of dehumanising the people in our workplaces.

In line with this notion we often use euphemisms to avoid confronting some of the human dilemmas in organisations. For example organisations often talk about “right-sizing” as if there were a possibility we might sometimes mean we want to employ more people rather than be rid of them. Or we say we had to “let someone go” when we really meant that we put them off – sacked them – in fact. But our language suggests that they really wanted to go when that was far from the truth. So managers largely emphasise the business implications and generally don’t highlight the human implications.

If the output of our industry is to serve our society, then surely at the micro-level in our workplaces, the humanity of the individuals who comprise that society is of utmost importance. An enterprise is just a community in microcosm thrown together to make some product or provide some service. The human needs of those that work there can’t be overrided by the need for economic success. Similarly those that work there can’t be deluded to believe that organisations can continue to sustain them without being profitable. But an enterprise that has lost its humanity is an abomination.

In our little book, “Humanity at Work” the good Dr Phil and I characterised such workplaces as “workplaces of despair’. In these places people don’t come willingly to their place of employment to work; they come reluctantly to make a living. And in these places people are generally demeaned, overly directed, and controlled and manipulated by fear. Some of these enterprises are successful (in conventional terms of making profits) but not often in the long term and at a huge psychological cost to those who work there. These debilitating circumstances are usually reflected in high turnover and high absenteeism, which are manifestations of the stress and anxiety of the workplace.

So, essentially, James Autry is right. They do leave a lot out of Personnel Handbooks. No doubt there’ll be a section there on how to discipline people and monitor their performance. There will also likely to be something about their basic entitlements under their industrial agreements. There’s bound to be reams on safety and legal compliance. And there will be policies on bullying, harassment, equal opportunity and so on. But it would be nice if they could borrow a leaf out of the good Dr Phil’s book and have something on a topic he often addresses, “What Does It Mean to Be Human.” If we all truly understood that then most of the rest of the Handbook would be superfluous because we would know from first principles how we should treat each other under all circumstances, including death. Then we might understand the thesis in Autry’s book why love and profit can co-exist in workplaces where basic humanity is valued.

11 Replies to “When People Matter”

  1. Hi Ted. Great blog. I agree wholeheartedly that acting with humanity at work makes up the majority of what it takes to be a good manager and leader. I hear too many people talk about “dealing” with employees as if they are simply units of production. My practice has always been to treat people as you would wish them to treat you. There are no power struggles, no hidden agendas, no negative assumptions. It is as simple as developing a common vision, understanding the drivers of each of your people and then working together as fellow humans to achieve your best, individually and collectively. It shouldn’t be hard! Thanks again, Paul

  2. And what, precisely, is the difference between employers and employees?

    Aren’t we equally human?

    “I also am mortal, like everybody else…. When I was born, I began to breathe the common air, and fell upon the earth we all share. My first sound was a cry, as is true for all….For no king has had a different beginning of existence; there is for all one entrance into life, and one way out. Therefore I prayed, and understanding was given me. I called on God, and the Spirit of Wisdom came to me. I preferred Her to sceptres and thrones, and I counted wealth as nothing in comparison to Her.”
    The Wisdom of Solomon Chapter 7, Verses 1-7


    That is a quote from one version of ‘The Bible’

    Sacred books?

    Gimme a break.

  3. Ted, I recall a meeting some years ago with some consultants who were brought in to complete a specific task that involved a lot of interaction with our people. I recall the look on their faces so well when you said that “our people are not our most important asset”. It was only briefly before you went on to say that “our people are not assets they are people and should never be treated as if they are assets” I have no doubt paraphrased you wrong but it was a memorable moment that made a lasting impression.

    Another observation. We often say that we can not help someone else until we have helped our selves, we need to look after ourselves before we look after others, etc. Few people would argue with this. When it comes to organisations I see great parallels. An organisation can not give services to others until it has it’s own internal service needs met. The same as a person will die if not nourished so will an organisation and an organisation is nothing more than its people.

  4. Welcome aboard Paul – so pleased to have your insightful comment.

    Loved your quote, Father Robin. A few more such gems and we might have to find a more grandiose title for you!

    I can’t remember the particular incident that you relate, Greg – but it sounds right! Your second comment is a really important one. I am not sure I would put it exactly the way you do, but altruism comes naturally for those who have achieved personal equanimty. This might sound obtuse, but I suspect that we must nurture ourselves esoterically before we can be effective exoterically. Perhaps collogually I could have said, “We have to get it right in the inside before we can do our best on the outside?”

  5. Like you, Ted, I strongly believe that People Matter. My philosophy has always been that “People do the work and any organisational structure or set of procedures should be enabling mechanisms to allow people to do their work”.
    Peter Evans and I have written a small book called Values Driven Leadership in which we strongly advocate that leaders should do anything and everything to build a sense of Belonging, a sense of Identity and a sense of Purpose in staff (BIP). As a leader creates BIP into his or her unit/department/? there is no need to focus on KPIs – they are automatically met. I have proved this over many years.
    Ted, I have yet to read any of your books but I will do so soon. By the way, we have met a few years back.

  6. Thanks Doug – it was great to hear from you. I will try to acquire a copy of your book – sounds as if we have a few things in common (beyond a QUT connection!).

    Might I suggest to you that some folk who have a similar ethos are Paul Chippendale and Edward Gifford. If you would care to e-mail me I could put you in contact with these people who have vast experience at working with values.

  7. Ted,

    This essay really hit a chord with me. Hope you won’t mind me sharing it with others in my workplace with due acknowledgement?


  8. I would like to thankyou for such an enlightening post. I dont by and large reply on blogs as I wish to lurk and read. However your style of literature is uncomplicated to understand, I love the fact that it is clear and to the point. I will make sure that I mail your blog to my acquaintances as I am certain they will not only like reading your post but also find it extremely instructive.

Comments are closed.