Who Wants to be a Resource?

by Apr 10, 2014Blog0 comments

“Words can change the world.” – Terry Pratchett

The words that we use matter. They shape our attitudes, shape our behavior, shape the very way that we think about the world. Words can inform, empower and inspire.

But in an age of commerce, where the language of finance and resources seeps in to the way that we manage people, have the words led us to lose sight of our common humanity?

Toxic Terminology

It started with ‘human resources’, a benign sounding phrase for what replaced ‘personnel’. But this is a phrase that invites us to see people not as people but as resources, to focus on their value to an organization at the expense of their personhood, their motives, talents and desires. It reduces us all to one more resource to be counted, like money in the accounts or paper clips in the cupboard.

It’s a mindset from which other de-humanizing terms follow. ‘Outsourced solutions’ replace ‘temporary workers’ or even ‘employees’, as if people were just answers to the problems facing an organization. Discriminatory practices are abstracted to ‘adverse selection’, taking the sting and the urgency out of situations that should rattle our cages and urge us to action.

Discriminatory practices are abstracted to ‘adverse selection’, taking the sting and the urgency out of situations that should rattle our cages and urge us to action.

Economy over Humanity

It’s an attitude that values us all primarily as economic units rather than people, that shelters decision makers from facing that humanity, but that also blinds them to its effect.

Treating people as abstract economic units means you will never get the best from them. Instead of their uniqueness and potential you see their sameness. Instead of people with needs and desires customers become sales units to push your product on. Instead of workers who might become disillusioned and unmotivated, who have desires that might be at odds with what an organization wants from them, you see resources plugging into a gap as easily as a computer or a ream of paper.

Do any of us want to be seen that way?

Treating people as abstract economic units means you will never get the best from them.

Why Words Matter

This might all sound academic, but semiotics and anthropology have shown that the words we use, the way that we apply them, have a real effect on our lives.

Labeling people as ‘resources’ and treating them in this way affects the way they view their work. They may feel less respected, and will certainly not be given the impression that their human identity matters to the business. They are less likely to fully engage with an organization that acts in this way, especially when these words affect the way that managers treat and plan around them.

Employee engagement affects all aspects of a business. It affects how motivated employees are, how hard they work, how likely they are to stay with the organization. It affects your value generation and your staff turnover.

In short, talking about people as resources hurts your bottom line.

Talking about people as resources hurts your bottom line.

Think Carefully, Speak Carefully

This is not an absolute. In many cases the role of human resources is found in the provision of resources to employees, humans. In this light, the meaning and the verbiage are fitting. However, I would venture that is most cases this is not the intended statement.

So, I challenge you to think about the way that you and your organization label employees and processes centered around them. Can you break free of the default terminology and start to use language that humanizes your employees? Can you speak in a way that encourages positive engagement, both from your employees and from you? Can you find the time to make your business less about resources and more about humans?

Image credit: gemenacom / 123RF Stock Photo

Mark Lukens, MBA

Mark Lukens, MBA

Founding Partner at Capatus
Mark Lukens is a founding partner at Capatus and located in the New York office. He leads the Capatus’ Global Talent and Advisory practice. He is also an expert in the firm’s research and nonprofit practice. Lukens has more than 20 years of c-level executive and consulting experience delivering strategies and transformational programs to firms ranging from start-up to Fortune 50. He has worked with clients in Europe, North America, South America, and Asia. Lukens worked extensively in various product and service categories including health care, life sciences, government, nonprofit, technology, and professional services. He also advises clients in other industries including commercial and industrial, retail, logistics and transportation, media and more. Lukens serves on several Nonprofit Boards and is a professor at the State University of New York where he teaches in the School of Business and Economics with a focus on marketing, international management, entrepreneurship, HR, and organizational behavior to name a few. Lukens has a technical background as a MCSE and earned an MBA from Eastern University.
Mark Lukens, MBA


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