Guess what, Leaders?
Contrary to popular belief, your employees aren’t your most valuable asset.
But doesn't everyone say they are? Describing employees as the most valuable part of an organization is considered an expression of the value we place on the people who work in our businesses – so how dare I make this statement?
It’s simple (but not easy, as I like to say)! Read on…
The Mind Boggles
You can blame my friend and colleague, Dart Lindsley, for this “crazy” reframe!
Dart challenged me to pay closer attention to the language commonly used – the actual words we choose – to describe the people we hire and our relationships with them. Before you tell me I’m wrong, humor me…
Definitions Don't Lie
Consider the language we use when we talk about the people we hire, and what these words mean (courtesy of Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary):
- Asset: the property owned by a person (or corporation)
- Employ: To use, to make use of, to use advantageously, to use the services of
- Employee: One employed (used) by another usually for wages or salary
- Hire: a payment for the temporary use of something, e.g. labor or personal services
- Human: a bipedal primate mammal
- Productive: effective in bringing about results, benefits, profits
- Resource: an available means, source of supply or support
So when leaders say that their employees are their company’s most valuable asset, the words used have a connotation:
- People = the available means of supply
- That we temporarily “use” (in exchange for pay and other benefits)
- To generate the value that our companies deliver to customers
- Resulting in our profits
This sounds like semantics, but it’s only a small step to talking about employees as means of production (in economic terms), as inputs to the value we deliver, even if subconsciously. It makes perfect sense, then, that many of our organizational policies and practices that govern the hiring, managing, development, and dismissal of employees are focused on maximizing the productivity of our ‘resources’ – aka, yielding results and profits.
From Defensive to Intentional
I am NOT saying that YOU believe this about the people you hire. I’m not suggesting you lack respect for them, or that you intentionally “use” your employees to produce value without any care for their wellbeing. And I’m definitely not saying that you're an uncaring, heartless capitalist (after all, there are healthy, heartful capitalists all around us).
But shouldn’t we be more intentional? What could we improve in our companies if we shifted our mindset about “employees” and the “employee-employer relationship”?
What You Can Do Now
The language you use sends messages, so the question you must ask yourself is “What signals are we sending, intentional or not?”
Consider the language change that’s become pretty common over the last decade or so: what drove people to change the function name of the group in charge of hired hands (hearts, souls, and brains) from “Personnel” to “Human Resources” to “People Operations?” Something about those other titles felt wrong. Objectifying, distant. In some ways, it may be easier to run an organization if you worry less about how the people in your organization feel about their work. But of course, distance is the opposite of connection, a high priority for many people (and companies) in these post-pandemic days of widespread isolation.
In fact, the people you hire to work in your organization have choices about where to work. They can’t control whether your company offers them a job or not, but they can definitely choose which offer to accept. And of course, when to leave. By reframing these people, for just a moment, as a second set of customers for your organization, you will better discover their decision criteria.
This is the reframe that Dart laid out for my consideration. In all honesty, he and I have been talking about this for years, since we worked together at Cisco.
And with the recent increased attention to the power balance between labor and management (e.g., the striking labor unions in the US), the push and pull between where people WANT to work from and where their employers want them to do their work, the advent of AI in everything, and the trend of ‘quiet quitting,’ it’s high time we rethink the employment exchange through our employees’ experience, just as we develop our products thinking about our customers’ experiences.
Executive Steps to Take Today
1. Review the policies and practices in your company – and figure out what underlying assumptions are made, and the extent to which they reflect your values.
2. Learn what your most valuable employees care about most in their work – is it the opportunity to solve complex problems, the chance to invent something, the recognition of what they contribute, or the prestige of the organization/role? You know it’s more than just comp and benefits, so start by asking what they love/hate about their job (the way Dart asks this is “What do you hire your job to do for you?”), and what they wish they could do more of.
3. Once you learn this, think about how your organization designs jobs and assigns work – is there a way to help each person do more of what they crave, while still delivering to the company’s top priorities? Most especially, Is there someone else who loves the parts of the work that they hate, and would be happy to make a swap?
As most of you know, I love words and using them precisely, so I recognize that this may seem semantic. It’s definitely a major mindset shift! I’m not proposing you throw everything out and start again (although if you’re building a startup, be intentional about how you both design jobs and hire – from your earliest days). Rather I’m proposing you reflect on the messages people might be receiving based on how you operate.
I would really love to hear your thoughts about this radical reframing of work, job design, and how we communicate to the people we hire about the deep, intrinsic value they bring to the organization. Without these people, after all, your company would have precious little to offer. And for that, they deserve at least as much respect as you!
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