Some conversations stick with you for a long time. 

Some conversations take your breath away the moment they happen. 

A few weeks ago, I had one that did both.

“Everyone is focused on ‘humanizing’ work,” my client said.  “I wish people would de-humanize work.  I would love nothing more than to be treated like a line of code or a piece of equipment. We treat our code and equipment better than we treat our people.

When a piece of equipment doesn’t work, we send in teams of people to fix it.  We study what went wrong, we fix the error, and we take action to make sure it doesn’t happen again.  We don’t expect a line of code to work in every operating system, to be able to do everything in every context.  We know that we need to adapt it for iOS or Android.”

As I picked my jaw up off the floor and put my eyes back in my skull, she continued.

“But people…when a person is struggling, we don’t send anyone to help. We don’t ask why they’re struggling or study the situation or take action so that no one else experiences the same problem.  We expect the person to either fix their own problem or to leave.

We expect everyone to be able to work in every situation and when there’s a mismatch, we expect the more junior person to ‘expand their toolkit’ and ‘learn to work with other styles’ or to leave. 

“If we treated our people the way we treat our products, our people would be so much happier, and we’d be so much more successful as a company.

Talk about a truth bomb.

And it’s not just her company.  It’s almost every company I’ve worked for or with.

Think about it.  What happens when a project is going off the rails? Or a product is malfunctioning?  Or a shipment is delayed or missed?  The team, maybe even the full company, shifts its focus to solving the problem.  People, time, money, all of it funnels to fixing the problem and getting things back on track.

But what about when a person or a team is struggling? Or about to burn out? Or devolving into dysfunction?  They become the problem and people start to back away.  They’re given self-guided training.  They’re reminded of their job responsibilities and expectations.  They’re put in a new role and made someone else’s “problem.”  They’re let go from the company.

When a product isn’t meeting expectations, we rush to help.

When a person isn’t meeting expectations, we back away.

Maybe we do need to start treating our people like our products.

Maybe de-humanizing work is the key to making it work for humans.