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Why Can’t They Treat Us Like Human Beings?

Karl Albrecht, in his book, Social Intelligence, relates a story told to him by an anti-union labor consultant, Tom Puffer. Puffer once had an impromptu conversation with a man who identified himself as a union organizer. Puffer was struck by what the man said:

“’You know, there’s one thing company executives could do that would make my job infinitely harder; one thing that would actually reduce our win rate in
unionizing their companies. If they would fire all the supervisors
(italics Albrecht's) who bully and oppress their employees, we’d have an
uphill battle. That’s what we capitalize on—an alienated workforce of
people who feel like they’re not being treated like human beings.’”

Puffer said the man had something even more provocative to say, “’I have no
hesitation about telling you this, because I know they won’t do it (italics
Albrecht’s). The blockheads that run the companies we go after just don’t
get it. Apparently, it’s too simple for them.’”

What an indictment! It’s one that was echoed by Meg Wheatley in her recent keynote address at the Global Girl: Intimate Leader Symposium in Richmond. She said that “people in today’s organizations feel disregarded” and that they wonder “why can’t they treat us like human beings?”
Why can’t they indeed? In a world where human capital is touted as our organizations’ chief competitive advantage, where best-selling leadership books, business schools and innovative companies have shown thousands of leaders the link between compassionate, respectful, strengths-based leadership and productivity and profitability, many an organizations’ managers still fall short. I know this because I hear about them in the latest business and leadership publications, from my colleagues and from my clients.
Oppressive bosses exist at every organizational level—from top executives to front-line supervisors. They play havoc with employee morale. Some of their employees leave, others check out, others soldier on despite the lack of support. All this impacts productivity, creativity, innovation—things most organizations say they want. What shocks me is how often people so totally unsuited for managing others are hired into those jobs and are kept there despite rumblings from below. Do senior leaders know the price their organizations pay for such poor leadership?
What does it take to treat employees with respect? I’ve asked a similar question to hundreds of participants in my workshops over the years and their answers are consistent. People who manage others need to believe that their role as people manager is crucial to their success. It isn’t an afterthought to be undertaken when and if you have time after your “real work” is done. The best managers value others and their contributions. They see strengths and work to bring those out in the people who report to them. They listen. They let employees solve their own problems and they solicit their employee’s opinions. They set clear expectations and give people the tools to achieve them.
If your organization could be unionized, do you have managers who would make union organizing difficult or easy? Take a hard look.

One Response to "Why Can’t They Treat Us Like Human Beings?"

  • Jennifer Whitlock
    March 25, 2008 - 2:30 pm Reply

    What a perfect observation! I imagine it’s one of the contributing factors to the rising success of smaller businesses. It’s harder to de-humanize employees when the entire company fits into a single room.

    I have had bosses in the past who have been victims of the “Peter Principal” – they were promoted beyond their capabilities. Corporate America sees management as the ultimate job when really the ultimate job is the one that is best suited to your individual strengths and provides enough challenges that you continue to strive to learn and improve. We are not all made to manage people just as we are not all made to crunch numbers or build houses or create art.

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