Is our work environment making people tools?

I have been having a lot of conversations these days with people on the difficulties of getting the right person in the right job.  It might be the one thing that keeps every business owner awake at night. 

There is a lot of effort being put toward making sure the person has the actual skills they say they have, and that you actually need.  In some cases (like programming or engineering) that is essential, but as those who hire and manage people know, it is by no means the only consideration.   I don’t know if he coined this phrase but Brett Gibson has a saying that captures this quite well.  “We hire for skill and fire for attitude.”  I know there is no end to the stories we could all tell about people who had the technical job skills but lacked other critical (but sometimes hard to identify) skills to be successful.  Why does this keep happening?

I can’t help but wonder if one contributing risk is that we treat people (inadvertently) as purely a means of production.  Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying we should hire and keep people who do not contribute to the success of a business.  Yet, when we focus on production only It is dehumanizing. It reduces the person to the level of an object or a machine even a tool.  

Speaking of tools…when this happens it can actually encourage the employee to behave in very uncreative ways.  Remember the quality movement adage: “Be careful what you measure; it drives behavior.”?  If the employee feels objectified or feels that the goal is only about production, they will be very tempted to become the tool that can perform to those measures.  They begin to focus on just what you are measuring.  In short they stop (or never start) critically thinking. 

Critical thinking involves risk taking, a willingness to put the accepted business practices on trial, or to think in radically new ways.  Are you comfortable with that?  Are you willing to invest the time it takes to  do that?  If there is not a demonstrated tolerance for it in your company it would be considered stupid to be the first one to test for that tolerance.  This is one case where the advice I give to my daughter about boys is true of employers: “watch what they do and ignore what they say”.  

Everyone wants to be successful.  If there is an overemphasis on measures they will likely end up performing like the tool you may have inadvertently told them you wanted them to be. 

If you want a real measure of your culture, how does your company view the last person who took a risk that failed?  How would your employees tell that story?

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Dan Clark

Dan Clark

Principal of Bowline Consulting, process designer/fixer, wireless telecom veteran, addicted pick up soccer player, fly fisher, backpacker, beer brewer, guitar player, choir singer, recovering bag piper

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