Treating People as People

Many years ago Henry Ford asked, “Why is it that I always have to have a whole person when all I want is a pair of hands?” That question could now be updated as, “Why is it that I always have to have a whole person when all I want is a brain?”

The part is still taken for the whole and the attitude still seems to apply in many organisations. A recent study by Towers Perrin showed that less than 20% of people across US and Europe are fully engaged in their work and 60% are waiting to be inspired.

What do organisations want? More of the person as a whole. Why? Because organisations need people to make decisions in the face of uncertainty and to use their discretion as they make products or serve customers and clients. Organisations also need people to use their imagination to see opportunity in risk, to create new ways of controlling costs and limiting waste, new products, new markets, better ways of serving customers[1]. And in a globalised world where patterns of influence are shifting people need imagination to understand and collaborate with partners from diverse backgrounds and different ways of making sense of the world.

“It is uncertainty about the future that is in a very real sense, the locus of our freedom as economic agents. Once we realise that the future is uncertain and waiting to be created by the way we imagine, will and choose it to be, we are liberated from the implicit determinism of perfect rationality and possess the genuine existential freedom that is in reality the main gift of creative markets.” [2]

What do people want? The Towers Perrin research[3] shows that they want challenging work, appropriate levels of decision making authority, clarity about the framework within which they have freedom to act and to be trusted to use their imagination and judgement within it, and influence on the way decisions are made in the organisation.

“Only connect”

There is a long history of organisations seeking to engage people. For instance, after WW2 in the UK with the urgent need for economic recovery, some organisations began to treat their employees in a different way partly perhaps because of a strong sense of having “been in it together”. These organisations expected their employees to exercise their discretion, involved them in decisions that affected them, integrated technical and social change and provided ‘felt fair pay’.[4]

In the 1970s the economist George Shackle[5] argued that imagination is what people must “substitute for knowledge in that vital and limitless area where we are eternally denied it, ‘tomorrow'”. In a world of perpetual novelty, creative choice and large degrees of freedom, economic expectations cannot be purely the product of reason; your decisions must also be based on how you imagine the future and how you will it to be.

Much of this thinking was ‘lost’ in the years that followed which were marked by neoliberal assumptions about markets. Economic models, social science disciplines and thinking about people at work were premised on the assumption that people are primarily engaged in rationally calculating and maximizing their self-interest.

This led to assumptions that people at work would always maximize a narrow concept of well-being based on final consumption of a narrow range of goods and that because they disliked doing this, one of the problems was to prevent them for shirking and/or to incentivize them to do what was necessary.[6]

This in turn led to the assumption that the employer must pay bonuses. However, many studies[7] have shown that people find intrinsic satisfaction in challenging work with appropriate levels of decision making authority and pay that they and their employer feel is fair for the discretion they are exercising in their work.[8]

Forty years on, this sense of felt fair pay and being in it together was echoed by the President of the CBI: “The gap between the chief executive and other directors, the gap between the chief executive and staff, has moved to an unhealthy level. People should be much more conscious of that…. Waiving a bonus is not a stunt. It is a genuine symbolic move to say we are all in this together.”[9]

Widening perspectives

There is now a greater awareness that our “cognitive spectacles are heavily coloured by the metaphors we employ”[10] and that the models we use – about people, markets, ecology, engineering – are based on assumptions, are incomplete and that there is benefit in broadening the field of metaphors on which we draw.

For an economist mathematical models are a form of metaphor[11]. An investment banker[12] describes them as “pale reflections of reality”, simplifications through which we blind ourselves to much of the reality which seems extraneous to our immediate aims.

There are many fields of thought from which we can draw to extend our understanding of people and the way they use their imagination and discretion at work. Space permits very brief descriptions of just two: neuroscience and complex adaptive systems.

People as decision-makers

Neuroscience is making it clear that reason and emotion are not physiologically separate but that the mind is ’embodied’ through neural pathways that come together in a single area to process abstract thinking and emotions.

“The Cartesian idea of a disembodied mind may well have been the source… for the metaphor of mind as a software programme…. Versions of Descartes’ error obscure the roots of the human mind in a biologically complex but fragile, finite and unique organism; they obscure the tragedy implicit in the knowledge of that fragility; finiteness and uniqueness.”[13]

This research provides the basis for our common sense experience that “The Platonic metaphor of the mind as a charioteer driving twin horses of reason and emotion is on the right track – except that cognition is a smart pony and emotion a big elephant.”[14]

There are explicit links between neuroscience and the work of behavioural economics: “Normal decision making uses two complementary paths. Confronted with a situation that requires a response, Path A prompts images related to the situation, the options for action and the anticipation of future outcomes. Reasoning strategies can operate on that knowledge to produce a decision. Path B operates in parallel and prompts activation of prior emotional experiences in comparable situations…the intriguing decision patterns described by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky… are probably due to engagement of Path B.”[15]

Complex adaptive systems

The embodied mind is one example of a complex adaptive system where instead of predictable, linear patterns, there is constant action and reaction from which coherent behaviour emerges from an environment that is never fixed.

The key implication of the growing understanding of complex adaptive systems in engaging people is that the control of such a system tends to be dispersed with each level of organisation serving as a building block for a higher level. So the imagination, the learning, knowledge and discretion from the frontline is essential to the efficiency and efficacy of higher levels. If assumptions about people at work are partial – that they are “pairs of hands” or followers of scripts in a call centre – the contribution that only they can make to the whole is lost.

Engaging people as people

It could be argued that this is more important now because organisations in all sectors need the imagination and discretion of their employees and that it is in a way easier because we can allow ourselves to open our minds and eyes to different ways of thinking and to different metaphors.

It might help to think of people as makers (using the word as Scottish people do to refer to a poet, or makar). People are makers – through their imagination and judgement – of decisions and of meaning. Understanding that the mind is embodied and that reason and emotion are not separate can help us to see a fuller picture.

People are employees and they are also members – of families and of communities and of professional and technical associations through whose norms they filter what the organisation is asking of them, These loyalties impact directly on their willingness to give more of themselves.

And – as any manager who has treated an employee as a person knows – each person is a mystery. Perhaps intrinsically and perhaps because the dominant way of thinking about people for the last thirty or so years has focussed on parts – on hands and brains, on self interest and rationality- and has ignored the whole.

It is often said that engaged employees are more difficult to manage. As one manager said, “People may be makers, members and a mystery, but I can tell you that treating people as people is messy.”

To which a colleague replied, “And it is magic.”

© Gillian Stamp

  1. As Adam Smith described 150 years ago.
  2. Bronk R. 2009. The Romantic Economist, Cambridge University Press. page 303.
  3. And many other studies for instance Pfeffer J. 1998. The Human Equation. Harvard Business School Press. Alimo-Metcalfe B. 2006. “The Impact of Engaging Leadership on performance: a longitudinal study.” Journal of Health and Organisation Management, Vol 22, Mo 6. Emerald Group Publishing Limited.
  4. For example, The National Coal Board, Glacier Metal, with significant thinking and writing at the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations.
  5. See for instance Shackle. G., Epistemics and Economics. Cambridge University Press, 1972.
  6. See essay by Besley. T.
  7. See for example Pfeffer. J., ibid.
  8. Brown and Jaques, whose underlying premise was that a balance between the work for which the person was responsible, their capability and their reward is felt by both individual and organisation to be equitable. See Glacier Project Papers, Heinemann 1965.
  9. Sunday Times, 31 May 2009.
  10. Bronk. R., ibid.
  11. Krugman. P. “Development”, Geography and Economic Theory. MIT Press, 1997.
  12. Caron. P. The Way Supplement. 1996.
  13. Damasio, A. Harper Collins, 1994.
  14. Camerer, C. and Lowenstein, G., quoted in S. Cleary and T. Malleret, Global Risk. Palgrave 2007.
  15. Damasio. A. Looking for Spinoza. William Heinemann, 2003. See also Kahneman D and Tversky A., eds., Choices, Values and Frames. Cambridge University Press, 2000.