PEOPLE BUILDING. . .

Greenleaf writes: An institution starts on a course toward people-building with leadership that has a firmly established context of people first.

Greenleaf contrasts ‘people-using’ with ‘people-building.’  When people are dehumanized – which is one of the most egregious acts we do to people – it is easy to ‘use’ them and/or to ‘abuse’ them and to do so ‘guilt free.’  As I have mentioned before, the metaphors an institution integrates and lives into and out of plus the words they infuse as a result of the metaphors plus the questions that are then framed and responded to as a result of the metaphors determines how and to what extent an institution ‘uses,’ ‘abuses’ or ‘builds’ people.  The industrial-mechanical metaphor that remains integrated in some institutions is a prime example of how human beings are dehumanized ‘guilt-free.’ 

As I have often noted before a wide-spread, contemporary metaphor for almost all institutions today is the banking metaphor (more importantly, it is one of our Culture’s main metaphors today).  People are reframed from being fully human beings into being commodities, assets, and resources which institutions then ‘guilt-free’ use, abuse and use up. 

One of the most common statements institutions make today is: ‘People are our most important resource – or asset or commodity’.  This is said without a hint of puzzlement; in fact, it is often uttered with great pride.  Perhaps more disturbing – for me at least – is that I hear no voice (or few voices) pushing back.  To me this is an indication of how broadly and deeply we, as a Culture, have integrated the banking metaphor into our psyches; we accept the metaphor as ‘normal,’ as ‘real’ and as ‘true.’  If a person is a commodity, an asset or a resource it is impossible for them to be fully human.  At least with the mechanical metaphor people were, at times, framed as ‘cyborgs’ – part machine and part human.

I am not without hope.  I have known – and I know – institutions that are striving to embrace a ‘fully human’ metaphor and let go of the banking metaphor.  This is no easy task – it calls not for a shift in thinking or a change; it calls for a ‘transformation.’  A ‘transformation’ is a ‘fundamental change in character or structure.’  At minimum, it requires identifying and letting go of the deep tacit assumptions that support and promote a banking metaphor.  These deep tacit assumptions have to then be replaced (with intention, purpose and commitment) so that ‘fully human’ metaphors – that is, organic metaphors – can take root and flourish. 

Until this happens, it will be nearly impossible for an institution to hold onto a ‘people-first’ view/concept.  When the pressure is on the institution will revert to what has been integrated – in this case the banking or mechanical metaphor; in dehumanizing people it will make it possible for institutions to guilt-free use, abuse and use up or discard or cash in their assets, resources and commodities. 

As an aside: In our Culture we have also integrated another powerful metaphor – the ‘war-sports’ metaphor.  We easily interchange the two – business is a war and it is a sport; winning is the goal (versus, say, ‘high achievement’).  We often describe ‘war’ using a ‘sports’ metaphor and we often describe a sporting event using a ‘war’ metaphor.  This easy exchange reveals how deeply integrated both have become in our Culture and how easily we can then move from one to the other – and most of us know what is being communicated. 

It is crucial for us to understand that metaphors are more, much more, than linguistic descriptions; they describe what we consider to be the ‘real’ and the ‘true.’  We forget that metaphors are not ‘real’ nor are they ‘true’ – thus we can change the metaphors we integrate; we have choice.  We can choose to develop people.

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