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Are the words you're using dehumanizing the people who work for you?

Although many leaders refer their organizations as "well-oiled machines", the people who work in those organizations aren't machines. They are people. Using non-human words dehumanizes them and makes it easier to treat them unkindly.

Over the past couple of weeks I've been in a number of meetings and read a number of articles where I have heard the people who serve customers and create products for organizations referred to in what I call "non-human" terms.

What I mean by that is words that don't have either the denotative (the main meaning of the word) or connotative (associated ideas, meanings and feelings) meanings that are human and humanizing. Here are some examples:

  • Resource: Usually resources are things like lumber, or paper, or computers that are used for a finite amount of time...until they are depleted or obsolete.

  • Capital: Capital refers to money! Something that can be used to buy and sell...or that can be bought and sold! Sometimes the term "human capital" is used to refer to the people who serve customers and create products in an organization. Unfortunately, this reduces people not just to "things"...but to "things that can be bought and sold". Really a very terrible reference and association.

  • FTE (Full Time Equivalent): In this case, people are reduced to increments of time. And, since "time is money"in many organizations, this is another term that reduces the "worth" of people to dollars only.

  • Front-line: This is a non-humanizing word that I really dislike because not only does it reduce people to geometry, it is a combative, military term in which the front-line is the part of the army that is closest to the enemy. Of course, it is easier to harm and kill others when they have been dehumanized...and not to care about your own people being harmed and killed if they are dehumanized.

The words and terms above are so common in organizations that you might not even notice your leaders using them, or even that you are using them! These non-human, non-humanizing words are so common that they have just become part of the "business system" that people learn in business school, read in business books and magazines, and are then reinforced by their leaders at work. When leaders use words, those words tend to be picked up and parroted unconsciously by others in the organization. After all, knowing which words to use, and which words not to use, are an important part of being accepted and fitting into an organization's culture.

The problem with using non-human words to describe people is that it dehumanizes them. And once people aren't people anymore, they're things, and there's no need to treat them kindly anymore. Because, as I always say, "You don't need to be kind to need to be kind to people".

When leaders use dehumanizing language and terms, it becomes much easier to speak and act unkindly to the people who work in their organization, and it makes it much easier to makes decisions that don't take into account that those affected are people. I once worked for an organization in which there was a downturn in work. When people received the notices that they were being laid off just before the winter holiday season, they were told that they were simply part of a "reduction in force" (another dehumanizing military term) and that the organization didn't need as many FTE's. Each person who was laid off was pulled into a room and given a short speech by their manager, a representative from HR (Human Resources - a terrible term and oxymoron in itself) and then escorted out of the building. No regard for their feelings, no time to say goodbye to their colleagues and friends. Devastating for them, and for the people who were left in the organization.

Dehumanizing, combative terms and words lead to viewing people as things. And when people are viewed as things, unkind treatment is likely to follow.

Now, you may be saying to yourself, "I'm a mid-level leader, and we use some (or all) of those words to refer to people in my organization. What can I do to create change at my level? What possible difference can it make?"

Here are some ideas to get you started:

1. Be conscious of the words that your leaders are using and that you are using. Often, you are so immersed in your surroundings and your organization's culture, that you don't notice what words are being used. It's like driving a car! Once you've driven for a long time, you just go on auto-pilot! You don't think about pressing the gas and putting on the brake! You just drive.

  • To overcome this, pretend that you are new to the organization. That it's your first day! Make note of the words that your leader uses to describe people when they are speaking and in email or chat messages. List down any non-human and dehumanizing ones.

2. Next, create a list of humanizing words to substitute instead! Just because others in your organization are using dehumanizing words doesn't mean you have to. Some words that I like that you can start with are:

  • Person / People: These are simple words that remind everyone, with each use, that those who serve your customers and create your products are human beings. They aren't machines - even if they use machines! They have feelings, good days, bad days, and with time, effort and kindness from their leaders can learn and grow throughout their career.

  • Colleague/Coworker: One of the most important things for people to feel happy at work is to have friends! The work colleague and coworker both start with co, which means, to have in common, to be mutual! The same two letters that start cooperation and collaboration! It's human to want to belong and be accepted and part of a group!

  • Teammate: Wanting to be part of a team and playing together and being a "mate", or part of a pair is also a common human desire. As people, it's in our nature to want to be with others!

  • Person's Name: Calling a person by their name is also a great choice! As a leader, you should know each of the people who serves your organization's customers and creates your organization's products by name. You should also know their partner or spouse's names and names of their family members! We call our friends by name. And we are less like to treat our friends unkindly, because we think of them as people!

3. Practice! Practice! Practice....and Practice! When you are talking with the people you lead, when you are in meetings with those who lead you, when you are writing emails and presentations, check carefully for dehumanizing language, and replace non-human words with human ones! The more you practice, the easier it will get!

4. Encourage others in your organization to become conscious of and change their language too! Leaders create culture. People do as they do, and speak as they speak. When you change the words that you are using to more human, kinder ones, others will ask you about why you are making the change. Use that opportunity to explain that those who work for you are people, and that in order to help them grow to their potential, they needed to be spoken to, and treated kindly.

Finally, please remember, that when leaders treat people like numbers or things, or only think of them in terms of the dollar value that they may bring, terrible things can happen. In the Holocaust, numbers were tattooed on people to dehumanize them. To turn them into things.

As a leader, your words, kind and/or unkind, create the culture that those who work for you live in. Every single day, the people who serve your customers and create your products give their precious time, their effort and their very human lives to your organization.

Respect them as people and treat them kindly.


To learn more about how to create a better organizational culture by Speaking Kindly, please see Chapter 5 of The Kind Leader: A Practical Guide to Eliminating Fear, Creating Trust and Leading with Kindness.

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