People Are Not Units

by  Shawn Murphy  |  Leadership Development

Your computer is a unit. You have an air conditioning unit. Unit is a measurement with a definite value. Engineers have predictably mapped out how your computer and air conditioning unit works and performs under a variety of conditions.

Businesses have a history of attempting to do the same thing to humans. Sparing you an organizational history lesson, management got a swift kick into high gear by Frederick Taylor who believed people could predictably perform their work on the assembly line.

The problem inherent in this approach is we don’t perform the same in any condition. We are unpredictable. We don’t like to be told what to do. We don’t respond well to actions that seemingly strip us of positive regard. And yet too many managers still assume their role is imbued with the ability, the right, to command-and-control what, how, when work should be done.

Our organizations, on the whole, are designed to reinforce a top-down approach to getting work done. Such designs develop ivory towers where out-of-touch senior managers rarely interact with “common employees” except for the awkward elevator ride or run-in in the bathroom.

People are not units. We cannot turn off opinions, emotions, ideas. We can, however, hold back an opinion, or grow apathetic, and hoard our ideas.

Managers can influence the environment that creates the conditions to unleash talent.

It doesn’t end there, though. Employees can no longer predictably rebel against management edicts or proclamations. No. That response does nothing but agitate and keep people, teams, and organizations stuck.

The answer lies in not looking at each other through the labels we place on each other. People are not units. But seeing each other as human beings and starting the conversation about how to better work together. To create different ways to make work great and get work done. In the end, you’ll find that commonalities are abundant.

Certainly the conversation is much easier when managers recognize the breakdowns and initiate the conversation. We don’t have time to wait for epiphanies. The conversation just needs to begin.

Photo courtesy of Bothered By Bees

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What People Are Saying

Joseph Mullin  |  26 Jan 2012  |  Reply

Totally agree with you. It has been my experience that the most overlooked Knowledge Expert is the lowly employee who is doing the job every day. They have great ideas on how to make their life easier and more productive and isn’t that what the company wants better productivity?

I always tell my clients it is your employees who make the company what it is not you. IF you want a great company then treat your employees as humans not slaves or machines.

Shawn Murphy  |  26 Jan 2012  |  Reply

I’m encouraged by emerging work about the Human Age or Human Value. We’ll always have companies that design themselves to focus on profit over people. It’s a natural evolution, however, in organizational history to view employees as partners or collaborators and not a replaceable cog or a number folded into financial statements.

Thanks, Joseph, for stopping by and commenting.


Jon Mertz  |  26 Jan 2012  |  Reply


Having a conversation seems like such a simple thing, yet many just walk by or don’t take the effort to engage and listen. Having conversations and treating people with a “golden rule” approach will light up any organization. Simple actions lead to big changes. Shifting our mindset to see and talk with real people is vital.



Shawn Murphy  |  28 Jan 2012  |  Reply

Simple is usually the most difficult to see. The walking by and thinking someone else has or will do something is too prevalent in our world. I wonder what it’s costing us.

Jamie Notter  |  27 Jan 2012  |  Reply

Amen! And it’s not just how we work with and talk about individual people. It’s the whole organizational model. The mechanical model of leading and managing organizations has been in place for well over a century and it still amazes me how little of it has seen innovation. The world is changing by leaps and bounds…but we run organizations mostly like we did in the 1950s. Our book Humanize talks about a new way of doing things, and we very specifically talk about the need to have new conversations internally about it, so I think you’re spot on there.

Shawn Murphy  |  28 Jan 2012  |  Reply

Always great to meet like-minded people. Keep spreading your message. And thank you for stopping and commenting.

Be well,

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