Dehumanizing Language

Brene Brown’s recent blog addresses the impact of Dehumanizing Language.  She explains that “Dehumanizing others is the process by which we become accepting of violations against human nature, the human spirit, and, for many of us, violations against the central tenets of our faith”

We see this language used commonly in politics and social movements.  But what about the workplace? Do you see examples of dehumanizing language in your workplace?  And when you do, what can you do about it?

In The Anatomy of Peace, the author suggests that when you betray your heart, you build a justification story around your action.  “Betraying your heart” means that you have a thought or action that goes against your good nature, but your head figures out how to explain it.  A simple example of this in my own life is my response to homeless people. I have always been taught not to give money to homeless people on the street.  When I see a homeless person, I keep walking, and then for the next few blocks, I tell myself justification stories about why I shouldn’t give this person money.  “I’m going to work, what are they doing? They are probably just going to use the money for drugs. I’m an enabler if I give them money anyway.”

When Management uses dehumanizing language, there are usually justification stories happening as well.  Let’s take a look at some common dehumanizing language in corporations.

Resources.  The mother of all dehumanizing language is referring to people as resources.  Once people become resources, you can lay them off, cut their benefits, take away their desks, and it doesn’t matter because they are equated to raw materials.
Try this:  Gently start replacing the word “resources” with “people”.

Fungible.   Fungible means interchangeable, it suggests that people are not special. You are replaceable.  When companies talk about “fungible resources” they are essentially looking to commoditize people, and turn them into plug-and-play components.
Try this: Start using the word ‘dynamic’ instead of “fungible”.  It suggests that people have power and worth, and can flex to meet changing needs.

Right-Sizing.  Once people become fungible resources, the company can right-size and “cut the fat” out of the organization.  Why would the company want to pay for “fat” or “waste”? Right-sizing suggests that people cannot learn or adapt to the needs of the organization, and once they have been dehumanized it’s easier to put Xs on their box.  “Why are people upset about the layoff? We are right-sizing!”
Try this:  Call a spade a spade. If you need to let people go, call it a darn layoff.  I had a client where you weren’t even allowed to say “layoff” or acknowledge the impact layoffs had on the work, let alone the morale.  Making it taboo to talk about, while it’s an undeniable truth, really kills trust. Let people know what’s driving the layoff and how people are being chosen.

Hierarchy.  The inherent organizational structure that defines some people as “higher” than others, dehumanizes those below.  Phrases like “He’s 2 levels above me” or “She’s down in the bowels of the organization” suggest that your place on the org chart determines your value as a human.  
Try this:  Refer to the hierarchy in the granularity of the work, not the power of the people.  For example, “The VP’s job is to look broadly across multiple product lines to make sure they all fit into a strategy, while the product developer’s job is to make sure the customers are happy with a specific product.”  Their jobs are both important. Recent trends have removed visible perks for higher-ups, but there is still work to be done on the pay gap.

Herding Cats.  Are people really cats?  Were people wandering around, using the scratching post and licking their paws before you came and imposed order?
Try this:  Just stop.  Stop herding people and you can stop saying it.  Hold people accountable for their own work, and stop having someone else responsible for herding them, nagging them, chasing them or any other type of babysitting.  Once we stop doing it, we can stop saying “herding cats”.

Buy-In.  I have used this term many times. Guilty!  Building consensus through dialogue is a beautiful thing, but trying to coerce, cajole and possibly even shame people into agreeing is not.  
Try this:  Instead of seeking buy-in, seek thoughts and ideas.  I almost wrote ‘seek input’ but that is dehumanizing too as if we think people are machines with an input port.

Offshore. The whole practice of shifting resources (people) offshore is chock full of dehumanization.  The term “offshore” is a very ethnocentric term; “we are the center, and anyone else is off-center.”  As if these folks are working on rafts, floating around the USA, which, true story, I used to think was the case!
Try this:  If they are part of your team you can call them “the team”, or the “the team in India”. Constantly reminding everyone that they are offshore is not useful.

Change Management.  Change Management is the practice of organizational change.  While I’m well versed in this area, I’ve noticed that it’s been wielded as a one-way tool, “we’re here to get you to change”, rather than a tool to help the organization change.  It suggests that feedback is not part of the plan.
Try this:  This one is more about how you use the term than changing the terminology.  As long as you are changing the org and not changing the people, I think you are ok.

What dehumanizing language have you heard in your company?  Let us know!