“It’s hard to drop bombs on friends.” …or… How to rehumanize the world of work.

line of Star Wars Stormtroopers

I sat down in a bit of a shock outside the pizza place. A close friend and I had just had lunch where he came out to me that he was gay. I was about 19 and I had never, as far as I knew, known anyone who was gay. I grew up in a very conservative type of religious environment and had been taught to believe being gay was wrong, a sin in fact. Learning that a close friend was gay was a shock and put me in a quandary. Do I do what I felt was right by accepting him and continuing to be a good friend or do I jeopardize my soul (at least that’s what I had been taught most of my life)?

Fortunately, I listened to the better angels of the universe and chose the former. I chose to see my friend as who he was, a man who had always been (and continues to be) my friend through thick and thin and also happened to be gay. This began what I call a de-programming from thinking that had turned people from being individuals with hopes, fears, and problems just like me into a faceless label.

What happens when we turn people into labels or slogans? Put simply, it enables a lot of bad things. When we take away the face of a person, it allows us to subvert the natural inhibitions that prevent us from harming other people. It allows us to go against the innate wiring that asks us to cooperate and work together in communities. It gives us the freedom to demonize people and make them unworthy of humane treatment. And, as the faceless other becomes an enemy, it gives us justification for not listening, not communicating, and having no empathy. 

Dehumanizing people has fed the flames of all manner of violence, war crimes, hate crimes, slavery, and exploitation. I remember once, on a flight home from a trip to India, the plane had to fly around some war-torn parts of the Middle East which lengthened the duration of the flight. A fellow passenger sitting next to me complained about this and how war made life difficult. As we got to talking about it more, I noticed how we were referring to people in very impersonal ways. I noticed how we would both say unkind things we had no right to say. You see, when we didn’t know the people on the ground beneath us it became easy to speak and think of them as the other and be harsh. Fortunately, the better angels came to my rescue again. I had a positive thought and blurted it out. “You know,” I said, “if more people would travel, I think we would have less war.” “Why?” he asked. “Because it’s really hard to drop a bomb on friends,” I said. Lesson? It’s more of a warning actually. When we begin thinking of people as things instead of human beings, we can be very cruel and think or even do unspeakable things.

How does it happen? How does dehumanizing work?

It usually starts with language. The evil other begin to be referred to with labels that make them less than human. Think of how indigenous peoples were called savages when the “civilized” Westerners came to conquer. Think of how slave owners spoke of black Africans as property and N—–s. Think of how Nazis described Jews as subhuman rats.

And while these examples clearly show how language makes such an impact, it may be hard to see what this has to do with us right now. You may be thinking, I don’t do this and no one in my more educated, enlightened circles would fall into any of it, and in many respects you are right. Most of us do not dehumanize to the extremes of colonizers, slave owners, or Nazis but we do do it and it happens when we walk through the doors of our workplaces on a daily basis.

While we may not be torturing or holding people in bondage or dropping bombs on them, we do use language and send messages that try to make it clear that business is not about people. How many times have you heard the “it’s not personal, it’s business” line? How many times have you sat in a meeting and heard customers referred to as targets, accounts, buyers, purchasers, or even morons, idiots, jerks, or worse? How many times have you listened to a coworker complain about another employee who is emotional and how that stuff should be left at home? All of these serve to dehumanize.

And what does this dehumanization do? Over time, it does what it does in any other dehumanized arena, it causes people to do things that go against our natural sense of ethical practice.

Think of instances of organizations harming people. Wells Fargo, Toyota, Volkswagen, Turing Pharmaceuticals, Mylan, Theranos, Boeing, Facebook, Purdue Pharma, etc., these and more have done or are doing things that have harmed or are harming people. And what’s alarming is how many people are complicit in helping the “crimes” of these organizations come to fruition. Why is this so? Why do seemingly average people with families and picket-fence homes become part of taking advantage of people or at least turning their heads in denial of what is happening?

While I do not have data from exhaustive psychological studies, I can only believe that after years of hearing a constant barrage of subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, messaging saying that profit matters more than people, customers are targets or accounts to be sold, coworkers are competition, and emotions are baggage to be left at the door, people become brainwashed cult members who fall in line and do any evil bidding because “it’s not personal, it’s business.”

Okay, now that I have painted a dreadful picture, I want to move in a different direction. How can we paint a better, more positive landscape? How do we move from dehumanizing to rehumanizing?

As with dehumanization, it begins with language. In your workplace, start listening to the language being used and take stock. What words are used for customers? Are they human terms like guests, customers, and clients or terms that make them faceless like targets, accounts, or buyers? How about the words used for employees? Do you hear partners, associates, and team members or do you hear workers, assets, or human resources?

Then, begin keeping things human by leading a new dialogue. Start using different language, human language. Use people’s names when it’s appropriate and relevant. Put faces on the faceless. Be the one who asks how decisions or policies or procedures will impact people both customers and employees. Make it clear that business is personal, in fact, it’s all about personal, because without people, there is no business.

Long story short, make your business a place where you, a person, would want to do business and you would want your children, also people, to work.

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