Treat your people as human beings, not capital

I recently chaired the Human Capital Forum in Dubai. It was a great event with some fantastic speakers and interesting topics, but I found myself wondering about the choice of title for the event. 

When I was preparing for the event, II happened to be in touch with an old friend. Let’s call him Harry. Harry is a great leader. He has literally lead men into battle and out of danger and that builds an understanding of what it takes to get people to follow you. After that he moved into industry and used these skills in another environment entirely and to great success – he is currently regional CEO of a blue-chip insurance company. His people love and respect him and so do I. 

I excitedly told him that I was going to be chairing the Human Capital Forum and expected him to be pleased for me. To be honest, I can't share all of the response as it was so nuanced and surprising.

But what I can share is this quote:

“Human Capital. A mass of organic machines, organised to toil for nothing more than a capitalist ideal. The machines in the film The Matrix, who converted humanity into components of energy generation probably used that expression. It is a soulless, pessimistic and depressing notion against which 1984’s Winston Smith tried to revolt. What is so wrong with the word ‘people'?"

I guess he really doesn’t like it! He thinks it makes people seems like other kinds of capital – a bank account, stocks and shares, land or machines – assets that yield income and other useful outputs over long periods of time.

Stop dehumanising your people

It’s similar with the term human ‘resources’, which many other people dislike The main reason for distaste in both cases seems to be because it seems dehumanising, which has consequences. 

It leads to people like the very senior manager – on the senior leadership team and ostensibly “managing” a large team – who raised his hand during a session on how to do a performance review and asked: “Can’t we outsource this?” 

I was surprised and said “what exactly is it you’d like to outsource?” I was truly shocked when he replied: “This people stuff – managing their performance and developing them”. 

I didn’t want to disagree outright as he was very important but he had said this in front of a group and I didn’t feel like I could let it go. So I asked him two questions. 

The first was: “Do you really want someone who doesn’t truly understand your business managing your people?” As someone responsible for results, he immediately realised that he didn’t.   

To make sure he understood the point I was trying to mak,e the second thing I asked was “if you’re not managing the performance of your people then what are you for? What exactly are you managing?” 

This underlines the point that all leaders should know – we get things done through people. 

Only your people can bring you success

My friend doesn’t think people should be thought about like that – as though they’re only a ‘resource’ or a form of ‘capital’ and not different from other forms. One way they’re different is in how you get the most out of them, which is by treating them as people worthy of respect. If we start there everything gets easier. 

It becomes easier to do all of the things we know as leaders we should do to make a difference.  It helps productivity, holding people accountable, if we treat people like people who are worthy of our time and respect.

Leaders know that that to get results in the short and long-term you have to do it through your people. That’s the secret sauce in the great leaders I see. They know that holding others accountable is key because that’s the only way things get done. It doesn’t always mean being ‘nice’. It can be hard to tell people the truth and do it respectfully – but it does lead to great results. 

So let’s stop thinking about capital and resources and instead focus on the only thing that makes a difference in every business – the people.