For over a decade now, I still encounter leaders who want to fight about the merits of development. I remember my first conversation in this long-standing battle well.
He was a construction sector executive, privileged by the industry’s preference for white males. At the same time, I was reshaping my career from clinical to organisational practice in psychology, finding my place in consulting’s nebulous hierarchy.
‘Marc, all that soft and fluffy stuff you do would never work with my people’, he smirked. ‘The people we work with are pretty much like children. They are uneducated, have low levels of responsibility and are replaceable. So why would we even invest in them?’
My eager and optimistic younger self rose to the challenge. ‘Well, they are people, and you need them to do what is needed, so why not think about some way to invest in them? Why not do something different, and challenge the norm?’
His expression widened into a smile as he shook his head. ‘You are just naïve. The fact is, it would never work, and you don’t know this because you are not commercially minded, you are a psychologist, out of touch with the real world of business.’
On reflection, I think he was trying to be helpful, to settle my expectations of what work I could do and succeed in. But, it was the first kick against my beliefs and values.
What he could not see was that treating adults like children, making them feel disposable and undervalued, drives a lack of engagement and low levels of commitment.
Sadly, I have had similar conversations, far too many times to count. I have found myself hooked into long debates and efforts to convince leaders that developing their people matters.
I have attempted to inspire and educate; in the end, it always feels like a battle to persuade influential people that humans are not a resource. They are people, partners, parents and usually the producers of profits, perspective and purpose.
Man, do I believe that! I have probably battled for a decade to convince others that my work has a rightful place in the world. And I know I am not alone.
What I have also noticed is that many leaders will now agree and display false alignment. They know in their heads that they should value their people and care, but in their hearts, they do not. Smart people know what to say and how to act to make themselves look on-trend, but their impression management usually fails as we have seen.
On many occasions, I have felt a niggle whenever someone is disingenuous about the commitment to their people. Given time, they are regularly exposed as frauds, yet continue to undermine the work of me and others.
So here’s my next step, because I’m just over it. My crusade will not be one of converting those that seem oblivious to the obvious. I will not waste too much energy trying to make others see the tidal wave of evidence that supports the importance of investing in people.
Instead, I will find like-minded leaders, curious partners and forward-thinking innovators. I will continue to strive for momentum without compromising credibility in the hope that I can embolden anyone who is facing resistance from the old guard. And, I will let the dinosaurs wipe themselves out with their dysfunction and deliberate toxicity.
It may sound extreme, angry even, but I am just resolute. It is time to resist the patriarchal conservatism that has tightly held the mantel of authority. It is time to revolt against the establishment.
For tackling this reality, I have clearly defined boundaries for when I choose to walk away:
- If a leader talks about their people as dispensable, as resources, as things and not as beings – then walk away.
- If a leader ever uses language like ‘fix them’, ‘make them right’, ‘change their attitudes’, ‘my people are useless’ or any other disparaging comments – then walk away.
- If a leader feels they do not need to invest in their own development in equal measure to the people they force into development – then walk away.
- If a leader asks for an exact measure of ROI, insisting that they will only invest if we can prove a direct impact on the bottom line – then walk away. Not because we couldn’t do that (to some extent), but mainly because investing in people should be first about making them better people, better contributors, and not just profit maximisers.
Are you treated like a child or a machine, expected to sacrifice most of your time and energy for people who don’t know a thing about your life or the people that matter most to you? If so, here is my final challenge for all who work in an environment where you are fundamentally disrespected and disregarded as a person.
Maybe you should also stop trying to prove to these people that you deserve their recognition and appreciation. Now is the time to find like-minded colleagues and make them the focus of your best energy. Create small communities of practice and nurture enriching subcultures.
Become the cheerleaders of all those you see who do things differently in your organisation. Appreciate and encourage them because they are leading a new way. Thankfully there are more of them around than you think. Isolate the laggards and old-timers, and deflate their attempts to hoodwink and spin their way into your loyalty.
Fortunately, we now have so many examples of leading firms, in mining, construction and other macho, technically-focused industries, that are embracing a new perspective of their people and driving sustainable success as a result.