People: an end or just a means?

This post is inspired by an episode of the Art of Manliness podcast, with the psychologist Svend Brinkmann.

I guess a good way to introduce it is to give you an example from the podcast.  Imagine you go to a shop to buy some milk.  You go to the checkout with your milk, and the member of staff there has a heart attack.  Do you shout out: This person’s broken!  I need someone else who can sell me my milk!

There are lots of things that the podcast episode goes into, and I recommend you listen to the whole thing (don’t be put off by its title), but for this article I’ll concentrate on instrumentalism (which I’ll explain below).  This leads onto things like the Golden Rule and questions about how we conduct ourselves at work.

Instrumentalism

Instrumentalism is when something has value only as a means to an end, rather than having value in itself.  The thing is being an instrument or tool, that lets you get something else that you want.  You aren’t interested in any value the thing has in its own right, which is also known as its intrinsic value.

Stepping stones over a river
Instrumentalism means treating something as a stepping stone on the way to something else, rather than having value in itself

In the example above, there are two people who both start out with an instrumentalist view of the other person.  On the one hand I want some milk, and the person in the shop is the means by which I can get my milk (by paying them for it).  On the other hand, the shop wants to make a profit, and so the member of staff sees me as a source of profit.  This is the default view in business, i.e. there’s nothing unusual here.

The impact of the example comes when the instrumentalism should be stripped away so that I see the intrinsic value of the shop worker, and yet I don’t.  I stay in my instrumentalist view and continue to think about the person as nothing more than how I get my milk.

Dignity and the Golden Rule

The opposite of an instrumentalist view of someone is to recognise that they have intrinsic value.  It doesn’t matter to whom they can introduce you, how much money you can get from them, what they can sell you or anything like that: they are still valuable in themselves.  Another word for this is dignity.

One consequence of believing that everyone has intrinsic value is the Golden Rule, some form of which is in many of the world’s religions:

Do to others as you would like others to do to you*

There are no conditions, where you only treat others well if they fulfill some condition.  You treat other people well because they are people.

Work

As I said earlier, in work instrumentalism is the norm.  There are customers, suppliers, partners etc. – people with whom you have a relationship where they do something for you, or you’re expected to do something for them.  In fact, people are encouraged to identify customer / supplier relationships internally, to have clarity about who does what, when, for whom (i.e. why) and to what standard.

As well as getting the customer / supplier relationships to do the main work of an organisation, there are other similar relationships involving management, HR, finance and so on.  I am expected to be a supplier of timesheet information to my boss, HR is expected to supply some way of keeping track of how much more holiday I can take this year and so on.

This is all normal, and I’m not saying that these instrumentalist relationships are wrong.  I think that the risk starts when that’s the only way you think of other people.  You run the risk of seeing people like I saw the shop worker in the example above.  As the wise author Terry Pratchett said: many problems start when people are treated as things and not as people.  Other people aren’t just unfeeling and unchanging cogs in a machine that makes business value flow around an organisation, just like you aren’t such a cog.  Remember the Golden Rule: do to others as you would like others to do to you.

I know what it’s like when you or your employer run out of money – it’s uniquely painful.  However, money isn’t the only important thing in life.  There are other important things, like being able to look yourself in the mirror, or being able to give an honest account of what you do at work to your loved ones and not feel guilty.

Consequences

This is all very good motherhood and apple pie stuff, such as would support a toothless corporate statement of values. (I imagine that, like me, you have lost count of the times you’ve heard a company say something along the lines of people are our most valuable resource.)  It will only have meaning if it changes behaviour.

One area to consider is accessibility, and more generally usability.  You should make a website accessible not just because it increases the number of people able to give you money, but because your users are people and it’s the right thing to do for them.  Even if your product is an API, so your direct users are bits of code, there are still people involved.  The programmers, operators and support staff associated with the calling code will be affected by your API – what difference will your API make to their day?

Your HR policies – are they fair and understandable?  Would you want to operate under them?  If you’re a manager, would you want a clone of yourself as a boss?

An example of what I consider the complete failure to do this is extreme versions of performance evaluation.  This is things like: the bottom N% of people are fired every year.  It doesn’t matter if I’ve just become a parent, my children or spouse are ill, my parents have died, I’ve moved home or gone through a divorce.

Worse than that, not only do I need to do well but enough colleagues must do worse than me for me to be safe.  There is then a strong disincentive against me helping anyone.  I run the risk of promoting them above me in the ranking, and so pushing me down into the danger zone.  If there’s a problem, instead of working with others to find a solution and an approach to make things better in the future, it’s in my interests to either hide things or make sure anyone other than me takes the blame.

Summary

Instrumentalist relationships are the norm at work, and this doesn’t have to be a problem.  The problems start when money, business value and other things like that stop us from seeing the intrinsic value that everyone has.  One way to keep someone else’s intrinsic value in the back of your mind is to remember the Golden Rule.


* Some people refine this to: do to others as your best self would like others to do to you.  I would quite like other people to do all my work and household chores, so that I can just sit in a comfy chair eating chocolate and reading books.  However, the version of me that I aspire to be isn’t so selfish, greedy and lazy, but I hope is still kind, decent, honest etc.

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