What happens when we objectify our organizations? If we consciously understood the costs, would we choose to see our organizations differently?
Our assumptions about our organization shape how we lead. If you have problems with engagement, productivity, negative energy, and drama, you might be able to design your way out of these challenges by shifting your mindset and assumptions.
Observe how objectification shapes our leadership.
Think of an object and how we relate to it. A coffee cup is an object and it has the following characteristics:
- Bounded and Separate
The boundaries of a coffee cup are firm and fixed. There is no leakage between the cup and the environment around it. The coffee cup doesn’t have emotions or feelings of what is happening outside its edges. It doesn’t adapt to feedback from the external environment. It doesn’t develop relationships with other objects.
- Designed for a Specific Function
A coffee cup is designed to allow us to drink coffee. It fits neatly into our hands, transfers some heat to warm our hands, and it functions as it is designed. It doesn’t have the capacity to change form.
- Measured by Usefulness
A cup is only useful if it performs as designed. If it deviated, it would be discarded because it wouldn’t be useful.
- Doesn’t Require Permission or Involvement
A coffee cup is inert. It doesn’t have feelings about where it is put. We don’t have to negotiate with a coffee cup about where it gets moved.
- Can be Controlled
An object is controlled by its owner. It doesn’t resist or embrace change.
- Is Owned
An object has an owner by design. What makes an object inert also makes it owned by someone. It can be bought and sold without its permission or feelings considered.
- Is Man-Made
Objects are manufactured. They are made by human beings. They aren’t conceived or created.
The Consequences of Objectifying Your Organization
Now look at these characteristics of objects and see if any of these assumptions shape how your organization is led.
Creating an Organizational Island
If you think of your organization as an object with defined boundaries, leaders might not prioritize how the organization’s actions might impact the external environment. They might not pay attention to how the external environment impacts the organization. Separation from the environment makes your organization less adaptive.
Becoming Rigid to Change
When we design our organization to fulfill a specific function, it doesn’t evolve with the times. The original design and function fix the organization in place. Like the coffee cup, it either needs to be used as originally designed or discarded and replaced with something different. Do you or your organization see the people in the organization as objects? If so, their value to the organization is defined by their usefulness and if they perform their job for the organization. There isn’t a built-in professional development or learning process because evolution isn’t the point of an object – it is not designed to evolve. It is designed to function as intended.
Acting without Consideration
Does your organization struggle with employee engagement? If you objectify your organization and the people in it, then you don’t think you need to ask permission or for cooperation to support the decision. It is assumed that leaders can make decisions that affect employees’ lives without consulting them. Objects do what is asked because they are inert. They don’t have opinions or feelings. If employees think they are being treated as an object, not only does the organization lose their knowledge and insight, they also lose their confidence and trust.
Control is the Norm
If you believe you own and control your organization, that belief is often seen in the subtext of your leadership behavior. All objects are owned by someone. If employees think their organization is an object, they will also assign ownership to someone – usually the CEO. Therefore, all problems of the organization are the owner’s problem and the employees don’t need to engage or help solve the problem because they don’t “own” the problem or benefit from solutions as the “owner” does.
Inanimate Organization, not Living System
Objects are things. They are made by someone. They are inert. They don’t evolve, learn, build relationships, or exist within a context. When we see our organization as an object, it is easy to see people as an extension of that mindset. It is easy to miss the connection to the outside environment and how context shapes the possibilities and constraints of the organization’s future.
In today’s dynamic external environment, leading with the mindset of objectification has a high cost to an organization. The organization doesn’t adapt, learn, or self-organize, and isn’t productive. It can produce, though it just isn’t as productive as it can be.
If you want to check to see if this mindset is operating in your organization, look for hints in language, behavior, and decisions. Do people speak in ownership language? Do they collect and protect power and resources so they can decide for others? Do they make decisions that have negative consequences for others inside and outside of the organization? Do they immunize the importance of relationships? These are just a few ways we can tell that the leaders are leading from an objectifying mindset.
Dr. Kathleen E. Allen writes a blog on leadership and organizations that describes a new paradigm of leadership that is based on lessons from nature and living systems. She is the author of Leading from the Roots: Nature Inspired Leadership Lessons for Today’s World (2018) and President of Allen and Associates, a consulting firm that specializes in leadership, innovation, and organizational change. You can sign up for her blog on her website: www.kathleenallen.net