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Please don’t call me “human capital”

by Carol Rozwell  |  April 22, 2013  |  3 Comments

Have you ever been in one of those situations where it was very clear the person you were speaking with wasn’t listening to you? A simple example of what I mean is that routine tete-a-tete that occurs when people first get on a phone call. Social convention tells us to inquiry about the other person’s well-being. The exchange that belies real attention to the routine goes something like this:

Caller 1: “Hello, how are you doing today?”

Caller 2: “Hi there, oh I’m doing great! And how are you?”

 Caller 1: “Fine. Things have been going well today. How are you doing?”

The error of feigned interest seems more obvious when it’s written out than when spoken – the issue is that caller 1 didn’t really listen to caller 2’s response. Hence, they asked the same question over again. The supposedly polite social ritual of asking how their colleague was turned into a “do loop” because they were distracted. The unspoken message of the exchange is clear: “I am supposed to ask how you are but I really don’t care because I didn’t take the time to listen.”

This is a simple example but we all can think of many other dismissive situations that regularly occur in the workplace.

So why am I bringing up this trivial example?

Not a week goes by that I don’t get multiple announcements of some new approach for “getting the best out of your human capital” or “managing human capital for business results” or in deference to the current hype around big data “using analytics to increase human capital performance.” Yes, I understand it’s a commonly used term for the collection of employees that work for an organization, but think about the message it conveys. If management thinks I’m just another interchangeable piece of human capital, then why should I contribute my best efforts, my unique skills to my work?

Perhaps my visceral reaction to the term human capital stems from a summer job I had working in a factory as a QA inspector. There I was, indeed, human capital. It was piecemeal work and we were paid as long as we performed a minimum number of inspections per shift. Not more, just the minimum – as I was politely but firmly informed by a fulltime employee on the (single) occasion I exceeded the quota. (Well I was young and thought I was supposed to do my best.) It didn’t matter if I had a brilliant idea for improving the QA process or came up with a better way to perform a quality check, as long as I finished the minimum number of inspections during my shift. I was expected to be the human that carried out the work. (Hopefully that plant now has robots to do the work I and my other 20 benchmates did since we didn’t add any intellectual value to the process.)

Much of the work I’ve been doing lately into the new skills required of a socially centered leader (clients can read the Gartner research) points to the importance of valuing each person on our team as an individual. Perceptive leaders already know this, their experience taught them this lesson. What’s fascinating is that new scientific research now proffers hard evidence to support why we need to pay attention not to people as a group – “my team” – but to the individuals that make up the team.

Clearly, I’ve been influenced by some stellar researchers, authors and leaders who talk about the value of putting employees first (Vineet Nayar), paying attention to status (David Rock) and creating a greater sense of purpose (Dan Pink). A new concept I came across this week is Tony Schwartz’s assertion that we should focus on employee energy. If you have time, this presentation is well worth listening to, as is Dan Ariely’s talk about what makes us feel good about our work.

What I’ve learned is that today’s problems are better solved by people who continually bring their “A game” to work. There is still routine work to be done, but more and more often working through tough issues requires insight from energized employees willing to put themselves into their work. It’s hard to believe that calling people human capital and treating them as such will result in the level of employee engagement required for sustained business performance in today’s fast-paced, ever-changing world. In an information economy, a company benefits more from the contribution of insightful people than from nameless, faceless human capital.

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Category: change-management  collaboration  community  social-networks  

Tags: change-management  collaboration-dynamics  communities-of-practice  community-of-practice  knowledge-management  leadership  organizational-liquidity  social-networking  social-networks  socially-centered-leadership  

Carol Rozwell
VP Distinguished Analyst
11 years at Gartner
21 years IT industry

Carol Rozwell is a vice president and distinguished analyst on Gartner's Digital Workplace team. Read Full Bio

Thoughts on Please don’t call me “human capital”

  1. Paul Parry says:

    Overall you’re right. But “Human Capital” is huge improvement over “Human Resources.”
    Firms _consume_ resources. They _invest_ in capital. We’ve all had our share of employers who consume their staff and then toss them aside like an empty widget package. Better to be treated like a long-term investment.

    But even better than that: to be treated like a person. What was wrong with “Personnel”?

  2. I find most organizations treat humans as capital for the simple reason that intellectual contributions and/or good ideas don’t have a place to go; they aren’t given a home. Hence, the polite response kicks in … whoever is on the receiving end of the conversation simply says, “good idea.” To your point, the idea is heard, but not listened to. The response “good idea” is just someone being polite.

    The result? People stop contributing good ideas and the human capital culture is sustained. Seems like an easy fix to just give ideas a place to go, but of course, you need a process for evaluating them – or even just getting them to an executive than can actually do something with it.

  3. […] Please don’t call me “human capital” ( […]

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