Thursday, March 6, 2014

People Are Not Interchangeable

Photo by Becky Bokern via Flickr

Step by step, heart to heart, left right left
We all fall down like toy soldiers
Bit by bit, torn apart, we never win
But the battle wages on for toy soldiers
- Eminem, "Like Toy Soldiers"

When I was in kindergarten they gave me an I.Q. test and immediately moved me to first grade after seeing the result. The move was traumatic for me. I was happier with kids my own age. It was less important to be with the smart ones.

The second time they moved me a grade up it was because of a troubled teacher. Rather than fire him immediately (which they ended up doing anyway), they moved me, from fifth to sixth grade. I was smart, and they figured I could handle it. But what they missed was all the positive relationships I had with the other fifth grade teachers, and the fact that I was not necessarily suited to be the Doogie Howser of the 6th grade.

Later in my yeshiva high school they divided us into "honors," "regular," and the "lower kids." But the divisions were not based on how smart we were. Rather we were sorted based on our religious level as assessed by the teachers, and the least religious kids were downgraded. There was one girl new to the school who was very non-religious and very beautiful, and all the boys used to stare at her. 

They threw her out after less than a year -- just because she was a distraction.

People are not interchangeable. Groups work because of the ties that bind teams together. Not because of some abstract intellectual meeting of the minds.

There's this famous and very old Jewish story about a rabbi and his dialogue with a Roman noblewoman. 

She asked him, probably sarcastically, 

"In how many days did God create the world?" 


"Since then what has God been doing?"

"Matching couples for marriage."

Sarcastically she replied, "Even I can do that. I have many slaves, both male and female. In no time at all, I can match them for marriage." 

So she put a thousand men and a thousand women together and "married" them. The next morning, "her estate resembled a battlefield."

If marriages are so hard to get right, why on earth do we expect work relationships to be any different? 

If we really want the workplace to work we should reflect human-centric beliefs, values and behaviors every day. That means:

  • Spending significant time daily working on group dynamics within and outside the group
  • Making sure that individual employees are growing and engaged, or finding other positions that better suit them
  • Promoting diversity of every kind, and fending off groupthink and "power cliques"
  • Investing in training on the job and off
  • Enabling staff to find mentors who can support them in dealing with tough work situations

If it takes a village to raise a child, it similarly takes one to build and retain a stable, high-functioning institution.

But none of this can happen without a real commitment to the people who comprise a workgroup. 

It is immoral to use people for their brains and ignore the rest of them.

It is right to invest in the relationships, even when relationships are hard. 

* All opinions my own.