On Workplace Depersonalization


I have been thinking a lot lately about workplace depersonalization. Let me give you a couple of examples. True stories.

I go for a doctor’s appointment and am sitting in the waiting area while others check in. One of the receptionists says to an older, incoming patient:

“Oh, hello! It’s so nice to see you! Did you have a good Thanksgiving?” It sounds like the receptionist and patient are old friends.

“Well yes,” says the patient, “it was very…nice.” He seems taken off guard by the effervescent greeting and stumbles a little over his words. Like who is this person? Do I know her?

“Well, it’s so wonderful to have you back here.”

“Thank you,” the man says hesitantly.

“And could I have your name, please?” the receptionist asks.

Now, of course, it is a protocol for this health care organization to verify the patient’s name at each encounter, but the contrast between the fake customer recognition voice and the administrative processing voice are striking, almost ironic.

Later, after returning home, I experience something related when a physician’s assistant calls to notify me of a records transfer to another department where I need to make a new appointment. I answer the phone in my home office — I have no idea who is calling.

“Hi, this is Dan.”

A hurried voice speaks: “Please verify your name and date of birth.”

No “Hi Dan, this is Margaret, I’m calling from ABC Healthcare. Would you mind verifying your name and birthdate before we continue?” The same hurried, clinical voice goes on:

“Your test results are positive so that means you need to complete another set of tests in the such-and-such department.”

“Okay,” I say, and what does that mean exactly? Do I need to set up that appointment myself?”

“Someone will call you. They’ll fill you in.”


“Thank you, good-bye.”

I understand the need for the name and birthdate verification. But neither the overly solicitous or the clinical approach actually hit the mark. Fake or cold. No actual connection.

I think we must ask, how did we get to this state, in which the patient being served is a commodity, not a person. And, in truth the providers seem to be commodities, too.

To answer that question, I believe we must interrogate a culture that has replaced quality with quantity, conscious value and connection with rote solutions. In the first story, I imagine some training company telling front line staff to “make a personal connection,” but failing to mention that personal connection isn’t an interpersonal technique based on faked enthusiasm in one’s voice and a series of intrusive questions. In the second story, I imagine the trainers confusing professionalism and protocol compliance with a spiritless, hurried quest to “be efficient.” In both cases, the staff members operated as robots and I imagined they had been trained in exactly that way, possibly by other robots who are paid a lot of money based on their promises to fix staff. You can bet if an organizational iceberg for ABC Healthcare were identified, below the waterline everybody would be blaming everybody else for the problems.

These are easy, obvious examples. Less so, but more virulent as an example of depersonalization is a recent article from the Harvard Business Review. I don’t want to link it as I’m going to be critical, and there are plenty of such articles — this one isn’t a unicorn. The article discusses recent findings from neuroscience about trust in organizations. It summarizes years of study findings, carefully designed experiments regarding oxytocin’s influence on human behaviors, and the promise of an elitist, scientific understanding of what motivates trust in human beings. The tone is one of quantitative certainty; things like “76% more engagement” and “40% less burnout” and “50% higher productivity.” It asserts a known, “mathematical” connection between trust and financial performance, and it identifies a cluster of techniques to be used by managers that have been “proven” to increase trust:

Recognize excellence
Induce “challenge stress” (set high group goals)
Give people discretion in how they do their work
Enable job crafting (let people decide what to work on)
Intentionally build relationships
Share information broadly
Facilitate whole-person growth
Show vulnerability

As if these actions were in any way special or new. But, now, because it’s neuroscience it’s a simple matter of doing these things to garner huge percentages of human improvement. More prescriptive robotics. What could possibly go wrong?

I’m not suggesting the intentions are bad here, despite the egocentricity of the article’s assertions. It’s not even a bad list! Formulas are good, aren’t they?

Except when they lead to people thinking the work of building trust in organizations is easy or won’t, if they take it seriously, draw them down into their own inner worlds, their biases, proclivities, patterns of behavior, attitude toward their position power, history and conditioning and very real personal demons. It is so much about how things are done and how people feel, not just the idea of it. When such formulas are applied from a purely external view of controlling or modifying behavior, too often what happens? Fake stuff and compliant stuff. Not the real thing. And this fake, compliant stuff is what gets passed along to other people as an expectation for their change. There’s a huge market for it. It’s not actually about trust; it’s about what some people suppose can replace or duplicate trust–for profit.

For every program to “recognize excellence” that is useful and meaningful, there are many that just piss people off. For every effort to induce “challenge stress” are many others that just demoralize staff and deepen the habitual mistrust of leadership. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. You get the point. Look at the list closely. Sure these are good ideas, and the road to hell has been paved with them for quite some time. Let’s not have a program to “intentionally build relationships” or “show vulnerability.” Depersonalizing leaders create depersonalizing staff who treat clients and customers in a depersonalized way.

To lead well, to build trust, you must think, observe, and question yourself, get feedback and learn as a person. It’s time consuming. Sometimes it hurts. Sometimes it’s confusing as hell. It demands a deeper dive into the soul of what leadership is in ways that demand inner answers, not outer ones.

How do I bring both confidence and humility to my work?
How do I tell the truth to others about my real expectations?
What does it mean to respect and trust in others? Why is that so important?
What is my attitude toward difference and conflict?
How do I listen for the inner worlds of others, what works for them, what’s good in them?
How do you and I find a way into a deeper dialogue about who you and I are to each other?
How do I include people, really, in what this work is about and how it can best move forward together?
Who am I as a leader?
What are my core insecurities? What are my greatest strengths?
How am I colluding in the very problems I say I want to solve?

And a million other questions you might ask yourself.

Applying external answers to the largely private and personal worlds of trust may do some good, but I would argue that a leader’s perceived heart and soul will always matter more, much more. A raw truth of leading is that by its very nature it demands that people think for themselves, judge for themselves. And leaders will do this. The question is whether they will do it well, meaning with great care for what is best in themselves and in others.

Trust-based leading is not a rote thing. It’s not a rule thing. It’s not a program, a training course, or an intellectual debate. It’s not done because there will be productivity or profit at the end of the rainbow. It’s a unique practice of heart-felt courageous learning, self-knowledge, and action, one human person at a time and done largely because it’s the right thing to do. It’s a good way of being, a good life.



  • Hi Dan,

    Good stuff. How do we support one’s showing up as true, real and authentic? I recall a number of years ago this sense I had of the urge of some to create “technologies” or “by the number” approaches to, for example, emotional intelligence, or deep listening, or so-called conscious relationships and the like. It was like an attempt to make an intersubjective experience, “easier” or more “objective.” Like using a by-the-numbers” approach to being compassionate, empathic by using certain phrases, steps or rote-like behaviors to feign true and real caring an concern. Like saying, these steps or phrases etc. will keep you from feeling, be-ing, loving,or truly caring or feeling uncomfortable…but they will communicate these qualities or capacities in a “safe, non-threatening to you” way. Technologies that create more disconnection than true and authentic connection, but allow one to “safely” check off their customer service boxes in the example you mention. Safely means “not feeling.”

    Hope your medical journey turns out well.

  • Peter–

    Beautifully said. The idea that everything can be reduced to a “paint by numbers” approach is exactly what kills feeling. A paint by numbers approach to the Mona Lisa isn’t the real Mona Lisa. You’ve articulated this so well. Thank you.

    And yes there is a medical journey but nothing major, as yet. More tests in January.

    All the best!

  • all the best to you as well, Dan. I’ll keep you in my thoughts and meditations.

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