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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