The mother of all management anti-patterns

My book on software development metrics is in the final stages of editing. The editor made a kind comment about one section of the book. She wrote: “This section is marvelous. I wish all management everywhere would read this and pay attention.” Me, too. This is the section:

(begin excerpt)

This may be the mother of all management anti-patterns. Management science has treated human beings as interchangeable machine parts at least since the time of Frederick Taylor’s “scientific management” in the early 20th century, and possibly much longer than that. Even today, many managers loosely refer to workers as “resources” without realizing the implications of the word.

A resource is an asset whose performance can be calculated and predicted with a high degree of accuracy and precision. For example, as I write this, I’m sitting in a chair. Should the chair break, I can sit in another chair. The new chair will immediately function equally as well as the old one did before it broke. The chair requires no training before it can carry out its function. It has no mood swings and never gets tired, sick, or hungry. It doesn’t take vacations or need to pick up its ottoman from furniture daycare. The chair doesn’t worry about other chairs from the same furniture factory that may be going through a rough patch. The new chair doesn’t have a different personal style of chairness than the old chair. It doesn’t interact differently with the other chairs in the room than the old chair did. It’s easy to calculate the number of chairs necessary to seat 10, 100,
or 1,000 people. The chair is a resource.

When team members leave, you can replace them. But the replacements won’t perform at 100% capacity instantaneously. They may have general qualifications similar to those of the former team members, but not identical experience. They will each have a personal style of doing the job. They will get tired, hungry, and sick from time to time. They will take vacations and need to pick up their children from daycare. They will have hopes, fears, professional goals, mood swings, headaches, good days, and bad days. They will worry about family members and friends who may be going through a rough patch. They will have unique personality types and cognitive styles and will create a new dynamic of personal interactions on the team. It isn’t straightforward to predict the impact on team performance when a team member is replaced. A team member isn’t a resource. A team member is a human being.

When you measure people and predict their performance as if they were resources, it’s highly likely that you’ll miss important information and cause unintended behavioral side effects.

(end excerpt)

The words we use influence the way we think and act. When managers refer to human beings as “resources,” they tend to treat people like “things.” It happens insidiously. The managers don’t consciously think of people as things, but their language guides their actions. This appears to be a very widespread and deeply-ingrained habit in nearly all organizations. When you hear someone in your organization refer to a person as a “resource,” I hope you will mention it to them. Maybe the habit can be changed.

If you find the subject interesting, here are additional rants that may amuse you:

8 thoughts on “The mother of all management anti-patterns

  1. Dave,

    Your blog post came across my Twitter feed via someone I respect, so I decided to give it a read. I understand and mostly agree with its spirit and sentiment. Summarized in my own words, I think that you’re saying, “People like to feel valued” and “Attempting to measure people like things can be bad”. However, I challenge some of the other assertions.

    First and foremost is your definition of “resource”. You say that a “resource” is “an asset whose performance can be calculated and predicted with a high degree of accuracy and precision.” When I asked for the source of this definition on Twitter, you replied, “I made it up” and later added, “The context is software development.”

    It is hard to challenge any assertions based on this made-up definition. In the context of your blog post, all your assertions seem to consistently follow your made-up definition: “Resource performance can be calculated and predicted” BUT “People are unique and variable” > “Unique and variable performance cannot be calculated or predicted” > “People cannot be resources” > “We should use not call people resources”

    However, your made-up definition does not match with the common, accepted definition of “resource”. The Oxford English Dictionary provides multiple definitions for “resource”. But, the most reasonable definition, in the context of “software development”, is “A stock or supply of money, materials, staff, and other assets that can be drawn on by a person or organization in order to function effectively.” This definition (and coincidentally, all others) does not mention anything about “calculating and predicting asset performance with a high degree of accuracy and precision”.

    Further, both your definition and Oxfords mention “asset”. An asset is “A useful or valuable thing or person.” Try replacing the word “asset” in both definitions to see how it affects the meaning:
    Yours: “A resource is {a useful or valuable thing or person} whose performance can be calculated and predicted with a high degree of accuracy and precision”.
    Oxford: “A stock or supply of money, materials, staff, and other {useful or valuable things or people} that can be drawn on by a person or organization in order to function effectively”

    It doesn’t seem like you are actually against calling people “an asset” or “a resource”. It seems like you’re actually against calculating and predicting the unique and variable performance of people.

    I think that some people misunderstand and misuse the word “resource”. In fact, I don’t think that the term “resource” is inherently evil, at all. I think that some people think and act in certain ways regardless of the terms they use. Consider the following:
    “Jack is my most valuable, irreplaceable resource!” – How do you think Jack might feel after hearing that? Or…
    “Jill is an ordinary, replaceable person on my team.” – How do you think Jill might feel after hearing that?

    Near the end of our brief Twitter conversation, you implied that I “think humans ought to be treated as resources”. I guess the truthfulness of that statement depends on the definition of “resource”. According to your made-up definition, “NO, I don’t think that humans ought to be treated as resources (since humans are unique and variable, and unique, variable things cannot be calculated or predicted”. But, according to the common, accepted OED definition, “YES, I think that humans ought to be treated as resources (since humans are useful and valuable and can be drawn on by a person or organization to function effectively”.

    Additionally, I believe that complements and insults can’t be given. Compliments and insults can only be taken. Compliments can be delivered with insulting words, and insults with complimentary ones. What truly matters is “the intent” and “how they are received”. And so, when someone calls me a “resource”, I consider the intent and determine if I should TAKE it as an insult or compliment.

    Finally, you say, “The words we use influence the way we think and act.” and, “language guides their actions”. However, I think it may be the other way around.

    Thanks for your time.

    -Damian

    1. Damian,

      I would agree with Dave’s follow-up comment, but offer a further thought. Isn’t the OED just describing how words are used without making judgments about the wisdom of using them in such ways. If I’m discussing a business venture at a very high level, I might use the term “resources” to cover money, materials, and staff collectively. In such a context, its use makes perfect sense. However, when I am only referring to people it makes perfect sense to use more accurate terms: staff, personnel, associates, people, co-workers, partners. We have a rich vocabulary of words at our disposal.

      You pose this question:

      “Jack is my most valuable, irreplaceable resource!” – How do you think Jack might feel after hearing that?

      I’ll suggest he won’t find it quite as honoring as:

      “Jack is my most valuable, irreplaceable employee!”
      “Jack is my most valuable, irreplaceable staff member!”
      “Jack is my most valuable, irreplaceable associate!”
      “Jack is my most valuable, irreplaceable co-worker!”
      “Jack is my most valuable, irreplaceable partner!”

      Each one of those statements elevates Jack more and more to the level of the person making the statement. They are progressively more personal, more human.

      If there are more descriptive and honoring words available, why don’t we use them? (Well, I suppose it may be emotionally easier to cut resources than to sever relationships with valued partners.)

      Regards,
      Neal

  2. Damian,

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

    Regarding the dictionary definition of “resource,” I understand the purpose of a dictionary is to describe the way people actually use words. When you say “YES,” you are affirming that definition. I can’t argue with that, as people do use the word “resource” to describe humans as “assets that can be drawn on by a person or organization.”

    It isn’t my intention to challenge the OED. However, the accurate definition provided by the OED underscores the very problem my post discusses: The fact that people regard humans as “resources” in the same sense as they regard coal and iron ore as “resources.” As I mention in the related post on “machine society,” this attitude tends to dehumanize people.

    You ask :“Jack is my most valuable, irreplaceable resource!” – How do you think Jack might feel after hearing that?

    It’s possible Jack would appreciate hearing that. It’s also possible that he would feel as if his true worth as a human being, and as an associate with the company, was not recognized. All that is recognized is his ability to fulfill the task for which the organization “draws on” him.

    Whether words influence actions or actions influence words may be a matter of personal interpretation. I like Desmond Tutu’s quote, “Language does not just describe reality. Language creates the reality it describes.” In my reality, I and my colleagues and friends are far more than the limited tasks for which our employers and clients “draw on” us. YMMV.

    Cheers,
    Dave

  3. I agree with the article. Damian makes a good point about using a made-up definition for resource but my response is exactly the same as the author – it’s dehumanizing. I think the problem is that the term “resource” lumps humans with inanimate things.

    I try to avoid the term whenever possible. Using the right words helps guide my thinking.

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