People Business

“All companies are people companies,” writes Jennifer Rice at BrandBlog. It’s such an obvious point — yet, evidently, one we seem to overlook in our daily discourse.

When we say, read or hear words like “corporation” or “business”, “people” is not the word that springs to mind. “Profits” jumps out at us. But not “people”.

Yet, as Rice reminds us, “People make products for people. People serve people. People work with people and for people.”

Rice goes on to describe how these habits of mind are but one of many signs of the dehumanization of society and business. She quotes the insightful work of Robert Putnam. In his landmark book, Bowling Alone, Putnam cites dozens of indicators (from lack of participation in local affairs to giving the finger to others with whom we’re not pleased)) pointing to a deterioration in our experience of civility and community.

But to make anything of Putnam’s insights, we must learn to peel back the onion.  Just as the word ‘profits’ is more likely to leap out when we hear, say or read ‘business’ or ‘corporation’, the word ‘place’ instantly echoes off the word ‘community’. Putnam hears this echo – his recommendations insist that we must recapture civility and community by focusing on places.

What Putnam misses is that tens of millions of us no longer live our lives – no longer meaningfully and richly interact with other people on a daily basis – because of the places we happen to live. Instead, our best opportunity for the experience of community has shifted from places to organizations.

Why? Because it is in organizations, and especially the organizations where we work, learn, play and pray, that we throw in our lots with others who are not necessarily friends or family. It is in organizations, not places, that we depend on other people we know by name and interact with daily on issues that matter to our futures – our shared fates.

Organizations are ‘thick we’s’ – a phrase describing the experience of having an every day, tangible and gritty sense of shared fates with others we know. For so many of us, beyond friends and family, our thick we’s happen much more in organizations than in places.

If, instead of ‘corporations’ or ‘businesses’, we habitually used words like ‘work communities’ – or just ‘communities’ – the word ‘profits’ would still spring to mind. But so would “people”.

Meaningful language is among the scarcest resources during any period of profound change. For us to hear and act on Rice’s exhortation, we need new language like ‘thick we’s’ or ‘work communities’. Or we need to find — and hear — new meaning in old words like “business”, “corporation”, and “community”.

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