Never Say (2): People are our Greatest Asset

People are our greatest asset (PAOGA) sounds like a wonderfully warm message – to the leader delivering it. To the listener, maybe not. The phrase is wrong factually, grammatically, and oh if accountingly were only a word. It is condescending, self-defeating, and onmynervegetting (surely that is at least a valid hashtag). People are not Assets, or any other number on a financial statement. People are People. Numbers are managed; People are led. Topic for another day. Humans are humans (all respect to the late John Prine), with brains and personalities more complex, wonderous, unpredictable, and onmynervegetting than any machine. Whatever the intention, PAOGA puts a person in the same category as a drill press, albeit our greatest or most valuable. That is literally treating people like machines and numbers. (Note to those who confuse the words: the previous sentence is literally and figuratively literal). Also, the word asset itself is tricky. If we were on a shaky zoom connection and you screamed, “You are our greatest asset!” Someone might receive an unintended message. Every word from a leader to or about the team is figuratively (ha-ha) screamed at them over a sketchy Zoom connection.    

The tongue has the power of life and death…Proverbs 18:20, NIV

This is not a rant against political correctness or business buzzwords, although It is helpful to visit the early days of our workplace language revolution. If you remember getting up to change the channel (OK GenX-Boomer!) you probably remember smoke-filled, intimidating offices – including the one with “PERSONNEL” on the door. A Personnel Manager and team primarily focused on compliance – to policies and procedures, labor laws, union rules, et cetera. Back then, employers hired and fired employees who reported in rigid hierarchies to foremensupervisorsmanagers, and executives. After 100 years of Industrial Revolution success and excess, society and the marketplace had changed. Job seekers no longer lined up at the Personnel door aspiring to the gold watch. Work became less about repetitive motion, and more about creativity and the customer experience (CX). CEOs, rarely the moustache-twisting stereotype even then, recognized that engaged people in healthy, diverse cultures produced better results. And, contrary to the stereotype, most CEO Humans enjoy coming to work every day in a positive environment. People could no longer be Fredrick Taylored and discarded like outdated power tools. This was a revolutionary change in leadership mindset, and it required an entirely new language – a key component of any culture. Like all revolutions, results are mixed. We still have not figured it all out. Anyway, kids, the Personnel Department became Human Resourcesemployees became associates or team members, Supervisors and managers became leaders or coaches. Substitute your company nomenclature.

We now understand that words matter. Properly deployed, words catalyze new mindsets, cultures, and strategies. Poor word-choice brings unexpected and harmful consequences, visible and invisible. Know your audience is great communications advice, but a boss by any name is first and foremost Big-Chief-Who-Can-Fire-Me. A leader can never really know any team member on any given day, despite all worthy effort. Everyone is different, and leaders are the most different of all. Know what you do not know, and recognize the six unique challenges of leadership communication:

  • People are professional boss watchers, constantly scrutinizing every word, deed, and facial expression. More than you may know.
  • Actions speak louder than words. A message incongruent with behavior is half-hearted lip service at best, dishonest manipulation at worse.
  • Fear of loss is greater than the prospect of gain. When our ancestor discovered a jungle berry patch, his first thoughts were not of the delicious fruit or his empty stomach. Instead, his brain flashed a vivid image – a Saber-tooth cat behind every tree. He could only enjoy the fruit after moving through fight/flight/freeze mode. Our species survived because of that conditioned fear-response in uncertain situations. Not many jungle cats around today, but our primitive brains still vividly imagine danger around every corner. A leader has power to disrupt a family’s livelihood. Some messages, to some people, will land first in Scaredy-cat brain. Until the perceived threat passes, logic does not compute. When a leader offers delicious berries, some will see tigers.
  • Some portion of your team will always buy what you are selling. Others will immediately reject it, silently or with shouts. The majority will wait and see. The mix varies but assuming 10/10/80% will help craft word choice, delivery methods, and frequency. Work to move the 80% and accept that you might never reach some hardcore skeptics. Then, leadership turns into management. More later….
  • If your message is unclear or incomplete, people will fill in the blanks, based on their perception of your true motives. Cohesive teams build Trust between members and the leader. With real trust, there are no hidden or unspoken motives – they are removed from the communications equation. Truly cohesive teams are rare. It takes time, money (profit!), hard culture work, training, the right people in the right seats, and the proper moon phase, it seems. Meantime even a positive message can be received with skepticism (distrust).
  • Team morale is never static. Despite all efforts, you cannot be certain about interpersonal dynamics, the overall mood, or the hot gossip.

When a leader says PAOGA, some will be inspired. Some will hear “blah blah blah,” and a few might hear, “People are particularly important to the company, as tools and numbers go.” Please never say it. Thank you.

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