It’s an uncomfortable truth, that for all our attempts at fostering inclusive and collaborative workplaces, people often treat each other less well at work than they do in non-work settings.
The reason for this is that work relationships are typically based on how individuals can use others to achieve goals. Work colleagues—bosses, employees and peers—are brought together to accomplish the work necessary to do their jobs and for the benefit of the organization—they are not necessarily connected by friendship, membership of the same social group, or even of the same culture or ethnicity.
That workplace relationships are different—lacking the affection and attachment of personal relations—is understandable. What is rarely acknowledged is that serious problems can arise if the difference becomes extreme and relationships descend into ‘objectification’.
A recent study, by professors Peter Belmi, of University of Virginia, Darden School of Business, and Juliana Schroeder of University of California Berkeley, Haas School of Business, looked at how people are more likely to be objectified and to objectify others at work than outside of work. Objectification is the treatment of people as objects—objects to be used, for example, or objects that are replaceable, or objects that have no control over what happens to them.
Typically, people go to work to get the job done, earn an income and ideally gain satisfaction and fulfillment through the sense of purpose their work provides—they are less interested in making close friends and use more transactional language (e.g., networking vs. socializing). In this context people can be drawn to engage in objectification—much more so than in non-work contexts. Objectification is more prevalent at work because people engage in more calculative and strategic thinking—making decisions by computing the costs and benefits.
With workplace wellbeing and happiness, increasingly seen to be essential ingredients in fostering employee engagement and creating high-performing, productive working environments, eliminating negative work experiences must be a priority. Objectification, which the researchers identified as leading to incivility, conflict, and to feelings of low self-esteem, lack of belonging, and worker dis-engagement, should be understood and where prevalent dealt with by managers and HR.
The researchers defined seven manifestations of objectification:
1. Instrumentality. Treating another person as instrumental to one’s needs
2. Lacking agency. Not accepting another person can act or think on their own
3. Lacking experience. Not acknowledging another feels pain or pleasure
4. Lacking autonomy. Not allowing another person any freedom of choice
5. Property. Treating other people as if they are commodities
6. Being fungible. Treating others as if they are interchangeable
7. Being violable. Paying no heed to another person’s physical well-being
Given the challenges of recruitment and retention—exacerbated since the Covid crisis— organizations must strive to be and show they are ‘great places to work’. This study makes a strong case that the little-noticed prevalence of people treating others in the workplace as objects is a negative dynamic working in the wrong direction.
To counter this dynamic the researchers suggest that business leaders first need to recognize the problem—that a workplace will prime people to objectify others. They should then be vigilant in responding to signs of the seven features of objectification, listed above, as a part of any effort they make to improve their organization’s culture and workplace environment.
Access the full research paper here: Human ‘Resources’? Objectification at Work. Peter Belmi and Juliana Schroeder. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (February 2021).