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Are you a People-User or a People-Builder?

In his work The Leader as a Servant, Robert Greenleaf says “Servant leaders build community. They create people-building organizations, not people-using organizations.”

What does it mean to be a people-using organization? What does it mean to be a people-building organization? Let’s take a look at some examples and see if we can unpack these terms.

People-using. When organizations view people as a resource or raw material needed to produce something, they are people-using. You can tell because these organizations talk about people as if they are no different from coal to be shoveled into a furnace to produce heat. And when they are used up, they can go get more coal. They are focused on “getting the work done”.

People-using organizations don’t even blink when they lay people off. Why would they? They used the people when they needed them, and now they don’t need them. The key here is that the relationship is seen as transactional; the company uses you in exchange for pay, either one of us can end this agreement.

In people-using organizations, people are expendable, and you hear things like “You are lucky to have a job” and “Everyone is replaceable.” In return, people fear for their jobs, and do things to protect themselves. These organizations also use learning opportunities as a reward for good performance. “You did a good job, so you get the privilege of going to the conference.”

People-Building. Organizations that see their people as an investment are people-builders. People-building organizations want to maximize their investment and to do that they work to grow and build their people.

While being served, do people become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous and more likely to become servants.

— Robert K. Greenleaf

People-building organizations are less concerned with ‘getting the work done’ and more concerned with ‘building people that can get the work done.’ That’s a subtle difference, so let’s take an example. In a people-using organization, your boss might focus on tracking to make sure all the work is on schedule, and applying pressure or adding people where it’s not on track. In a people-building organization, the boss is looking at outcomes and capabilities. The boss may still look to see if the team is tracking in terms of outcomes, but their action is not to push for more work but to expand people’s capabilities and competencies.

I had a client once who said that they didn’t want their people to get trained because the would leave. And as the old joke goes “what if we don’t train them and they stay?” People-building organizations are not afraid of people leaving because they have already gotten their money’s worth. They also know how to build people, so a good person is not a unicorn, there are lots of good people.

What does it sound like at a people-building organization? “You missed the target. Is there some training that might help you perform better in this role?” or “What conferences would you like to attend that might expand the perspective of the team?”

Have you experienced people-using or people building? Let us know!

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