That's not my name...
Businesses are great at pretending people aren't people.
Think of all the words we use instead of 'people': customer, employee, staff, worker, end user, stakeholder, consumer, client, audience.
Yes, these words serve a purpose - they give us a context in which we are considering the person behind the epithet. But honestly, more often than not, they serve to distance us from the humanity of the real people we are talking about.
This video of the Southwest Airlines CEO speaking after the tragic loss of a woman's life on one of his planes illustrates this point for me. The wording is cold, corporate, precise. The face blank, the eyes emotionless. "I want to extend my sympathy to the family and loved ones of our deceased customer". Customer. Not Jennifer. Mrs Riordan. Mother of two.
When I wrote my MSc research on the link between customer and employee satisfaction, Southwest Airlines were held up as a case study of happy people who worked there delivering for happy people who used their services. You'd hear stories of their people paying real attention to the needs of the people who travelled with them. Nothing in the cold corporate response from their current CEO speaks to this. To stick rigidly to the word "customer", when what has actually happened is a woman has lost her life in the most horrific of circumstances and two kids have lost their mum is, frankly, inhuman.
And we inadvertently do this all the flaming time in business. We talk about 'users' in technology and wonder why it became so easy for big tech firms to run roughshod over personal privacy. We talk about 'staffing' and wonder how large businesses get to the point where human beings use food banks while working for them.
In Change we use the term 'Stakeholders'. At least this suggests agency and a sort of equity unlike the 'audience' that you'll hear internal communications reference. But, honestly, it's not good enough.
When you are making a business change you impact people. You disrupt their status quo, ask them to undergo the stress, exertion or inconvenience of making changes to their lives - in small ways or large. To talk about Stakeholders, change resistance, saboteurs, apathy and not go deeper to the reality of the situation - which is that these are humans, with all the complexity and value that every human inherently has - is to misunderstand change.
A good Change Management strategy has robust, detailed, analysis of the people impacted by and needed to support the change at it's heart. Without it, your communications are off base, your budgets misdirected, your interventions misguided and adoption of the change is pie in the sky. But what's even more important is that it truly considers the humanity of the people involved. Don't just crudely map your stakeholders into the 'for's and the 'against's, the 'champions' and the 'saboteurs'. Figure out what they stand to lose and gain, what life is like for them now, and what you are asking of them in the future. Approach 'change resistance' with curiosity. Approach it all with curiosity. Assume nothing.
I worked with an HR Director on a transformation who described the people in his organisation as 'lives'. He understood that what we were doing impacted real lives. If they couldn't log onto the time management system they might not get paid that week. If they didn't get paid that week they might not eat or pay rent. Lives. Are they really just 'end users' or 'stakeholders' in that situation?
I rally against de-humanising phrases when working with organisations and people because I think words have power. The more often you call a human life a 'user,' a 'customer', a 'worker', the further away you move from the truth of your shared humanity. When you do that you take poor decisions. It's easier to pretend that the change you're making is straightforward. It's easier to write noise off as 'change resistance'. Only when you face up to the fact that the people you are working with are in fact people can you get to the heart of successfully leading them through the change you want to make. Ignore that humanity and be prepared to stand cold eyed and uncomfortable using your phlegmatic corporate synonym for 'real people' when you explain why your change failed.