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‘Human Resource’ or Human Being – avoiding objectivation in the workplace matters

Datum:25 oktober 2022
‘Human Resource’ or Human Being – avoiding objectivation in the workplace matters
‘Human Resource’ or Human Being – avoiding objectivation in the workplace matters

About 85 years ago, Charlie Chaplin’s film Modern Times depicted the worker’s condition in that era, which is usually mentioned by researchers to emphasize workplace instrumentalization and exploitation [1]. In this movie, a nameless employee acted like a machine on an assembly line and even became a part of the machine. The human part of the worker seems to be deprived by the repetitive tasks and all that remains is the labor force. The phenomenon of treating workers as instruments of an organization through dehumanizing exploitation for earning profit is still prevalent in today’s workplace, especially in the US and some East Asian countries. In the literature, this is called Workplace Objectification.

Although objectification at work has been frequent over the past century, management scholars have only begun to pay attention to it in recent years. In the daily experience of employees, objectification happens when the employee subjectively feels that he or she is being used as a mere tool without human needs, to reach the goals set by managers or to satisfy the requests of colleagues. For instance, someone may feel being objectified if a peer talks or shows kindness to him/her only when this peer is seeking help and support. Similarly, a leader may objectify a follower by exerting overwhelming workload even if this follower is extremely tired and exhausted. Extant research has revealed some critical factors and consequences of objectification in the workplace. Generally, people experience more objectification in work contexts rather than in non-work contexts [2]. This is because work contexts are more likely to encourage people to think in a calculative and strategic mindset - a thinking style in which people make judgments and decisions by computing the costs and benefits of the available options [2]. In terms of task characteristics, jobs with more repetitive actions, more fragmented activities and more machine-dependent tasks are more likely to induce workers’ perceptions of objectification - the subjective feeling of being treated as a means to a goal [1]. 

Furthermore, person-related factors also have impacts on workplace objectification. Specifically, “Dark Lords” (destructive leaders) tend to exploit followers and use them as their tools by dehumanizing them. An abusive leader would use hostile and insulting language to minimize the personal value and meaningfulness of employees, which induces the objectifying feeling [3]. Similarly, a leader who shows exploitative behaviors would take advantage of followers by simultaneously overburdening and underchallenging them [4]. In addition, our ongoing research shows that a leader who emphasizes only tasks but neglects relational consideration can also cause followers’ objectification perception.

Aligned with our intuition, workplace objectification has particularly harmful influences on employee performance and well-being. Experimental research and survey studies consistently show that workplace objectification can undermine employees’ task engagement, job performance, sense of belonging, job satisfaction and prosocial behaviors and increase their intention to quit, as well as incivility at work [2]. Such negative effects of workplace objectification are not only immoral, but can also undermine workers’ engagement and productivity. Thus, although objectification is quite economical for some people to accomplish goals, its dehumanizing side reminds us that “this snake can bite its own tail”.

Overall, organizations can apply the following to reduce the extent and frequency of objectification in the workplace:

  • First, it is important to provide humanizing organizational support (e.g. work-life balance policy, work flexibility) to care for employees’ personal welfare and well-being. Such positive management practices can make employees feel that they are treated as unique individuals with their own needs rather than replaceable instruments.
  • Second, designing tasks with appropriate challenges and amusement is beneficial for employees to enjoy the process of completing tasks. Otherwise, boring tasks would make the employee feel like a working machine that performs meaningless actions.
  • Third, a person-focused leader should be selected, and trained to consider employees as human beings rather than a tool for doing work. The chronic negative influences of destructive leaders are most probably going to undermine the potential of employees, thus hurting organizational success and development.

Reference

[1] Andrighetto, L., Baldissarri, C., & Volpato, C. (2017). (Still) modern times: Objectification at work. European Journal of Social Psychology47(1), 25-35.

[2] Belmi, P., & Schroeder, J. (2021). Human “resources”? Objectification at work. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 120(2), 384–417.

[3] Caesens, G., Nguyen, N., & Stinglhamber, F. (2019). Abusive supervision and organizational dehumanization. Journal of Business and Psychology34(5), 709-728.

[4] Schmid, E. A., Pircher Verdorfer, A., & Peus, C. (2019). Shedding light on leaders’ self-interest: Theory and measurement of exploitative leadership. Journal of Management45(4), 1401-1433. 

Jinghao (Terrence) Zhang (terrence.zhang rug.nl) is a Ph.D. Candidate at the Department of Human Resource Management and Organizational Behavior. His research interest mainly involves improving management effectiveness and workplace humanization through leadership and creativity. At the University of Groningen, he works with Prof. Dr. Onne Janssen and Dr. Stefan Berger. His current PhD project focuses on the relationship between leadership and workplace objectification.