How often do we agree to something that our heart isn’t really in? Early in our careers this is usually a necessity, yet even as we progress and gain more agency as organisational leaders we can feel the pressure to conform, to act outside of our sense of who we are.
As members of a workforce, even at managerial or decision-making levels, we are always in danger of being instrumentalised, our humanity stripped away for the sake of efficiency and conformity. Systems can trap us, asking more and more from us for less and less in return. In these contexts, we make unconscious agreements to give ourselves away. We don’t realise that we are signing up for a whole set of norms and assumptions when we take things on that conflict with our personal values as an individual.
In a sense this becomes a voluntary instrumentalization, as we willingly take on the role we are expected to conform to, rather than bringing our whole humanity to it. Over time this has a lasting effect on how we show up in the world, the expectations we have of those around us, and even our deeper sense of self. We end up perpetuating the same norms and values that we have imbibed over years, treating people the way we were once treated without taking their individuality into account.
Of course, balancing the needs of the individual with the needs of the organisation is one of the most enduring problems of working life. When we are faced with an opportunity to give ourselves away, learning to say ‘no’ in a way which affirms our values is a powerful tool. Sadly, saying no isn’t always an option. Yet even voicing our concerns rather than blindly acquiescing allows us a moment of agency that serves to remind us of who we are, without selling ourselves out. If we find ourselves in this position frequently, it might even be worth asking if the organisation values us enough as a human being to justify our continued presence.
When the shoe is on the other foot, and we need to give orders rather than take them, leading with love means unlearning whatever negative, dehumanising managerial traits we might have unconsciously taken on. In the moment, allowing ourselves to notice and respond to the reactions of others on an individual level, not dismissing their concerns but hearing and acknowledging them, can bring a level of humanity back into a relationship that could easily become merely transactional and instrumental. Even if our hands are tied, taking the time to engage with the person as a person, not an organisational tool, affirms not just their humanity but our own as well. We may even be able to adapt and adjust our approach more than we think.