How do we conceptualise the role of other people in our work? This is not a question we often think about in daily life. Our world encourages a kind of materialistic dualism in our thinking – that we, as the subject of our experience, are fundamentally different to the external objects that we perceive outside of us, whether that be things or people.
In Martin Buber’s book, I and Thou, he describes this worldview as an ‘I–it’ relationship. Yet, Buber says, this is not really a ‘relationship’ at all. When we conceive of people in this way, as objects within our subjective reality, we view them as an it. As an ‘it’ or an object, the person is reduced to categories within our mind, defined through pre-existing labels we apply to them. We may see them as hard working or lazy, intelligent or stupid. Worst of all, we can even begin to think of them merely as useful or useless for our own purposes.
This type of thinking occludes the full humanity of the individual, negating the chance to forge truly meaningful human connection. In contrast, Buber offers the ‘I–Thou’ (or ‘I–You’) relationship. Instead of thinking of people as a thing among things, or an object to be described with labels, approaching others as a Thou encourages us to embrace the indescribable uniqueness of the person facing us.
Yet in each of these paradigms it is not just the other who we conceive differently. Instead, Buber claims, it is also the I that is transformed. The ‘I’ that we bring to work is more likely to be of the ‘I–It’ variety, assessing the usefulness and skills of those around us and analysing them in terms of instrumental purposes. At home, however, we are (hopefully) engaged with the I of ‘I–Thou’, responding empathetically to our loved ones and often putting their needs far above our own without a second thought.
For some people, they are so lost in the conceit of their work persona that the ‘I–It’ they take into the office comes home with them as well. Bragging about their status and achievements, how much money they make, who they know, how many people they control, becomes their only way of relating to friends and family. Their whole conception of self is bound up in these status symbols, leaving them unable to relate emotionally or sympathetically with others, unable to listen and share. Their partners and children become mere icons of the familial ‘object’, not the true lived experience of the family.
In leading with love, we instead try to expand on ‘I–Thou’ and bring it with us to the workplace. The self that is generous, humble, compassionate and empathetic, who views others as fully human, with their own flaws, foibles and rich inner lives. Leading with love means relating to people as people, not as a set of competencies or deficiencies, not as instrumental tools to advance ourselves. We must question whether our leadership style is merely a projection of our egoic needs (for profit, power, or prestige), or whether it is one based on humanistic values that transcend material concerns.
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