People Are Not Resources

My manager reviewed the org chart along with the budget. “I need to cut the budget. Which resources can we cut?”

“Well, I don’t think we can cut software licenses,” I was reviewing my copy of the budget. “I don’t understand this overhead item here,” I pointed to a particular line item.

“No,” he said. “I’m talking about people. Which people can we lay off? We need to cut expenses.”

“People aren’t resources! People finish work. If you don’t want us to finish projects, let’s decide which projects not to do. Then we can re-allocate people, if we want. But we don’t start with people. That’s crazy.” I was vehement.

My manager looked at me as if I’d grown three heads. “I’ll start wherever I want,” he said. He looked unhappy.

“What is the target you need to accomplish? Maybe we can ship something earlier, and bring in revenue, instead of laying people off? You know, bring up the top line, not decrease the bottom line?”

Now he looked at me as if I had four heads.

“Just tell me who to cut. We have too many resources.”

When managers think of people as resources, they stop thinking. I’m convinced of this. My manager was under pressure from his management to reduce his budget. In the same way that technical people under pressure to meet a date stop thinking, managers under pressure stop thinking. Anyone under pressure stops thinking. We react. We can’t consider options. That’s because we are so very human.

People are resourceful. But we, the people, are not resources. We are not the same as desks, licenses, infrastructure, and other goods that people need to finish their work.

We need to change the language in our organizations. We need talk about people as people, not resources. And, that is the topic of this month’s management myth: Management Myth 32: I Can Treat People as Interchangeable Resources.

Let’s change the language in our organizations. Let’s stop talking about people as “resources” and start talking about people as people. We might still need layoffs. But, maybe we can handle them with humanity. Maybe we can think of the work strategically.

And, maybe, just maybe, we can think of the real resources in the organization. You know, the ones we buy with the capital equipment budget or expense budget, not operating budget. The desks, the cables, the computers. Those resources. The ones we have to depreciate. Those are resources. Not people.

People become more valuable over time. Show me a desk that does that. Ha!

Go read Management Myth 32: I Can Treat People as Interchangeable Resources.

About Johanna Rothman

I help managers and leaders do reasonable things that work.
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22 Responses to People Are Not Resources

  1. Yves, you said in your post that you did not want to be resources :-) I know that when I was the mom-chauffeur resource, I hated it. I could not wait until my kids earned their licenses and could drive themselves. I was then elevated to “stupid mom” :-)

    It’s one thing to provide each other with talent, with capabilities that each other does not have. We do that in teams and in families. In that sense, we are resourceful. I suspect that you and I agree on that.

    When our managers then call us “resources,” that takes the metaphor to a new level, one that you and I (and many other people) never intended.

    There is a large jump from being resourceful in a team to being a resource in an organization. Thanks for helping me find those words.

  2. for clarity, I’m fully with you.

    I tried in a funny way to tell I hate that people call people resources.
    That was the last years the link I gave when people talked about people as resources.
    Your answer is (as usual) so much better.

    and yes I think it’s really stupid. And it’s even worse, legally (at least in Belgium, but I think this is worldwide) in an accountancy system, people are on the cost side.
    so every part of business language is in sync to tell managers that people are a cost and thus could/should be cut.

    The buildings, software and books we buy are for an accountancy system, an investment. People on the other hand are costs.
    Even cars are an investment even thought it’s very obvious for people that when you buy a car, it’s value already went down half of it by the next day.

    What is interesting, is if you read the history of Human Resource management departments, you will see that the reason to change their names to that (instead of the old personel department ) was the exact same reason as you mention.
    Because they wanted people to be seen as more positive and resourceful.
    Unfortunatly it backfired…

    y

  3. Jon Price says:

    As a junior developer I was once introduced by a team leader to a department head as “our new resource”. Imagine how much respect I had for both individuals using this type of language :-)

  4. Jon,

    OMG. I wish I could think of a good comeback. I’m stunned. I’ll have to think/sleep on it. With my normal lack of tact and diplomacy, I would have said something stupid. I suspect you did not.

  5. Jon Price says:

    Johanna,

    It was some time ago, but one of the experiences that has really stuck with me. At the time I think I was too gobsmacked (English vernacular) to think of anything witty to say at the time.

    Going back to the resources question, the most productive teams I have worked with in my career have been teams who have kept together over multiple product release cycles. These teams have naturally addressed some issues under their own initiative heading of some of the needs for “resource” cuts.

  6. Jon, the teams that stayed together being productive over time makes total sense to me. That’s the idea of flowing work through teams.

    Teams that stay together over time can’t do “anything.” But, they become resourceful and resilient. They are not brittle. They learn how to learn. They learn how to solve many and varied problems. They can learn to solve almost any problem.

    I’m still gobsmacked :-) No wittiness here.

  7. Will someone please tell the Project Management Institute?

  8. Robert, They might have to learn on their own.

  9. Great article. I particularly approuve those lines :
    “Anyone under pressure stops thinking. We react. We can’t consider options. That’s because we are so very human.”
    Maybe a bit of fatality but if we are aware of that, it is already a big step forwards.

  10. Timothée, Thanks, I’m glad you like it.

    We underestimate the effects of pressure on our work. Too many managers do not understand the effects on technical people. They then do not understand the effects of pressure on themselves. It’s so difficult to see the system when you are in it.

  11. Dave Gordon says:

    “Just tell me who to cut. We have too many resources.”

    “Well, we’re certainly spending more on management than the value we’re getting from them. I doubt it would matter much which one of the executives your laid off, because they really only talk to each other, unless they’re broadcasting slogans and gibberish at ‘meetings.’ And you only have to get rid of two or three of them to save as much on compensation budget as five or six actual workers.”

    Career limiting? Not as much as continuing to work for a pointy-haired boss, in an organization more focused on cutting expenses than growing a sustainable business.

    All that aside, in the context of planning work, people are resources, just like bulldozers and database servers. You might want only the best of the best on your project (not a novel idea), but getting that dream team likely won’t happen, and your project might not be the most critical driver of organizational success. So you have to plan for the median performer, and manage for results. Anything less is simply malpractice.

  12. Dave, wow, I have met my cynical match!

    You, and people like you, who understand how great management could be, are the reason I’m creating the management myths book, whatever the heck I’m titling it.

    My manager, long ago, had no idea how to combat that stupidity. He didn’t have the, ahem, inner resourcefulness, any “references” to say that it was wrong, and the system wore him down. He was a victim of the system he lived in. It doesn’t have to be that way.

  13. Dave Gordon says:

    I’m looking forward to reading your book. I guess “The Divine Right of Executives” would be a little too cynical …

  14. Hello Johanna,
    Your post is great! I’ve translated it into french : Les personnes ne sont PAS des ressources
    Best regards,
    Fabrice

  15. Fabrice, thank you. And, especially thank you for the translation. I’m only fluent in English :-)

  16. Not a resource says:

    “I’m a person and my name is Anakin.”

  17. Stacy says:

    I just came across your article while trying to expend my excess cynicism by looking up the buzzwords being used in my organization (it’s a branch of the US Military) which just “RIFed” (our word for “laid off”) a significant number of people, including one young person who is critical to the unit I am currently assigned to. He’s now looking for another job and sent me a note about how several other federal jobs he’s applying for state that “people are our greatest resource”. I know I have said something similar in the past, but when I saw that, I realized – there’s a problem with that. Your article is just what I was thinking about – thanks for expressing it!

    One thing to consider – I notice your blog says it’s for “people who want to think about how they manage people, projects, and risk.” In the military, we say (although don’t always act accordingly) that we lead people and manage things. I firmly believe this and have for years. Using the term “manager” with regard to people tends to diminish them and the fact is you can “manage” projects (and resources!) using fairly consistent methods and metrics – but if you manage people the same way, you will rarely get top performance. People respond in different ways and should be led and mentored and treated with respect – 90% of them will improve and 5-10% of them will really shine.

  18. Stacy, thanks for reading. You know, I described my blog back in 2003 when I started it. Thanks to your feedback, and what I have said, I do believe it’s time to update my description. Thank you!

  19. I can’t remember the attribution, though it goes something like this “next time someone calls me a ‘resource’, I’m going to call him/her ‘overhead’.”

    The thing is, I don’t think people using this language particularly care; language expresses our paradigms and inner worlds. Simply adopting a new word won’t change the underlying belief (though it might create some space for reflection)…

    Awesome post; stumbled on it looking for one of your earlier ones about stopping scoring work :)

  20. Hi Kevin. I like the retort! It is close to a career-limiting conversation, however.

    I hear what you say about language. The key with language is that it can change thinking. You are probably too young to remember. Before the Civil Rights Act of 1968, we had Men Wanted and Women (or maybe it was Females) Wanted in the want ads. The jobs were very different. Title IX changed language, not just access to courses and sports.

    When people want to make a personal change, they often change behavior before they change beliefs. I’m enough of an optimist to start with the behavior change first.

    I’m delighted you like this post. Thank you.

    As for the scoring work, do you mean the post about comparing teams: Comparing Teams Is Not Useful? If that’s not the post, send me an email. I’ll help you find it.

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