Let's stop saying "resource"

I almost can’t believe it, but it’s still happening. It’s the year 2020 and business leaders are still saying things like “I need one or two senior Java resources.”

This word, “resources,” when used to refer to people, is damaging to your organization. There are very few cases where people working on a project are fungible assets in all practicality, but even in those cases, not recognizing them as human beings is insulting at best.

If you want to be the inspiring, charismatic, and successful leader of smart, creative people who solve hard problems and love every second of it, let’s get this one simple thing clear: we’re all human beings. We all have our own thoughts, feelings, motivations, interests, and so on.

Calling a person a “resource” (even if it is a hypothetical person rather than an actual one) is denying yourself access to the biggest motivational lever there is.

That’s why the third principle of The Engineering Manager’s Charter is “Treat me like a human, not a ‘resource’.” The most surefire way to demotivate your people is to think of them as mindless ticket-takers who simply execute the orders you give them because you told them to.

The Engineering Manager’s Charter is based on objective research from Google (chiefly) and other organizations, which has shown conclusively that companies achieve better results when people are led by managers who understand and engage with them at a human level.

So, what does that mean? How do you engage at a human level?

How to be a human

The fundamental lesson is to want to know more about people. Whether you find people intrinsically interesting or not, you can’t unlock the motivational power of human connection without the exchange of information.

There are two important ways in which we become closer as people:

  1. Demonstrate genuine caring

  2. Allow yourself to be vulnerable

One way to demonstrate caring

When I say demonstrate caring, I don’t mean calling out someone’s birthday once a year. I mean really understanding what that person wants, what they struggle with, and how their job fits into that infinite puzzle.

A practical way of doing this is proposed in James Robbins’ book “Nine Minutes on Monday” (which you can check out on my library page). Robbins’ system is based on building a weekly habit of supporting each team member’s nine needs.

In support of caring, ask yourself, “Whom will I show a genuine interest in this week?” When you think about this question, a specific person may spring to mind because of something that you know they are going through. All you have to do is recognize that person’s situation by asking an honest and open question.

If someone doesn’t spring to mind, consider how well you know the people you work with, and pick someone you know the least about.

I have found that one-on-ones are the easiest and most natural times to get into these kinds of topics. Make sure that your one-on-ones are not dominated by status reports and tactical project conversations; make time to connect with someone on any topic that is not directly related to work.

Here are a few questions I like that you can use right away:

  • “What’s making you happy right now?”

  • “Who do you really respect, of everyone who has ever lived?”

  • “If you had millions of dollars, what would you do?”

Embracing vulnerability

Being vulnerable means allowing others to see you when you are uncertain, incorrect, or have made a mistake. It means being a transparent and honest person who doesn’t try to curate the way others perceive them. It means owning your mistakes and demonstrating how to grow from them.

Showing vulnerability, especially to people with whom you work, can be very hard. But it’s important, and here’s why:

It’s easier to trust a vulnerable person.

The raw truth is that everyone makes mistakes, everyone is pretending a little bit, and as humans we have an extremely well-developed sense of when someone is trying to hide that.

There are two major ways that you can show vulnerability to your coworkers, and they are:

  1. Share your errors

  2. Ask for feedback

When I say “share your errors,” I don’t mean to say that you should broadcast every little mistake and self-flagellate with criticism. The most valuable mistakes to share are the ones that you learned something from. Be willing to share what you did, why you did it, how it didn’t work out, and what you learned.

It’s a great teaching moment and it shows that you are an imperfect human, like the rest of us.

Asking for feedback is an important habit for everyone to get into, but as a leader it demonstrates that you are willing to take criticism. It’s extremely important, however, that if you do receive criticism, you accept it graciously.

Nothing is worse than someone who asks for feedback and then gets all defensive. Be careful to leave your ears open and your mouth shut. One trick you can try is to imagine that the feedback is about someone else while you’re listening to it.

Finally, don’t feel obliged to address it. You can say “Thank you for this feedback, I’m going to think about this for a while and get back to you.”

Asking for feedback shows people that you know you’re not perfect, that you want to be better, and that you want them to be a part of that journey.

We’re humans, with feelings

I’ve had the distinct pleasure of working with many thoughtful, compassionate leaders. At one point a few years ago, coinciding with an influx of new people during a particularly busy hiring year, we started to hear “resources” used now and then, and it caused a brief cultural backlash.

At drinks with a few of those leaders one evening, they told me that in those situations where one might say “resources,” they’d started saying “humans with feelings.”

It felt silly and sarcastic and exaggerated, but at the same time, true. It points out the two exact things that we all need to remember about ourselves: that we’re all human, and that we’re not machines.

So the next time you hear someone say “resource,” point out that whomever they’re talking about is a human, with feelings.