It really is incredible how many people we come across in a day. A number of them are very familiar to us, and some of those are incredibly important. Our spouse, our kids, our parents, close friends, etc. After that there is probably a group of people we see most days like our co-workers, parents of our kids friends, the staff at the coffee shop, etc. But the vast majority of people we see in a given day aren’t quite so close. The accounting team on the 14th floor, the people walking in the mall, the drivers next to us in traffic and many other strangers.
Just recently I’ve started thinking about my relationships with this latter group of people. How do I think of them when I see them? I think a lot of the time it goes something like this:
- The barista
- My doctor
- The person in the gray suit
- The man who never smiles
- The lady with the infectious laugh
- The guy walking toward me I need to go around
- The budget analyst
- The helpful clerk
- The receptionist.
In fact as I think of this, it seems to be a constant procession of people that we almost automatically assign a label to. In a way we change them from “you” to “it“. We tend to think of them based on their job, their appearance, their outward behaviours, and other characteristics we can assign to them. When we label we depersonalize … we risk turning connections into transactions.
This idea of it and you is the work of 20th century philosopher Martin Buber. His work on the philosophy of dialogue focused on the distinction between two types of relationships we form with others, which he defined as “I-It” and “I-You” (he called it “I-thou”). The I-It relationship is characterized as a relationship of separateness and detachment, whereas the I-You relationship is a relationship in which the other person is not separated by discrete bounds.
To me this is as simple as grammatical construction of first, second or third person. I is in the first person. You is in the second person, and a requirement to be in relationship as it takes two people to form one. It is speaking in the third person. When we speak of “he” or “she”, we might as well say it as we are not speaking of that person as a connection. We objectify them.
As humans we long for meaningful connections, but we may also associate risk with them. Risk of rejection, risk of judgement, risk of exploitation, risk of emotional harm, etc. So when it comes to strangers we may erect subtle barriers to moving from I-It to I-You.
When we walk in a busy place, we may avert our eyes so as to avoid an eye-to-eye personal connection. We may scan the appearances of people so that we can assign what meaning they may have to us in that moment. Some that occur to me on my morning walk are: useful, obstacle, threat, opportunity, in front of/behind me, needs space, etc.
When we engage at work, we may manage risk by engaging people as their work function first. This is a subtle I-It shift because that engagement may be warm and helpful, but if the primary purpose of the connection is to transact work it still acts as I-It because the purpose of the connection is not purely to be in relationship.
When I think of this concept within the field of leadership, it occurs to me that we might apply this at two levels:
- Leader To team member – what is the driving force behind our relationship with each of our team members. Do we see them as manifestations of their job role (a drilling engineer for example)? Alternatively do we see them as a thriving and vibrant person (for example, an energetic woman with strong ties to her children, a spirit of creativity and a powerful desire to make a difference in the world)? The first is an I-It relationship as it is attached to the transaction of work. The second is an I-You relationship as it encompasses the whole person and derives its strength from the connection between you. In this second instance, we have the opportunity to develop a working relationship within the I-You space that is defined on mutual purpose and benefit. Very powerful!
- Organization to team member – what is the fundamental attachment between organization and team member? Do team members feel like pieces of the puzzle,
cogs in the machine, functional contributors? Or do they feel like family members, do they say “it feels like home”, and do they connect emotionally with the mission of the company? Do they look forward as much to their engagement in their work as they do their pay cheque? Corporate culture is an elusive concept, but one where I believe the best corporate cultures are founded on I-You relationships. In public companies where quarterly earnings, price-earnings ratios and return on shareholder equity are king it can be a really tough challenge. To do so we have to get past the I-It relationship that has us think of people as a commodity to be hired and/or shed based on business plans and latest profit estimates.
How about your day-to-day engagements? How many of your interactions with others are I-It vs. I-You. What might you do to shift a bunch of the I-It ones to be I-You?