A series of columns on our role in tackling the complicated economic, environmental and social challenges we face. It is a place to question, offer, share, explore, challenge, dissent, celebrate, reflect, learn and enjoy

Terry Pratchett recently passed on.
As a writer, his works contain some wonderful quotes. Here’s a little dialogue:

“And sin, young man, is when you treat people as things. Including yourself. That’s what sin is.”

“It’s a lot more complicated than that—”

“No. It ain’t. When people say things are a lot more complicated than that, they means they’re getting worried that they won’t like the truth. People as things, that’s where it starts.”

(Carpe Jugulum, Terry Pratchett, p314, 1999)

“People as things”. There was once a world of personnel departments. They almost universally became HR: Human Resources. What frame does that express about a way of seeing people? Similarly, at a conference of ‘green’ marketing experts we attended, a whole kerfuffle kicked off about speakers using the word ‘consumers’: ‘Since when did people get to be defined simply by their role in buying and using things?’ many participants asked.

You could say this is about the dangers of labelling. We love labels: coaches, coachees (a particular bugbear of ours, with its sense of being ‘done to’), sponsors, clients, suppliers, coaching, mentoring, training, consulting…

Long meetings have been spent defining each of these; seeking to identify what makes one different from the other. As soon as we create an ‘us’, we create a ‘them’. And that allows us to treat ‘them’ differently.

Activist and editor, Satish Kumar, speaks of an international peace walk he did:

“If I had gone as an Indian, I would have met a Pakistani or a Russian. If I had gone as a Hindu, I would have met a Muslim or a Christian.
But I went as a human being, and I met human beings everywhere.”

Everywhere he went he was fed, sheltered and cared for.

There is a close connection between ‘what is our role in addressing the big issues’ and ‘people as things’. Think of a current human-created crisis (which includes our social, economic and technological challenges, as these are human constructs). Where in that crisis – particularly in the design and decision-making that led to it or the subsequent response to it – are people being treated as ‘things’, as different or less than those in charge or looking on? It’s certainly true for all those we can think of.

What should we do if a client conversation touches on people somewhere in the system being treated as ‘things’? Do we have a moral duty to gently raise a question? What does your personal code of ethics say?

An interesting twist in the client/supplier plot is the increasing level we are hearing of external coaches being on the receiving end of this ‘people as things’ thinking. As work is done to homogenise standards, qualifications and approaches, we hear more reports of coaches being treated as commodities: “You’re simply one of many so give us a low price, do a great job (or else…), and don’t expect a personal or long-term relationship – it’s nothing personal, it’s just business.” Exactly.

Of course, for those concerned about the environmental challenges we face (which always become social and economic challenges too, but anyway…) the deeper problem is that our culture currently tends to treat things as things.

But that’s another conversation or muse. n


The Terry Pratchett quotation is from his book Carpe Jugulum: A Discworld Novel: 23, Corgi Books, 1999, p314. Satish Kumar was writing in his book Earth Pilgrim (Green Books, 2009), and again in Resurgence & Ecologist, Mar/Apr 2015.


Dr Alister Scott and Neil Scotton of The One Leadership Project are helping those leading their organisations to ‘Think Beyond’ and ‘Act as One’.
Alister Scott:

Neil Scotton: