The Commodification of Human Decency

Many ideas spring up in the world of management and organisational behaviour aimed at ‘treating people better’ – humanely. Very few of these, if any, are really new. Mostly, they stem from basic human values, which might be called humanistic values. Even humanistic values – embodied in the ‘third force’ of psychology known as humanistic psychology – are not new. They can be found in philosophy and religion, in The Golden Rule, for example – the principle of treating others as you want to be treated.

Humanistic psychology is best known for its influence on counselling, psychotherapy and personal development, through early theorists and practitioners such as Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers, Rollo May and Fritz Perls. But it has also influenced management and organisational theory and practice. Maslow and Rogers were particularly influential early figures. Humanistic psychology in organisations was meant to be underpinned by deep reflection, discussion and personal growth. Instead, it often underwent a bureaucratising and ‘tooling’ process – an efficiency-thoroughness trade-off (and more lately, in a reversal of Maslow’s holism, a reductive obsession with neuroscience).

But as reported by Montuori and Purser (2015), both Maslow and Rogers were concerned with unintended consequences and the trivialisation of humanistic psychology. An example can be found in the concept and practice of ‘active listening’, described by Carl Rogers and Richard Farson (1957).

In the field of organizational development, the literature has shifted toward more utilitarian tools and techniques… (p. 724)

Although Rogers intended active listening to be a transformative vehicle for moving toward greater democracy, participation, and actualization, in actual practice active listening was reduced to yet another management “tool” in the service of maintaining and upholding existing power relations and bureaucratic organizational structures. (p. 727)

Montuori and Purser (2015)

Another more famous example, described by Bridgman, Cummings, and Ballard (2018), can be found in Maslow’s ‘hierarchy of needs’, which was never depicted as a triangle or pyramid by Maslow. Instead, it was depicted by Keith Davis (1957) as a series of steps in ‘Human Relations in Business’, and later as a triangle by Charles McDermid (1960) in his article, ‘How Money Motivates Men’. As Brigman et al explained, “McDermid (1960: 98) advised managers to use Maslow’ s theory of motivation, which ‘can be arranged’ as a pyramid (p. 94) to evaluate the needs of their employees and adjust compensation packages accordingly.” (p. 87).

So, ‘humanistic’ became ‘pseudohumanistic’, then ‘bureauhumanistic’. Ways of thinking underwent a tooling process that often stripped their original depth and meanings. Instead of simultaneously disrupting organisational power structures, adaptations of humanistic psychology were sometimes used actively to reinforce them. This has been a concern of mine while teaching ‘systems thinking’. A rush to acquire and use ‘tools’ can subvert the underlying thinking, which is far more important. Any tool can be used violently.

More recent humanistic concepts relating to organisational functioning include ‘just culture’ and ‘psychological safety’. Neither is a new idea. The ideas of justice and fairness are probably as old as the idea of safety. Even the newer, more humanistic variation of ‘restorative just culture’ is a simple reframing of restorative justice.

The term ‘psychological safety’ is older than many would realise. While recently popularised by Amy Edmonson (2018) in The Fearless Organisation, psychological safety is rooted in family theory and many approaches to counselling and psychotherapy, as well as management. In an organisational context, it appears that the term was coined – albeit in passing – in 1965 by Edgar Schein and Warren Bennis, who mentioned a “culture” and “climate” of psychological safety in their book Personal and Organizational Change. It was later defined as “the ability to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career” by Kahn (1990, p. 708).

What is new is the labels. The combination of ‘just’ and ‘culture’, and ‘psychological’ and ‘safety’ makes something (that seems) new, even if it is really just a popularisation of older ideas to a new context or audience, with a different slant, perhaps. And that’s fine. Whole books have since been written about such ideas. This is a good thing. It is necessary to shine a light on values and ideas that are expressions of humanistic values, or even The Golden Rule. Sometimes we forget or neglect the basics of human decency, or goal conflicts mean that we trade aspects of them off against other values.

We sometimes even need to add bureaucratic and technocratic machinations to such concepts. For instance, organisations have adopted just culture decision aids and committees, reflecting a sort of judicial code and jury. This seems to be needed to assist the integrity of deliberations. I’m not completely comfortable with some technocratic developments, but equally my own preference for humanistic approaches involving depth of understanding and empathic discussion is subject to other human tendencies that can act against fairness. Such approaches also carry a heavy burden of personal, group and organisational development, that few organisations appear willing to invest in to the extent necessary for genuine change.

We also know that several dysfunctional aspects of organisations and professions work against depth of reflection, empathy and discussion. Organisational contexts and structures can be hostile to humanistic values and principles. The ‘bureaumorphising’ effects of organisational culture, along with phenomena such as déformation professionnelle and trained incapacity, mean that our organisational and professional upbringing can have a dysfunctional effect on ways of being, as human beings.

And so there is a tension between humanistic ways of thinking and being, and bureaucratised, manualised and commodified tools. There is no perfect way to integrate certain aspects of human decency into an organisational setting since there will always be competing goals and different perspectives on issues. And some individuals and groups with significant power will work against these values.

But we now see humanistic concepts like ‘psychological safety’ transformed into trade-marks, tools, competency levels, certification schemes, belts, and the like. These sometimes look like crass attempts to commodify and commercialise human decency. My heart sinks a little when I see some of these. Who do they benefit? The curricularisation, certification, and call-off contract support for trademarked versions of human decency create revenue streams and external dependency, but do they create care?

We might draw from experience of practices such as ‘active listening’, when structural and cultural issues were not addressed in tandem, or as a prerequisite:

Even many well-meaning efforts to apply active listening were often ineffective when they occurred within an inhospitable organizational context and in conjunction with inconsistent norms and organizational structures that were antithetical to the idea of developing greater individual creativity and responsibility. It should come as no surprise why so many humanistic organizational development initiatives at the microlevel were doomed to failure from the start. … Transformational theories and concepts become trivialized when they are reduced to being merely tools, techniques, or rhetorical slogans, especially when they are used unreflectively within organizational settings.

Montuori and Purser (2015), p. 727

We might draw further from the writings of those who have described the disabling effects of professionalism in communities, such as Ivan Illich, John McKnight, and Cormac Russell. As McKnight (1995) wrote in The Careless Society:

“Care cannot be produced, provided, managed, organized, administered, or commodified. Care is the only thing the system cannot produce. Every institutional effort to replace the real thing is a counterfeit.”

McKnight (1995)

So we should recognise that institutional efforts to produce, provide, manage, organise, administer, or commodify basic human decency come at great risk. At best, they may help to administer a process of attending to people’s needs. At worst, they are counterfeits that masquerade as the real thing, while ultimately subverting it.

That doesn’t mean that efforts should not be made, and processes put in place, to try to uphold humanistic values and human decency in organisations. But we should do so reflexively and mindfully via humble inquiry into the nature of our problems and opportunities, incorporating contextual conversations about human work and organisations as systems. Reading, reflection and discussion are necessary to help bring to light neglected aspects of human decency. But humanistic values cannot fully be manualised and implemented as a project, only lived and expressed with authenticity and meaning as a way of being.


I chose the word ‘decency’ for this post deliberately. I wanted a word that was less obvious, less (over-)used and less limited than ‘care’, less soft than ‘kindness’, and with a nod to dignity, thoughtfulness, fairness, honesty and honour. I was also looking for something more old-fashioned, somehow preceding many of the modern iterations of the sorts of ideas I was referring to. When I was younger, people would say “that’s very decent of you”, meaning “you did the right thing by me/them”.

About stevenshorrock

This blog is written by Dr Steven Shorrock. I am interdisciplinary humanistic, systems and design practitioner interested in human work from multiple perspectives. My main interest is human and system behaviour, mostly in the context of safety-related organisations. I am a Chartered Ergonomist and Human Factors Specialist with the CIEHF and a Chartered Psychologist with the British Psychological Society. I currently work as a human factors and safety specialist in air traffic control in Europe. I am also Adjunct Associate Professor at University of the Sunshine Coast, Centre for Human Factors & Sociotechnical Systems, and Honorary Clinical Tutor at the University of Edinburgh. I blog in a personal capacity. Views expressed here are mine and not those of any affiliated organisation, unless stated otherwise. You can find me on twitter at @stevenshorrock or email contact[at]humanisticsystems[dot]com.
This entry was posted in Culture, Humanistic Psychology and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.