Peter Belmi, University of Virginia – Objectification at Work

How does the culture of the workplace affect objectification of employees?

Peter Belmi, assistant professor of business administration at the University of Virginia, looks into this question.

Peter Belmi is an assistant professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior at the University Of Virginia Darden School Of Business. He received his Ph.D. in Organizational Behavior from the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University. Peter was named one of the “40 Best Business Professors Under 40” by Poets & Quants and one of the “30 emerging thinkers with the potential to make lasting contributions to management theory and practice” by Thinkers50. He also received the University of Virginia’s Mead-Colley Award in 2018 and the Faculty Diversity Award in 2020.

Belmi is interested in the causes and consequences of inequality, why it tends to persist and how it affects people’s subjective experiences. His work has been featured by The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg Businessweek, Fortune, Forbes, NPR, Huffington Post, Newsweek, the Financial Times, Marketwatch, Priceonomics, Public Radio International, The Boston Globe, Medium and Harvard Business Review. He teaches an MBA elective called “The Paths to Power” and the MBA First Year core course on “Leading Organizations.

Objectification at Work

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The coronavirus pandemic has forced millions of Americans to work from home, prompting a nationwide conversation about workplace culture. In my research with Juliana Schroeder from U.C. Berkeley, we found that one of the leading causes of employee dissatisfaction is experiencing objectification at work.

Many people have told us that they’ve felt objectified at work in some way: For example, being valued solely on what they can produce, being treated as though they cannot make the best decision for themselves, and neglecting their capacity to experience pain, pleasure, and complex emotions. Our research indicates that objectification is pervasive because most workplaces tend to emphasize calculative thinking. In the United States, the common understanding of business is that everything is about profit. So, when people are in business settings, they tend to apply the same logic to their social relationships: I’ll spend time with you, but only if you’re useful to me. The result: People at work often feel like they are treated more like objects and less like real human beings.

Of course, not all workplaces promote objectification to the same degree. We find that we see more objectification when companies prioritize results and outperforming competitors. By contrast, we see less objectification when companies build respect, cooperation, and collaboration into their culture. We also find that people tend to objectify their co-workers when their most important priority is getting things done; when the work that they are doing is unpleasant; and when they find themselves wondering whether they can trust others.

During periods of crisis, we tend to focus on ourselves, making it easy to forget that other people have experiences that are just as real and as complex as ours. So, an important lesson of this research is that during this time, it becomes more important to pause and ask others, “What’s in your heart and mind?”

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