Why Objectification of People Is Rampant at Work - Ideas for Leaders
Idea #833

Why Objectification of People Is Rampant at Work

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Photo by Noelle Rebekah on Unsplash
Photo by Noelle Rebekah on Unsplash


People are more likely to be objectified and to objectify others at work than outside of work. Objectification is the treatment of people as objects—objects to be used, for example, or objects that are replaceable, or objects that have no control over what happens to them. The root cause of objectification is the calculative and strategic thinking that dominates the workplace, where relationships are often based on how individuals can use others to achieve goals.


People treat each other differently at work than in non-work settings, and with good reason: they are work colleagues brought together solely to accomplish the work necessary for their jobs. They are not loved ones, family, or even close friends who come together for personal reasons. Work relationships, however, can veer too far from the affection and attachment of personal relations and descend into objectification.

Objectification is the act of treating others as objects. For example, an individual might interact with another person if that person is useful to them—a feature of objectification known as ‘instrumentality’, that is, treating another person as instrumental to one’s needs. Six other features of objectification include treating others as: lacking agency (they can’t act or think on their own); lacking experience (they don’t feel pain or pleasure); lacking autonomy (they have no freedom of choice); property (they are commodities); being fungible (they are interchangeable); and being violable (their physical well-being doesn’t matter).

Through a series of six empirical studies, Peter Belmi of the University of Virginia and Juliana Schroeder of the University of California, Berkeley show that objectification is more likely to occur in a work relationship than in a non-work relationship. Calculative and strategic thinking, their studies show, is the basis for the prevalence of objectification in work relationships That is, individuals at work consider the costs and benefits of each action they take or decision they make—e.g., How much will I gain or stand to lose by saying this? Will taking this action help me achieve my goals?

In one study, for example, more than 200 participants were shown pictures of six different people in either a work or non-work environment. Below each picture, participants were asked whether in the environment shown (work or non-work) they would act calculatively and/or strategically. The participants were then asked to rate their agreement with five statements relating to the objectification of the person in the picture (e.g., “This person could be an instrument for accomplishing things”; “This person is disposable once he/she is no longer useful”). Analysis of the results showed that the participants were more likely to act calculatively and strategically in a work environment and tended to objectify the individuals pictured in a work environment.

In another study, participants who were ‘nudged’ to think less calculatively and strategically (“You’ve decided to go to a meeting… without actively calculating whether it will be worth investing your time in this person”) were less likely to objectify the person in the meeting than those who did not receive such encouragement.

To further explore the core reasons for objectification at work, the researchers conducted a study that incorporated eight situation dimensions—such as ‘duty’ (situations in which things need to get done), ‘adversity’ (situations that include threats and conflicts), or ‘positivity’ (situations that are pleasant)—that might encourage or discourage calculative and strategic thinking. This study showed that certain situational dimensions—notably situations with more duty, negativity (unpleasant situations) and deception (situations in which people could be lying or deceptive)—elicited more calculative and strategic thinking and more objectifying.

Additional studies identified the consequences of objectification in the workplace. In one study, for example, respondents who reported seeing, experiencing, and engaging in objectification were less likely to feel as if they belonged in the organization, less likely to be satisfied in their jobs, and more likely to consider leaving. They were also more likely to be uncivil to others and less likely to engage in prosocial behaviour. In another study, participants expressed less interest in joining companies whose mission statements gave them the impression that employees were objectified.


The high rates of disengagement by employees, and the subsequent challenges of recruitment and retention, have been a recurring and tenacious problem for companies for many years. Increasing rates of incivility and conflict in the workplace is another important issue that can significantly undermine job satisfaction and productivity. While the root causes of both disengagement and incivility can be debated, this study makes a strong case that the little-noticed prevalence of people treating others in the workplace as objects contributes to the problems afflicting today’s workplace. Business leaders can reduce the fallout by first recognizing that a workplace will prime people to objectify others. As a result, they must be vigilant in responding to signs of the seven features of objectification described in this study. Professional and leadership development courses that address the potential for objectification can also improve an organization’s culture and work environment.



Human ‘resources’? Objectification at work. Peter Belmi and Juliana Schroeder. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (February 2021).



Further Relevant Resources:
Peter Belmi’s profile at UVA Darden School of Business


Juliana Schroeder’s profile at Berkeley Hass School of Business


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Idea conceived

March 24, 2021

Idea posted

Nov 2022
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