Wicked Skills: From I-It to I-Thou

By | August 5, 2017



July 30, 2017

Larry Tyler was discouraged.  He was also depressed.  Even though he had met his sales budget for the year – just barely – he was not among the elite group of Xerox salespeople in the Cleveland District who were planning to celebrate their successes at a company gala in Palm Springs in January.  His discouragement came not so much from his disappointment in not making it to Palm Springs, but from the fact that this was the third of the last four years that he had missed the cut.  His depression came from deeper concerns.  Over the past several years he had begun to suspect that he was never going to be a first-rank salesperson.  Maybe it was time to face up to the disconcerting possibility that he didn’t have what it takes to be among the elite.  Was it time to try something else?  What else could he do?  Selling was all he knew, all he had ever done.  And yet during the past year he had tried everything- followed every lead, pulled every trick, gone back again and again to his best customers practically begging them to buy more copiers before the end of the year.  It hadn’t been enough.  He knew that in his boss’s eyes, he was among the second-raters.

But even though he wouldn’t be going to Palm Springs, he would keep selling.  He needed the money.  And so, on a cold, dreary day in December, he was on the road, driving east from Cleveland to the small town of Mentor, Ohio.  He was on his way to visit John O’Neill, who had recently retired from Avery Dennison, his best corporate customer, and who wanted to buy a copier for his home office.  Actually, it made little sense to make the trip.  The trip to Palm Springs was gone and the money he would earn in commission would almost be used up by his travel expenses.  But Larry was a salesman.  It was what he did.

O’Neill answered the door dressed in jeans and a black designer sweater. Polite and soft-spoken, he looked a little younger than Larry.  Listening to O’Neill’s answers to his question about what kind of machine he was interested in – “I do a little real estate, some stocks and bonds” – Larry realized at once that John had no idea what kind of copier would be suitable. “Here was one of the easiest marks in the history of office equipment sales,” Larry thought to himself.  ”I could sell him anything and he would be none the wiser.”  The prospect of making more money than he had anticipated was a pleasant surprise.  He took out the brochures for the Model 5018 and began his smooth, well-practiced sales pitch.  Suddenly the phone rang.

But let me interrupt for a moment…

The Business of America is Business

In 1953, Charles E. Wilson, CEO of General Motors, was President Eisenhower’s choice to be Secretary of Defense.  In his confirmation hearings in the Senate, he was asked if he planned to sell his General Motors stock and avoid any hint of a conflict of interest.  Sell his stock?  Wilson was puzzled.  ”…for years I thought that what was good for America was good for General Motors.”

Critics of Big Business’s power and influence in America seized upon Wilson’s comment and turned it into “What’s good for General Motors is good for America,” a phrase that reeked with arrogance and contempt for America.

Today, few people see General Motors, or Sears, or General Electric for that matter, at the center of the tensions between Big Business and the American Society.   Most of the critics would undoubtedly single out Wall Street and the power of Big Banks as the tail that is wagging the dog.

Customer is King

Now, in the Brave New World of the Internet, Uber, Airbnb, Google and Facebook, the core idea that “The Business of America is Business” is even more dominant than ever before.  And in the diverse worlds of business, there is no question that it is the customer who is the target.  Management consultant and guru Peter Drucker made that clear in 1954.  In The Practice of Management, he wrote, “There is only one valid definition of a business purpose:  to create a customer…the customer is the foundation of a business and keeps it in existence.”

While many people are engaged in selling – trying to convince others to buy, rent, use or consume the product, services or ideas they offer – every one of us is a buyer.  Call us customers, clients, consumers, or end users, dozens of times a day, and sometimes many more, we decide whether or not to buy – something!.  And it is not only the people in business who are selling:  teachers, doctors, psychologists, leaders, and politicians are also in the business of selling – to their students, patients, clients, employees and citizens. Our lives are full social exchanges, not all of them of them commercial:  Someone wants to sell us something and we must decide if what we give in return is worth it.

I-It and I-Thou Relationships

In Ich und Du (I and Thou), published in 1923, philosopher and theologian Martin Buber introduced two radical ideas:  First, it is in our relationships with others that we approach holiness on earth; and second, our relationships fall into one of two categories.  The first type is I-Thou, patterned after one’s relationship with God, in which people treat each as persons of value in their own right, worthy of respect, compassion and love.  In an I-Thou relationship people are understood to be sacred, authentic human beings and judging, evaluating, using or manipulating them is unacceptable.

Buber’s second relationship type is I-It, one that is primarily instrumental in nature.  I-It relationships are based on ends that go beyond the relationship itself.  Rather than seeing others as holy or sacred, in the I-It relationship people are objectified as customers or clients, subject to being influenced toward one’s own purposes:  Customers are influenced toward buying one’s products and services; students in the classroom are influenced into accepting their instructor’s ideas; patients come to the medical clinic to be influenced by physicians’ diagnoses and treatments; employees at work are influenced to accept management’s directions.

Establishing and maintaining I-Thou relationships with others is difficult, requiring the practice of such virtues as understanding, patience, forgiveness, compassion and acceptance, while I-It relationships are relatively easy by comparison. They are suited to the kind of society in which we live.  When the other person is an “It” – an object – there is little need to reveal one’s real purpose and motives.  There are many incentives to take advantage of the situation.  The I-It relationship also has its negative consequences:  we neither expect nor appreciate being treated as if we were objects and so the relationship suffers.  In Working, author Studs Turkel captured the feelings that come from being in I-It relationships at work:

“For many, there is a hardly concealed discontent…’I'm a
a machine,’ says the spot welder.  ’I'm caged,’ says the
bank teller…’I'm a mule,’ says the steelworker.  ’I'm less
than a farm implement,’ says the migrant worker.  ’I'm an
object,’ says the high-fashion model.  Blue collar and white
call upon the identical phrase:  ’I'm a robot.’ “

Patients in hospitals and clinics often fare no better.  When Barbara Tonne asked a nurse when she could go home after knee surgery, the nurse replied without missing a beat, “Knees go home after four days.”  Tonne was devastated.  In a letter to the New York Times published on August 18, 2005, she wrote:

“I remember feeling so hurt and angry.  I had the instant
image in my head that I was a knee, sitting in a wheelchair,
not a person but a body part.  It was a very painful memory.”

Selling is Mostly I-It.

Returning to our salesman, Larry Tyler on the bleak December day, the man sitting across from him was, at the beginning at least, not a person but a customer, an “It.”  O’Neill was not only the object of Larry’s sales pitch, he was an object.  As appropriate in an I-It relationship, Larry’s focus was on selling a copier and not on whether John should buy one or on which one he should buy.  In an “I-Thou” relationship we are not “selling” anything to the others, let alone things that they do not need or want.  On the other hand, business is built explicitly upon I-It values.  While there are exceptions, businesses exist primarily to make money for their shareholders by producing and selling goods and services to customers, clients, and end users.  Seeing them as “persons” and making efforts to treat them as such would make business transactions impossible in the long run (although at least in some progressive companies, increasing attention is paid to more extended considerations of both parties to the business transaction).

On that day, like all days, Larry had two objectives:  First, by selling O’Neill a copier, he wanted to make as much money as he could for Xerox and for himself; and second, after making the sale, he wanted to leave his customer satisfied.  Wanting customers to be satisfied after buying the product was not for Larry or Xerox a moral issue but an economic one.  Xerox had trained its salespeople to make sure that their customers felt satisfied primarily so that in the future they would buy more Xerox copiers.

Larry was confident he could meet both objectives.  He could make the most money by selling O’Neill the 5018 model even though he knew that it was bigger, more complicated, and more expensive than O’Neill needed.  And since Larry had decided to offer him only that one copier to choose from, he was confident that O’Neill would be satisfied with whatever he purchased.

From I-It to I-Thou

Without warning, however, things began to change.  The phone rang.

“Is she breathing?” asked O’Neill in an anxious tone.  ”Damn, I’ll be right over.”

He hung up.  Suddenly he looked forlorn, weary and older than his years.  ”My mom has lung cancer,” he said.  ”She lives two doors down.  She’s having a coughing attack.  I’ll have to cut this short.  Do you mind?  I’m really sorry.  Let me fill out the paper work.  I’ve got to go.  She’s hysterical.”

After O’Neill left, Larry looked around the room.  It was clear that the 5018 was too big and too expensive for what O’Neill needed.  It also occurred to him that the money to pay for it was not coming out of someone’s equipment budget, anonymous numbers shifted from one account to another, but “real money” that would come out of O’Neill’s pocket.  Reluctantly he gave up the idea of selling him the 5018 and decided upon the 5014.  There would still be a little money in the deal for him.

When O’Neill returned he said “Okay, where do I sign?  I just need this taken care of.”

“Whoa,” said Larry.  ”I don’t know if you want to lease it or not.” Leasing instead of buying was a favorite tactic of copier salespeople since they would make more money on the deal, something customers would never know unless they carefully read the fine print in the contract.

O’Neill was rushed and unsettled.  He wanted to get back to his mother.  ”No, I want to buy it,” he said.  ”Where do I sign.”  Uncharacteristically, Larry made no effort to convince him to lease.

By now it was Larry who was becoming unsettled.  He could do the “right thing” for his district, for Xerox, and for himself by selling him the 5014, making enough in the transaction to help with Christmas expenses.  But he was aware that he would be selling O’Neill a copier that he didn’t need and perhaps couldn’t afford.

The phone rang again.  ”Hello,” said John.  ”Okay, is she calmed down?  I know you can’t answer me.  Let me see if I can put in words you can say yes or no to.  When she was throwing up was it blood or was it Darvocet?  Mm-mmm.  The fellow here is just about to leave and I’ll be right over.”

Larry found himself in unknown territory. To his surprise, instead of pushing the expensive machine, he began leading John toward the cheapest model that Xerox made, the 5012.  The fact that there would be no money in it for him no longer seemed important.  He started over with the paperwork.  As David Dorsey described it in The Force, “He was going to give the man only what he needed and nothing more – no manipulation, no baked-in payments, no churning of old equipment, no pressure, no mockery of the buyer, no craving to make the trip [to Palm Springs].  John O’Neill was going to get exactly what he wanted and needed.  He, the customer, was going to be served in the best way possible.”

Larry’s Best Day

As he was shown to the door Larry said, “I wish I could have come at a better time.”  John replied, “So do I. This is the worst day of my life, actually.”  Larry was surprised at his feelings of sorrow and empathy for John, a man he didn’t know at all and with whom he had spent no more than an hour.  Later, as Larry reflected upon the experience, it was clear to him that as bad as it had been for John, it had been among his best days ever.  He didn’t make it to Palm Springs, and he didn’t make any money on the deal, but all that didn’t seem to matter.

I-Thou Relationships and Wicked Problems

Most of our day-to-day interactions are I-It relationships.  When we talk to customers, clients, merchants, salespersons, employees, students or patients, we know at one level that they are “persons” but the requirements of the situation require us to see them primarily as “objects.”  The professor fails those students who do not pass the exam; the CEO downsizes the company leaving thousands of unemployed in his wake; the general commands battalions of “troops,” some of whom will be killed or wounded;  salespeople sell products to customers they don’t need or can’t afford, and politicians distort the facts and rely upon “spin” to gain an advantage with the voters.

When it comes to wicked problems, however, I-It relationships are counterproductive. They lead to dead-end situations from which no forward movement is possible.  We get stuck, or worse, we lose ground.  Success with wicked problems requires us to think and act differently, first by agreeing on the problem that concerns us.  This in turn demands that there can be no holding back, no “game playing,” no attempting to gain an advantage over the others.  We are obligated to tell the “truth” as we see it, which means in a wicked problems context reducing the gap between what we see, hear, think, believe, prefer and know and what we say!  When others express opinions about important issues that are different than our own, we are obligated to disagree, even if our disagreements lead us into conflict and, at times, confrontation.  And perhaps most difficult of all, success with wicked problems, however this is determined, means trusting others to hold up their end of an I-Thou bargain:  Express openly what they are thinking; tell it truthfully; explore creatively many possibilities, some of which may be “far out;” disagree when appropriate, confront when necessary, move toward consensus, and stay at the table until all agree that we have done the  ”best work” possible.

Wicked Problem?  I-Thou is Best

Larry Tyler’s experience in selling a copier to John O’Neill, while unusual, is instructive.  Even though the “Rules of the Game” are based upon I-It values, moving from seeing the other as customer to person is not only appropriate but desirable.  Yet in our professional roles most of the time we are expected us to participate in I-It relationships.  There are some notable exceptions, among which are psychotherapy and religious counseling.  Both are professions based upon ministering to hundreds of clients or parishioners, and yet seeing each  individual as a person is their preeminent value.   Most of the time, however, when we are teaching, leading, commanding, and managing, we see through I-It lenses.  Rather than persons, we see students, citizens, soldiers and employees and treat them accordingly.

Although Larry Tyler’s dilemma was essentially a moral problem, there is an important learning here for dealing with wicked problems. When we grapple with wicked problems, we need to attend to new rules , specifically I-Thou rules.  In addressing wicked problems – the most difficult of issues  - we need to begin by identifying a small group of people with whom to work – wicked problems can never be addressed successfully by large gatherings, mobs or multitudes.   We insist upon the values of openness and honesty.  We work to establish and maintain trust. We not only accept, but value differences and conflict. We understand that collaboration is the only way forward.  And we keep working until we have before us a plan to be implemented that we all can agree on.

If we can make this happen, if we can bring to our struggles with a specific wicked problem the values of Buber’s I-Thou relationship – patience, compassion, authenticity, understanding, forgiveness, honesty – then there is a good chance that not only will we make progress toward our goals, but that at some future date, we will turn to each other and say “That was one of our best days ever!”

(The story of Larry Tyler was adapted from The Force, by David Dorsey, and published by Ballentine Books in 1994)





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