Thought Catalysts: Bob Chapman on Human Language in the Workplace

November 9, 2016 Bob Chapman, Speakers' Spotlight

There are leaders and then there are followers. Generally the idea is to be the former. 

But perhaps it's worth a shot to look at this phrase the other way around. Maybe to be a leader, it's worth being a follower. 

The people who lead the way with awesome ideas and unique talents did so by acquiring knowledge and applying it in new and interesting ways. We all need to learn stuff to lead stuff. And those who do it best inspire others to act. 

They are Thought Catalysts. Here they are as told by the movers and shakers from Speakers' Spotlight


You see it in almost every news story when companies merge or there’s a takeover. A CEO will talk about “expense synergies” between the two entities, brought on by savings through a reduction of “head count.”

Head count? Why do we refer to our people as we would cattle? Words matter. As I’ve written many times before, the language of business is broken.

At Barry-Wehmiller, we count hearts, not heads.

Every month, our Culture & People Development Team compiles a report we call a “Heart Count,” to track retention and turnover in our companies. This naming convention helps us keep in perspective what’s really important: those team members aren’t just numbers on a page; they’re more than 11,000 lives in our care, each someone’s precious child.

Several years ago while visiting a military base, out of curiosity, I asked the general in charge, “How do you train or condition people to ‘kill’ other people?” His answer was, “We don’t, we teach them to ‘take out targets that made bad decisions.’”

We do the same thing in business. The military uses language to dehumanize the taking of lives. We refer to people as “head count” to dehumanize them. When we “reduce headcount” we have de-humanized the act of hurting people by “laying them off.” We don’t have to think about their lives, their responsibilities or their family. If we truly cared about the people whose lives are entrusted to us, we would know the damage we are doing to people.

In a recent profile of Barry-Wehmiller by Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, Professor Dylan Minor points out that in manufacturing, workers are often looked at “as just a cog in the wheel.”

While visiting our BW Container Systems facility in Romeoville, Ill, the Kellogg School team was able to witness Truly Human Leadership firsthand. Minor said that Barry-Wehmiller has a competitive edge in our industry because “it’s not the norm to really value people and try to make a great place to work.”

When you focus on people as people, instead of just ‘head count,’ it makes a difference. Not just in your business, but in a very real way in people’s everyday lives.


Bob Chapman is CEO and chairman of Barry-Wehmiller Companies and has a passion for creating fulfilling work environments. To read more of his posts, visit his page on Speakers' Spotlight. To have Bob speak at your next function, email Speakers' Spotlight at 

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