Julian Barnes begins his book, Levels of Life, with the following words:

You put two things together that have not been put together before. And the world is changed.

I experienced this recently: on one hand the opinion of a young executive, on the other Jean-Paul Sartre’s preface to Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth.

And it’s not so much that anything changed, but rather that something I thought I already knew was made crystal clear to me.

During the day in question – the day these two things came together – I was facilitating a brandstorm. We came to the bit where we identified and prioritised stakeholders and the usual debate ensued: do customers or employees come first?

A young executive voiced his opinion saying that we had to segment employees into management and others because their expectations were so different. ‘They’ he felt were different to ‘us’ in management because they were out to get whatever they could from the enterprise in exchange for giving back as little as possible.

I was surprised because I thought that a young person with so obviously a privileged background would have a more liberal attitude.

There was a lot of disagreement in the room and constructive conversation, but I carried that executive’s opinion with me on my flight back home.

On the flight, I began reading Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth. I was motivated to do this by having heard him often quoted and by hoping he would give me insight into decolonisation of the mind. (As an aside: he does.)

The book begins with a preface by Jean-Paul Sartre and it was his introduction to Fanon that addressed the concern I was feeling about the young executive’s comments about ‘them’ and ‘us’.

Consider what Sartre writes:

“During the last century (he would be referring to the 19th century), the middle classes looked on the workers as covetous creatures, made lawless by their greedy desires; but they took care to include these great brutes in our own species, or at least they considered that they were free men – that is to say, free to sell their labour.”

A bit embarrassing as one reads it, the ‘them and us’, but to be frank it is a view often expressed by management: that the labourer sells the company his labour, negotiates the best price he can get either individually or collectively, and that’s that.

But Sartre goes on to write that “when you domesticate a member of our own species, you reduce his output, and however little you may give him, a farmyard man finishes by costing more than he brings in.”

If the employee is not to be domesticated, subdued into a position of a basic transaction where grudging work is exchanged for a job then he or she has to be given motivation that goes beyond a salary and benefits.

There has to be a return that is more than just the negotiated salary or else the whole arrangement becomes one of working as little as possible for the best return that can be gained and, when there is dissatisfaction, withholding that labour.

There has to be purpose.

And the purpose must be shared by all levels of employees, from the managing director to the sweeper and the young executive in-between. Then there will be no ‘us’ and ‘them’, but just ‘all of us’ pursuing a shared purpose.

I already knew this, but a conversation between a very ‘now’ young executive and a philosopher’s advice echoing over fifty years of time brought it into sharp focus.

I thank them both.

For whatever the enterprise, be it the local entrepreneur, the multi-national or a country, there has to be this ownership of purpose, a drive towards something that is a shared value proposition. Especially so in a society such as ours, where a history of division still causes such dissonance.

Which brings me back to Barnes and putting two things together: any organisation will benefit if the ‘them’ and ‘us’ are brought together by a purposefully-driven culture.


This article first appeared in People Dynamics, the official publication of the Institute of People Management.

By Johnny Johnson, Brand and communications strategist