Mittel zum Zweck. Means to an end.

Viktor Talashuk on Unsplash

I recall when learning German the phrase Mittel zum ZweckMittel means. Zweckpurpose or end.

Until then I had only known the phrase “the end doesn’t justify the means.” I was fifteen years old when Richard Nixon resigned from the presidency. It was in early August of 1974.

“The end doesn’t justify the means.” That was a commonly used phrase back then. Nixon had misused his power. Regardless of the end, it can never justify the wrong means.

Mittel zum Zweck. Means to an end. The Germans often warn against treating people as a means to an end. And not only the Germans. But it is here in Germany, when learning German, that I first heard this in a phrase.

I often think of that phrase. Not because I am better than anyone else. I am not. Perhaps I think of it often because it is so common. People using other people as a means to their end. I, too, have to warn myself not to see others as a Mittel to my Zweck.

In all honesty, this is not that easy. I am not sure how good I am at it. We have our goals, desires, needs, and fears. They exist. They are legitimate. It is not wrong to look out for ourselves, for our own interests, for the interests of those we are responsible for.

But how to look out? And at what cost? What cost to ourselves and to others?

What does all of this have to do with differences between cultures, for example between Americans and Germans, who are collaborating? You know my articles to be about that. And what does all of this have to do with business?

Well, for one people from different cultures collaborating are people first, people collaborating second, and collaborating in a for-profit business context third.

 Collaboration necessarily means the opportunity – or maybe dilemma is the more precise term – to treat each other as a means to an end, as a Mittel zum Zweck.

Let’s be honest with ourselves, and with each other, who among us can claim that in our many and varied interactions with colleagues, with customers, with suppliers, we often stop and ask ourselves: “Am I treating this other person as a means to my end or as an end in and of him- or herself?”

Folks, I am not a moral theologian or an ethicist or anyone who is any more intelligent or more reflective or more sensitive than any of you are. But I think about these things. And I know that you do, also. So, please allow me to toss out a question:

What would the collaboration among people – with colleagues, customers, suppliers – look like if each of us doubled or tripled the amount of times we paused to question how we are treating each other?

Maybe there is a simpler way to state this question: What would our work – and the results -look like if we treated each other as ends in and of ourselves, and not as means to an end?