21st Century Workplaces – Democracies or Autocracies?

“Most
of us don’t think about workplace rights. We think because we live in
America we have the rights we need. There are no constitutional
protections in the workplace.  Federal laws protect you from being fired
because of race, gender or disability, but it doesn’t protect you for
saying the boss is overworking you or the company’s actions are immoral.
You can’t say that sort of thing in the workplace because the workplace
is not a democracy.”   
                    Thom Hartmann, Author

 

Lately there’s been a great deal of
attention paid to democracy. Everyone’s talking about it.  Millions have
watched the coverage of the historic protests in Egypt, where hundreds
of thousands of people have courageously taken to the streets demanding
political and economic freedom.

 In
fact, we see a rising tide of citizens across the globe expressing
their growing discontent with the old order – “the ways of the Old Men
are dying,” as one young Egyptian journalist put it.  

While the
voices for political and economic democracy are getting louder – way,
way down under the radar screen there’s another trend brewing. It’s
taking shape in different ways – unfolding slowly but surely.  It’s a
nascent but potent idea – workplace democracy.

 I’m
not suggesting that anywhere in the corridors of today’s C-suites
there’s a clamoring for more democratic workplaces.  Even the most
enlightened leaders recognize that this concept is unshaped, inherently
problematic (especially for the powers that be) and inevitably messy (as
real democracy usually is).

 But the signs that the “old order” is giving way to something else are everywhere.

 What is Workplace Democracy? 

Traci Fenton, founder of World Blu, promotes workplace democracy worldwide. She explains:   “The
word democracy usually conjures up images of voting booths, political
pundits and town hall meetings. When we hear “democracy,” we often think
“politics.”  But organizational democracy is a system of organization
that’s based on freedom, instead of fear and control. It’s a way of
designing organizations to amplify the possibilities of human potential –
and the organization as a whole.” 

If you are involved in any way in
management issues today – you hear the word engagement being used quite
often.  Everyone’s either complaining about worker disengagement or
looking for ways to “re-engage” employees.    Polls done in recent years
show that worker engagement continues to decline.  In January 2010,
Time Magazine reported that only 45 % of Americans said they were
satisfied with their jobs, the lowest since such surveys began in 1987. 

While there are many variables that contribute to this decline, the bottom line is that at least half (some figures are much higher) of the employees polled report they are unhappy with their jobs.  

 The Long Shadow of Workplaces of the Past

Let’s face it – the basic meme that
governs work today is the same one that’s kept people in the same place
for a long time.  It goes like this:  When you choose to work for
someone else (at will – so to speak), you agree to take on a job or a
task and execute it in order to make a profit or desired outcome for the
person that pays you.   That’s the essential agreement and belief that
still drives most work.

The “modern” era of the workplace debuted in the early 20th century
when the need for greater and more complex production demanded a
different style of work.  Enter – Fredrick Winslow Taylor – the first
consultant to practice “scientific management,” a revolutionary movement
that proposed the reduction of waste through the careful study of work.

The American workplace (the gold
standard for efficient work for nearly a century) hummed along for
nearly 50 years informed by Taylor’s principles and practices.  As
Taylorism synthesized with WWII’s strategic planning models, a new style
emerged in the post-war era that still forms the fundamentals of the
dominant management model of today.  Top down styles still rule, power
is still concentrated in small numbers and information is still shared
on a need to know basis.

In her  ’09 post, Gwyn Teatro (You’re Not the Boss of Me) wrote,” I’ve have
long believed that too much of the population goes to work, and goes
home again, having no sense of either purpose or satisfaction.  I
suspect too, that neither do they make contributions worthy of their
capabilities. For people in this situation,  it is more about making a
living, than living a life, and while that may have been acceptable to
some people of my generation, (even grudgingly so), it is probably not
enough for the current generation of workers who fully expect to have a
voice in matters that affect them.”
  

“Because things are the way they are –

they will not stay the way they are.”  Bertold Brecht

The signs
are everywhere. They may not scream out “give us workplace democracy,”
but these signs indicate that seismic shifts are happening in the world
of work.  Common terms like “work-life balance,” “corporate
responsibility, “globalization,” “talent retention” and “work-flex” were
not even a part of the corporate lexicon a generation ago.

Despite being battered by a global
recession, stagnant wages and brutal job losses, polls continue to show
that workers still want to derive more meaning and recognition from
their work.  The majority of workers mistrust their senior leaders, are
skeptical about corporate morality and dislike the intrusion of
management on their autonomy.

Indomitable trends that will reshape the workplace landscape:

  • The continuous impact of technology and social media
  • The
    generational tidal wave that has already begun.  Millennials are the
    largest generation to enter the workforce since the Baby Boomers.  Of
    the 76.4 million Boomers (33% of the current workforce) 83% say they
    will continue to work (in what capacity, we don’t know).  By 2030, 70
    million Americans will be 65 (20-25% of the population) and their
    economic behaviors will have a huge impact on the future economy.
  • The global
    awakening of the desire for political and economic democracy – a
    sleeping giant that has shown its power in the recent upheavals in
    Tunisia and Egypt – how these dynamics will impact the global economy is
    unknown.
  • The
    unabated decline in trust.  In the post-Enron decade, institutional
    trust levels have steadily eroded.  These paradigm shifting trends will
    impact everything from worker expectations to consumer behaviors.
  • The slow death of autocratic leadership – growing indicators highlight the desire for new leadership models.
    Those who are “led” want more authentic leadership, greater
    participation and economic parity (in ’80 the ratio between the highest
    paid compensation and the lowest (Fortune 500) was 42 – 1. By 2000 it
    had risen to 500 – 1.  

What’s Needed – The Building Blocks of Workplace Democracy

  • Real transparency – sharing of information, strategies, planning, fiscal practices
  • Shared process of defining, developing and acting on vision, purpose and mission
  • More
    economic parity and revenue sharing  – not too many entry-level workers
    expect to make what the CEO does (if CEO’s will still exist as such in
    the new workplace?) but they know that the disparity is enormous
  • Real decentralization of power – despite the “flattening” of corporate hierarchies, most power is still concentrated at the top
  • Recognition of the “whole person” at work – time to drop all of these 19th beliefs about work life vs. “personal life.”  The information we now have from recent neuroscience renders that thinking anachronistic.
  • Develop
    relevant (meaning driven by the real needs of a given workplace)
    work-life balance.  While the “work-flex” movement may have been stalled
    during the recession, the legitimate and life-affirming needs of workers aren’t going away.
  • Develop and manage with meaning in
    mind.  Every single survey and study proves that when employees
    understand and participate in shared purpose – engagement levels rise.
  • Give workers greater autonomy, access, choice and accountability.

The workplace isn’t going to be
transformed overnight. And workplace democracy is a big, bold idea with
lots of detractors. But the reality is that tinkering at the edges of
change doesn’t seem well suited to the current era of instant
information and demand.

While the fledgling movement is still
tiny, it points the way to greater vision of what work can be in the
future – human centric, values-based, ethical, creative, energizing and
most important authentic enterprises.  

In his recent post, The Shape of the Meaning Organization, Harvard Business Review blogger, Umair Haque charts a daring vision of the new corporate future, “Companies
are going to have to get lethally serious about having an enduring,
meaningful, resonant, multiplying, positive proliferating set of impacts
– of all types, whether social, human, intellectual, spiritual,
creative or relational. An isolated notion of “profit” is obsolete: it’s
an arid industrial-age conception of a currency-focused construct
that’s built to trivialize everything but what a firm owes its “owners”
(its employees, society, community, environment, the future, even its
own bigger purpose can all go to blazes). In the 21st
century, we’re discovering the hard way just how threadbare and barren a
prosperity that tired, lame, stale idea led to. Hence, the significance
team, concerned foremost with creating and delivering benefits that
matter in human terms.”
 

Wow. Now that’s bold!  

What do you think?

As always we welcome your comments and questions. Thanks for subscribing, tweeting and sharing this post with others!

 Louise Altman, Intentional Communication Partners

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