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
Democracy has been in the spotlight for years now. Thousands of people in the streets throughout the world demanding political and economic freedom and equality. 

 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,” one protestor’s poster proclaims.  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, which promotes workplace democracy worldwide.  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.  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.
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 in 2008-09,  stagnant wages for the majority of workers for decades and technological transformation that has produced ever-accelerating change, 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 and will continue to impact the global economy.
  • The unabated decline in trust.  Since the 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 

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 Harvard Business Review  article, author Umair Haque, wrote,  “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.”

 Now that’s bold!  

Thanks for reading!
Louise Altman, Intentional Communication Consultants
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