Here comes the revolution? Getting to thriving, productive workplaces for all

March 2017

Cynicism often seems the fall-back position in the industrialised west, despite the official rhetoric of optimism and progress. As I noted in my earlier blog on the honourable life, even analyses from the left tend to be sceptical that power imbalances could be addressed, that the rules of commerce and the self-interest of the powerful may be made to respect the dignity of all, let alone tackle the grave planetary dangers of our time.

But here to remind us of the better angels of our nature is a quite remarkable book. In it, the question of truly honouring the ‘collective integrity of an entire work community living by its principles’ (p. 183) is a core, genuine concern.

AnEveryoneCulture

Intended as an ‘existence proof’ that it is possible to align the workers’ interests in self-development, meaningful work, and even flourishing, with business success An everyone culture does much more than document and analyse such successful experiments, although it does that brilliantly. As I am going to try to show in this brief review the evidence they present and their analytical case contain intriguing suggestions for solving old polarities and difficulties in industrialised societies, as Marx would put it, ‘at a higher level of consciousness.’

As we know, the possibility of exploitation is a structural condition in capitalism, due to skewed property relations. As the Marxian analysis goes, like any commodity, labour is purchased in one moment, at its exchange value, while for the duration of its employment, the labour’s actual use value remains largely under the control of capitalists and their agents. This has been a dynamic tension, of course, and worker solidarity, protest and organisation have won concessions over time. The historical trend has been for terms and conditions of labour contracts to improve. The front lines in this struggle for control over labour have thus moved from working hours, to health and safety, to holidays, to length of contracts and so on.

Moreover, the tactics of everyday resistance in workplaces are as old as workplaces themselves. They have entailed a certain amount of ‘getting one’s own back’, be it in the form of dragging one’s feet, petty theft, shirking and what not. Quite evidently, not everybody thinks that not giving the capitalists all you’ve got is such a bad thing. And indeed, this underlying struggle for control is the very subject of many studies in management which inevitably acknowledge that getting the most out of the labour force is no easy matter. An everyone culture recognises this tension, noting that in a conventional workplace, employees do two jobs – the actual work and the work of hiding their limitations, the work of appearing in a positive light, managing the politics surrounding the work. And, ‘the longer you successfully hide your limitations, the longer the company has to pay for them’ (p. 229). In the case of the deliberately developmental organisations (DDOs) presented in this book, this very front line, the boundary between worker autonomy and collective, organisational effort is recast as the spring of superior productivity and human development.

DDOs say, actually, that ‘weakness is a potential asset, error is an opportunity’ (p. 86). They are able to engage this edge because they know how to facilitate the transformation of weakness into asset, of error into opportunity and to do it for everyone. The underlying belief is that adults can grow, can engage with and develop areas of unused, even stifled potential, when they are given the right support.  Effective practices and an effective community, a ‘home’, are carefully designed and maintained. The dedication needs to be all-encompassing, however: the organisation has to be completely committed to developmental principles, which become a core part of its very identity, not an optional extra.

Sincere avowal of good intentions is really very common in business and social life in general.  So do these DDOs pass the crucial test of practical success? And how do they do it? Are their means and ways consistent with what we know about organisational dynamics and human development?

It is explicit in DDOs that the interior life is part of what is manageable. It is obvious, but mostly ignored in conventional work places that what is going on inside people, their motivations, aspirations, interests, or blind spots, has an effect on their behaviour at work. Taking this premise seriously  DDOs have worked out specific routine practices that ‘openly encourage, and seek to make regular room for, the personal and the interior, on behalf of explicitly welcoming the whole person into work every day’ (p. 106). Vulnerability is encouraged as a way of getting in touch with difficult issues, as the beginning of taking ownership of personal choices previously unacknowledged, as an opportunity for making new, more beneficial choices for the individual and for the organisation.

Crucial in how this becomes possible is the fact that the rules that guide openness and the working through of weaknesses apply to everyone. Rank does not disappear, but it does not protect from the obligations of full engagement. There is also understanding of the work of time with knock-on effects for measuring performance. The time taken over engaging with the ‘edge’, the raw, as yet unexplored areas of weakness and failure could be defined, on the face of it, as unproductive time. But the deeper, perhaps unseen interior work that takes place at such moments becomes manifest in qualitative improvements down the line. For this reason, the evaluation scale used is the time necessary for growth not the time necessary for completing tasks (see the fuller picture in the figure from the book of the core 12 developmental principles reproduced below).

everyone-cultureDDOFeatures

The DDOs presented here are ahead of their competitors on many metrics, such as workforce retention and growth, and their enlightened cultures may well be part of the reason for their success. But in this book, the authors go further and claim that it is the active practice of these complex and interrelated developmental principles and activities that cause and explain the extraordinary performance. Each of the DDOs seems to have tapped into one particularly important mechanism that accounts for unusually high performance. For Next Jump, a tech company, the most distinctively productive dynamic is the continuous transfer of authority downward. As individuals become proficient in their roles, they are asked to move on, to take on more challenging assignments, to learn anew. At the same time they become coaches for the new people in the role they’ve just left: ‘In short, New Jump radically altered the nature of work’s curriculum and pedagogy ‘(p. 168).

Bridgewater Associates, the world’s largest investment fund, have a culture based on relentless questioning, probing personal and collective assumptions to go beyond the knowledge and information already priced into the market. There is radical transparency, whereby all meetings are recorded, all feed-back is available to anyone and anyone can question the underlying rationale for specific actions or patterns of behaviour. This eliminates to a large extent the corrosive dynamics of hypocrisy and ‘speaking negatively about coworkers behind their backs’ (p. 182) so counterproductive and so common in conventional workplaces.

For the Decurion Corporation, a family owned business based in Los Angeles, involved in movie exhibition, real estate and senior living, ‘pursuing human development and profitability emerges as one thing – nothing extra is required’ (p. 185). Several practices stand out. Everyone is invited to bring into the workplace their whole person by sharing top of mind concerns in the moment. No one is stuck in one role, at all levels employees are treated as business people first, privy to the concerns of running the business at hand, and only second as ‘a concessions cashier, property manager, or chief information officer’ (p. 188). New business challenges can be tackled because employees in different departments (say accountants and real estate agents) gradually learn to consider the concerns of their colleagues, break down silos, eliminate bottlenecks and increase profitability across the board. There is as a result a self-generated, continuously renewing sense of vitality and engagement with the work.

These three companies are largely the authors of their own transformation, their ethos and cultures chosen and created from the top by charismatic and talented founders, committed to developmental principles. There is however a kind of family resemblance between these cases which maps into specific insights from psychological research and theory regarding developmental change, for individuals and organisations. In this sense there is potential to distil advice and techniques that may be useful to other organisations thinking of embracing this radical developmental agenda. There is a practicality to the analysis proposed in the book that lifts it from the realm of merely appealing and desirable to thinkable and even achievable. It builds seamlessly on earlier research and writing by Kegan and Lahey, especially in Immunity to change, and it is the basis of their consulting practice.

But what is left to us as readers by way of attempting to meet such an ambitious project other than searching scrutiny? Thus, it seems appropriate to continue to ask some of the fundamental questions I already hinted at. Does shifting the goal posts, re-framing in developmental terms how we understand control over labour extinguish the fundamental conflict stemming from the fact that labour is a commodity in capitalism? As the authors argue, working in an environment where personal development is encouraged and supported does create a secondary, non-monetary remuneration, in sheer well being and satisfaction, the energy and positivity that comes with more fully using one’s abilities and potential. Should we take this to mean that the usual kind of payment, monetary remuneration should become less important? To what extent do these DDOs distribute property rights or, at the very least, have a reasonable ratio between the lowest and the highest levels of monetary compensation?

Moreover, accepting that these are very nearly ideal workplaces, are there inbuilt mechanisms that guard the integrity of their practices of individual and organisational development? And could such organisations make a difference in the way developed capitalist economies are organised? Could they contribute more broadly to our collective capacity to tackle broader, adaptive challenges in society, including exclusion, inequality, environmental degradation, and so on? Could they prevail in the on-going competition between adaptive and technical responses to environmental challenges when the latter have been so handsomely rewarded in recent decades?

It would be tempting to think that led by people who have reached the higher plateau of mental and emotional development as self-transforming minds, providing direction while integrating, balancing a diversity of points of view, such companies might be able to subordinate the profit motive to the larger agenda of human flourishing. Marx’s quip, that ‘capitalism is essentially abolished once we assume that it is enjoyment that is the driving motive and not enrichment itself’ would turn out to be both prescient and wrong. Advanced societies would learn how to take enjoyment for their higher purpose and let capitalism do what it does best: give us (some of) the tools to generate wealth and plenty for all.