In the Fall 2008 edition of the OD Practitioner [membership required], Peter Block writes a provocative article entitled Nothing is Next where he explores emerging trends in organizations. Block is one of the chief influences (along with Meg Wheatley and Bob Sutton) in my own work and he doesn’t disappoint here. One of the trends he highlights is Fearful Employees.
In a world of increasing consolidation and lessened customer choice, employees have been commoditized. Workers are treated as costs, not assets. The faster we can automate processes, outsource functions and send questions to a website, the happier we are. It is cost effective, but has created widespread insecurity so that people are as afraid of their bosses now as they were forty years ago when I began this work.
I had thought that when team building, larger group methods, decades of employee involvement and the results gained by the quality movement had become mainstream and part of the common knowledge, we would care more for our employees. I would have expected we might have reduced the social distance between levels. We would act as partners in our relationship with the boss. We would feel the place we work is where we belong. I don’t see it, maybe I am missing it, but the alienation and caution people feel about the workplace seems too painfully common.
He surfaces a disappointment that I think is shared by many who care about improving workplace dynamics and employee engagement. And it’s exacerbated now with the economy the way it is. Companies are in full survival mode with their focus squarely on managing through the short-term. Nothing wrong with that in principle; it would be irresponsible to not act on current business conditions. However, when does action merely become reaction? Was all this talk about employee empowerment and engagement just a bunch of crap, conditional on sunny economic conditions? Time to go back to the comfortable business basics of last century?
The real question that organizations of all types need to ask right now is…what is the opportunity in front of you right now to (re)create a business that changes the relationships with employees and customers?