First, some set-up:
In a free society, three forces offset each other to maintain a balance: Government, business, and community.*
Government and business are self-defining. Community encompasses everything from religious and charitable organizations, to organizations promoting social justice such as the NAACP and National LQBTQ Task Force, to those trying to prevent social justice – the Proud Boys and their ilk qualify – to, at the opposite extreme of size and organization, bowling leagues and backyard barbecues.
Depending on how you count, the modern labor movement began during the industrial age with the formation of the American Federation of Labor in 1886, adding labor as a fourth balancer by provided protections and influence, both contractual and political, to workers whose roles up until then had made them, from management’s perspective, fungible, and therefor powerless.
To wrap up this stage-setting: Not all that long ago, during the early stages of the information age (also depending how you count) the workforce could be subdivided into people who wanted jobs and those who wanted careers.
The plan for those who wanted jobs was to exchange time and effort for money. As an incidental benefit it provided a community for employees who wanted to socialize.
The plan for those who wanted careers, whether as professionals or as managers, was to gain a sense of identity: from their affiliation with their employer; from the role they played as part of that affiliation; and on top of that from pride of accomplishment in exchange for their time and effort. Providing a community – the teams career-minded employees worked in – was arguably more of a benefit for these employees than for those who only wanted jobs.
When the business was doing well, leaders and managers generally preferred career-minded individuals, because their career-mindedness gave their manager more tools to motivate them with. During downturns, though, the fungibility of job-oriented workers made them easier to lay off, and to be re-hired if and when profitability returned.
And here we are, in the nascent digital age, where these workplace trends will, and in some places already are shifting the balance from leadership to management as vital skills for running an organization:
- Remote employees: An increasing proportion of employee (or contractor) responsibilities can be fulfilled from anywhere.
- One-dimensional management/employee relationships: Remoteness results in an increase in management by metrics, where employee effectiveness is gauged mostly or solely by how many work products the employee creates in a period of time, and their quality.
- One-dimensional employee/employee relationships: Trust and alignment, the hallmarks of effective teams, is becoming optional, as work is reduced to a series of narrowly defined assignments.
- Sense of identity from sources beyond employment: Self-definition means how people think of themselves. “I’m a lawyer,” “I’m a physician,” “I’m a programmer,” are all examples of people defining who and what they are based on what they do to make a living. My sense, and I have only anecdotal data to support it, is that other factors, driven, I think, by remoteness and its consequences, are starting to edge out job titles as sources of self-definition.
- The diminution of “career” as a motivator: To the extent self-definition is no longer built around what someone does to make a living, management no longer has helping employees grow in their careers as a source of motivation and loyalty.
Bob’s last word: Quite a lot has been published about the importance of employee engagement in recent years (for example, here). I wonder, though, given the social forces that appear to be in play, if pursuing employee engagement might not be an example of “fighting the last war” – of engaging in strategies and tactics that made sense in the past but won’t fit the situation that’s emerging.
So if you’re in graduate school and in search of a thesis topic that’s more than just the same-old same old, I’d encourage you to try designing the optimal employer/employee relationship of the future.
Bob’s sales pitch: I’m often asked how a reader can support KJR. The answer isn’t complicated: If you need consulting assistance in line with what I write here, please don’t be shy.
And on a smaller scale there are the Three Rs: Read, recommend, and review my books.
For your convenience, here’s where you can find them.
* Not original, but I couldn’t track down a source.