Bring Meaning to Work and Purpose to Spirituality

The Path to Empowerment and Trust in Business

If Jim Collins opened the door of leadership in business with the best seller ‘From Good to Great’, Patrick Lecioni shed a strong beam on the discipline with his ‘Five Dysfunctions of a Team’. Its candor exposed layers of ignorance, pretense, cynicism and fear that have been festering and clogging human affairs since time immemorial. Indeed such dysfunctions are so pervasive in organizations of all shapes and sizes that it is nothing short of a miracle that businesses and civilizations have held up and developed at all (sadly, the current state of political affairs in Washington serves as a prime example)!

In my own experience of working with/within dozens of businesses and not-for-profits in the past twenty years, these five dysfunctions have been the norm rather than the exception. It led me to hypothesize that it is ‘a natural and primitive state of human condition’ rather than the result of some evil doer(s). Far from accepting defeat, such a perspective has the power to liberate us from the all too often suffocating forces of blaming and prosecuting ghostly enemies so that we may better direct and devote our time and energy towards further evolving and improving it. Nor it is merely a moral stand. The power of its truth is harnessed through the superior dynamics emerging from within, not apart from these dysfunctions. Thus, it does not matter that most organizations and people in them may be ignorant of its powers and deeply entrenched in dysfunctions. It is available nevertheless to whoever cares to harness it. That is the real meaning of empowerment – circumstances matter but are NOT the determining factor of its function. The diagram above is a graphical representation of the complex dynamics that one must navigate skillfully to succeed in empowering oneself, communities and organizations around us.

To begin with, most human energy in most organizations has been and still is trapped in one of the two common traps: entitlement or stagnation. In a previous blog, we used the example of Employee Empowerment to describe the paradox of work: most people dread and yet become depressed without work. Work maybe categorized as human functions directed towards increasing the organization and production and reducing the dysfunctions of the human condition. It’s deeply satisfying and essential for human beings to maintain an organized life style. The word ‘organism’ implies it. People become stuck in the ‘entitlement trap’ either because they have never developed or somehow lost sight of the human productive function in the context of our natural existence. They took for granted certain fortunate cultural heritages, forgetting that their continued productivity is the precondition of all ‘human rights’, hard fought and earned by previous generations for posterity. It is very easy and common for the political left and ignorant youths of today to fall into this trap, casting themselves merely as victims of greedy corporations, people in power and their opponents on the political right.

 On the opposite end of the authentic path to empowerment lies the ‘stagnation’ trap. Political conservatives of all stripes are prone to following traditions dogmatically, not realizing that yesterday’s recipes for success are no guarantees of tomorrow’s prosperity or even survival. For example, traditionally, the job of a corporate middle manager is primarily to enforce accountability against established rules. It is still an important part of their job function today but no longer adequate to keep up with the fast changing economy and world around them. They often fall into the stagnation trap unconsciously by rigidly enforcing the old and already outdated rules while the world has already moved on! All large corporations struggle with integrating local and centralized decision making, R&D and production, engineering and marketing and many other traditional divisions of business operations as the global economy and new technologies reshape the marketplace at an ever faster pace. Re-localization has been talked about mostly by political left as a potential solution to this new global phenomenon. However, it is at best a temporary relief rather than a sustainable solution as the history of human development could testify. It is impossible to stop the momentum of human progress towards ever more complex form of existence even if it entails significant human costs. Industrialization temporarily dislocated millions of people when workers migrated from farms into cities for factory jobs. It happened at a large scale first in England a few centuries ago and then again in China during our own time.

In between these two gapping and easy to fall as prey traps lies the promising but extremely narrow path of authentic empowerment and trust. The keys to succeed are two folds: (1) resist temptations to decouple opportunity and accountability at all times, which slides easily into either entitlement or stagnation traps; (2) start small and grow organically (represented as ever bigger and inclusive egg shells in the diagram)

Again take the example of employee empowerment at the workplace. The simplest opportunity-accountability dynamic occurs at the results level. If a sales person is given a new territory then he or she must sign up additional customers; if a R&D team is given a research grant, then it must produce a new product within a reasonable period of time; if a computer programmer is assigned to a software project, he or she must produce designs and/or computer codes according to customer specifications, project budget and timelines. A business or organization is much like an organism that must organize (therefore the name organism) and produce results to satisfy customers or cease to exist.

Unfortunately, our postmodern culture has a tendency to bury this fundamental truth under numerous layers of social services and legislations that were created to encourage civil liberty above and beyond human productive functions but not instead of. The huge budget deficits in all rich countries of the world are merely reflections of the more fundamental imbalance between opportunities and accountabilities in the culture and governance of these countries. Thus government employees and public teachers refuse to reduce the sizes of their pensions awarded using unrealistically high investment valuations during the go-go years of economic boom. Inside government and large companies, employees bargain for greater benefits without commitment to simultaneously boost business performance.

In order to overcome such dysfunctions at the results level, a more powerful level of opportunity-accountability dynamic must be invented and managed. In business, this is achieved through associating ownership or accountability with the planned achievement of certain productive outcomes or results. This dynamic lies at the core of the ‘free market’ idea. Entrepreneurs in capitalistic societies are given the freedom to organize and reinvent human productive functions as long as they pledge themselves to achieving pre-agreed upon financial results with investors and within rules of law. The power of this new economic freedom has been nothing short of miraculous as capitalism triumphed all over the world in the last a few centuries. In fact, it has been so successful that its most essential purpose of and contingency on the improvement of human productive functions have been all but forgotten by most people participating in it. All over the globe, on and off Wall Street, people chase exclusively after sales targets, manufacturing volumes, research patents, GDP and ROI, forgetting that they are only partial and mechanical measures of the not yet fully understood and infinitely abundant human productive functions. This new ignorance has led to the new dysfunctions of social economic injustice, environmental destruction and widespread depressions in the workforce.  

Many businesses in developed countries now recognize work-life balance as a key issue not only for employee morale but also competitive advantage as it saps the enthusiasm and momentum of innovation that drives the growth of individual businesses and the global economy. However, exposing a problem is not the same as resolving it. With few exceptions, most businesses approach the work-life issue in the same mechanical way that had created the problem in the first place. Company mandate of no meeting Fridays only drives the needed communications underground and increase the stress levels for rest of week and into weekends. Raising the minimum wage only drives jobs to the black market and poor countries overseas. Volunteering at charities at weekends does little to relieve work related anxieties.

Sooner or later, businesses have to reexamine the original approximations of human productive functions by capitalism: are there any hidden forces left out of this representation which could be the root causes of new dysfunction? It strikes one immediately that the most precious human qualities – our mutual respects, feelings of love, appreciation of beauty, etc. – are poorly captured by the mechanical method of traditional capitalism. The question is not if capitalism is evil – it has clearly generated and continues to generate enormous benefits for humanity. The question is if it’s a sufficiently accurate representation of the human productive potential to bring us out of current crises and to the next level of prosperity and fulfillment. Increasingly, the answer is no. Thus the search is on for a new holy grill of business productivity growth that will harness deeper human productive potential without losing the economic potency of traditional capitalism. So far, it has produced two promising off springs. One is the Conscious Capitalism movement, the idea that traditional capitalism is only a means that must serve a higher human purpose. Southwest Airlines, Whole Foods Market and many other businesses organized under this expanded vision of capitalism have been able to create distinct competitive advantages over their more traditional competitors by tapping into the hunger for human compassion in their employees, customers and supplier networks. The second offspring takes the form of cultural change initiatives inside many large corporations. The motivation is often to gain competitive advantage by accelerating new product development and/or increasing productivity. However, through the virtue of promoting innovation and agility, above and beyond loyalty and hard work, it almost ‘accidently’ taps into the same wellspring of deeper human productive potentials that feed conscious capitalism. Outwardly, it manifests itself in increased commitments by employees, customers and suppliers to creating more caring, harmonious and efficient economies that meet the needs of an expanded commonwealth. It brings an entirely new and exciting dimension to business development, corporate citizenship and social responsibility.

As promising as conscious capitalism is in lifting morale and fostering collaboration of businesses, there are already signs that the evolution of human productive functions goes much deeper than simply to maximize benefits for humanity alone. This deeper truth manifests itself most obviously in business as the huge imbalance between the speeds of business change and the human development required to effectively deal with it. As soon as a company has developed an efficient network to distribute its products, invention of new technologies and/or changes in government regulations and/or entry of new competitors make it imperative to modify and rebuild it all over again. There is simply nothing standing still in business. It prompts us to ask a deeper question: would we be living in peace and happiness if we were to stop chasing after change and just focus on being compassionate with each other? Both history and our personal experiences suggest that the answer is no. Human beings were not the first nor are likely the last organism on planet Earth and in the universe. If change is constant and permanent, may it be the case that we humans exist not only to share compassion with each other but also as agents of change for a deeper purpose and meaning? Even though we could never be absolutely certain of this deeper purpose and meaning the recognition of its truth could still serve as a new organizing principle in dealing with the overwhelming complexities and conflicts in business and the world today. For example, how do we deal with the conflict between opposition to genetically modifying agricultural products and the fact that traditional food production techniques deplete natural resources such as water at a far greater rate? Even closer to home, how do we justify raising the minimum wage in this country while billions of people are still living on $3 or less per day elsewhere in the world? Is it wrong for corporations to move their factories overseas and raise the living standard there from $3 to $5 a day? Human compassion alone is unlikely to be sufficient to navigate business in the cosmic sea. We need yet again to reexamine the human productive functions from a new angle in order to gain fresh perspectives and transform our deepest challenges into the greatest opportunities of fulfilling our cosmic purpose and meaning. Such daring work has just begun to appear in business press and organizational research and, understandably, being completely ignored by mainstream media. However, as for all previous organizing principles, its potency is not dependent on the ignorance of the majority but thrives on the literacy of the few who grasp its truth and dare to apply it to real world problem solving. To demonstrate the power of this new organizing principle using the tough business problems described previously, we would argue in favor of using genetic technology for human food production with the important caveat that we continuously monitor its effects and prepare ourselves for eventual complications. In the 2nd case of business outsourcing overseas, we support the spread and globalization of economic wealth and justice with the important caveat that it serves the higher purpose of furthering evolution on planet Earth, not only in terms of increasing the quantity of production (population growth has become a burden instead of blessing on planet Earth) but more importantly in raising the quality standard of life. Thus corporations should not simply move their factories overseas but also share the responsibilities of raising the education standards and encouraging social reforms in the countries where they operate. Unless we succeed in bridging the gaps between new human production capabilities and the human faculties that have invented and are capable of re-inventing it, we will always face the consequences of abuse whether out of ignorance or malice. The same insight is equally applicable to operating domestic businesses. In pursuing employee empowerment, we should not merely target competitive advantage as the highest reward. Rather the ultimate goal is to transform the thinking and capabilities of the people doing the work so that innovation and commitments becomes part of the DNA or culture of such businesses. Competitive advantage then becomes effortless and sustainable. The diagram depicted at the beginning of this blog maps such a path to empowerment and trust in a business context. There is no real empowerment without trust nor genuine trust without empowerment. The magic is in the mutually enhancing dynamics. In business, more than anywhere else, we have an opportunity to experience and spread such magic. Let’s not waste it.

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