Social business, well-being and management
February 24, 2013
The quantity and quality of knowledge workers output is correlated with the amount of well-being they get form their work. For this reason the quality of working life has received increased attention lately. We were asked to study well-being in the context of knowledge-work and social business. Here are the first findings:
The most important thing that came up was that participation in relevant decision-making needs to be increased at the same time as social technologies and transparency are introduced. If this is not done successfully, other changes, such as improving communication practices, are only temporary and less effective. At every level of the organization, the quality of a person’s working life is proportional to that person’s participation, first and foremost, in the making of decisions by which she or he is affected.
The need for such participation is unsurprisingly also related to the age, competence and educational level of the individual. The younger, more educated or more competent the worker is, the greater the need to participate is.
Managers cannot be successful anymore unless they understand the difference between “power over people” and “power with people”. Power over is the ability to get people to do things they would not do voluntarily. It is thinking that is based on the (outdated) motivational theory of rewards and punishments. Power with is the ability to connect people and purposes. It is about co-creation and cooperation: doing meaningful things, with meaningful people, in meaningful ways.
Everybody we interviewed recognized several examples of decisions that were diluted or compromised because those who had to do the implementing did not buy into the rulings. Educated people do not respond well to commands or to somebody who tries to exercise dominance through the power their position gives them. Hierarchy does not work that well any more. Managers must depend on the willingness of their subordinates to act voluntarily.
Managers who want authority for its own sake do not fit well into knowledge-based organizations.
A very interesting development we studied was the principle that managers cannot retain their positions, or be appointed to them, without the approval of their subordinates. In one global organization we worked with, managers cannot be appointed unless they have been interviewed and approved by those who will be the subordinates or the future peers of the appointee.
Just as subordinates can make their managers look bad, they can also make them look good. This means that managers cannot hold their positions without the approval of both their bosses and their subordinates.
In industrial settings, and in principal–agent hierarchy structures in general, this did not matter. Subordinates were dependent on the managers, never the other way round. As a consequence many managers now lack support from their subordinates resulting in low productivity and slow learning.
In knowledge work, managers create the subordinates, and, at the same time, subordinates create the managers. Equality and efficiency are not opposites; in fact, they become more and more closely connected as the educational and competence level of the workforce increases and as knowledge work becomes the norm.
The social revolution continues. This revolution, as many before it, may be about equality.