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Why Today's Workplace Is so Destructive to so Many People

The source is the negative management and workplace culture of many companies.

As Yogi Berra famously said, "It's déjà vu all over again." We're seeing yet another survey (they appear with increasing frequency) showing how negatively men and women feel about their workplaces; how damaging the workplace is to mental and physical health, and therefore to the economy. Recently some new high-profile initiatives raise hope about the possibility of meaningful change. But it's crucial that both hone in the key source of the destructive impact careers and the workplace have upon so many people today: The leadership and management culture of companies, and the practices that result. Ironically, those are often at odds with the personal values and perspectives of the very people who occupy leadership roles, but are hamstrung by constraints from the very top—even when they're part of it.

Jim, a senior VP, feels unsure about his future role in the organization as it undergoes major transition. His boss provides no information, saying, "just don't worry about it." Jim's also in a bind about what to communicate to his own subordinates. "It's totally counterproductive to withhold information," he tells me. "If we knew what was going on, we could try to deal with it, at least." He's been having trouble sleeping and lives in a state of constant anxiety. In another organization, Jill tells me she's swamped "beyond belief" with multiple responsibilities, but lacks adequate resources and is unable to hire additional staff. "It's the classic situation of being responsible but having no authority," she laments. "And trying to be a success, here, while also being a single parent. ... I've 'leaned in' as much as I can without toppling over."

Let's take a look at what the survey research reveals and what it suggests about the impact of organizations' management and leadership. The most recent, a Gallup poll of more than 150,000 U.S. workers, found that "70 percent of American workers are 'not engaged' or 'actively disengaged' and are emotionally disconnected from their workplaces and less likely to be productive."

Gallup found that engagement levels among service employees, "...workers who are often on the front line serving customers -- are among the lowest of any occupation Gallup measured and have declined in recent years." Moreover, "Only 41% of employees felt that they know what their company stands for and what makes its brand different from its competitors' brands." Although disengagement from work crossed generations, Gallup found that "Millennials are most likely of all generations to say they will leave their jobs in the next 12 months if the job market improves."

Gallup pointed out that "Engaged employees work with passion and feel a profound connection to their company. They drive innovation and move the organization forward," while those disengaged "...are essentially 'checked out.' They're sleepwalking through their workday, putting time--but not energy or passion--into their work. Actively disengaged employees aren't just unhappy at work; they're busy acting out their unhappiness. Every day, these workers undermine what their engaged coworkers accomplish."

Writing in the Washington Post, Lillian Cunningham called attention to Gallup's finding that " organization's productivity and profitability are directly tied to employee engagement. So when only 30 percent of the U.S. workforce is motivated, that's an economic problem as well as a morale problem."

They're interwoven. And other surveys show a range of damage to people and productivity. For example, recent surveys document the damage of workplace stress, visible in its negative impact upon mental health, increased risk of disease and death, lower worker productivity and a range of other harmful consequences. A survey by Harris Interactive for Everest College finds that about 83 percent of workers report feeling stressed out by their jobs. People of all ages are affected.

The sources cited include too much work, insufficient pay, not enough time for rest or sleep, too little leisure time, co-worker conflicts and general work-life imbalance. These are valid causes. But such surveys may not tap into more pervasive, underlying sources, such as boredom; lack of mesh between people's skills and their role; an unsupportive management culture; absence of opportunities to learn and grow; and outright abusive, arrogant and narcissistic bosses.

Those deeper sources are intertwined with the impact of a prevailing, singular and narrow view of "success" that emphasizes money, power and position. These are cultural and social values; they permeate organizational management practices and career goals. But the motives, values and career orientation of both younger generations and older baby boomers are increasingly disconnected from that more exclusive, narrow pursuit of self-interest and material success.

A recent conference organized by Arianna Huffington and Mika Brzezinski, called "The Third Metric: Redefining Success Beyond Money & Power," is encouraging, by addressing the damage of this mentality and orientation. Although this movement's focus is on women, it wants to redefine success "beyond money and power to include things like well-being, wisdom, wonder and giving back." That's a good step. But the question is how to achieve that shift of values and behavior in the context daily life at work. That's where leadership practices and the management culture play a key role.

The problem continues to be that the leadership of many organizations remains stuck in a 20th century mentality of top-down, "command and control," position-based authority. There, you experience a lack of communication and openness; inadequate support for learning, collaboration or teamwork. Management behavior that includes abuse, hostility or arrogance exacerbates the above. The older mindset creates significant boredom from lack of mesh between people's capacities and how they are employed. Some suffer under unsupportive, manipulative managers; or those who are outright abusive, arrogant or narcissistic.

A survey of 2,000 workers found that 47 percent said their managers made them feel threatened, rather than rewarded, and 24 percent thought their bosses were poor communicators, lacking empathy. Demoralization increases when work isn't very engaging; or when opportunities for continued growth and expanding competencies are limited or blocked. There is too little flexibility, skill-based recognition and transparency that companies and workers need to sustain success.

Expanding our definition of "success" -- and linking it with a positive workplace -- would include a management culture that actively promotes innovation, collaboration, and transparency. Proactive policies that embrace, rather than fear, a fluid technological and economic environment. And sustainable practices that serve the many stakeholders on whom business success depends.

This is where a second initiative is promising, in that it might address these issues of actual management practices with some clout. It's an organization called The B Team, spearheaded by Sir Richard Branson, founder and chairman of Virgin Group, and Jochen Zeitz, chairman of Puma, along with a group of global business leaders. Its mission is "to create a future where the purpose of business is to be a driving force for social, environmental and economic benefit."

Branson said: "We are working with government agencies, the social sector and business leaders to help get on top of some of the world's seemingly intractable challenges. We are keen to listen, learn and share with others to build businesses that do what's right for people and the planet." Its declaration states, "We... believe that the world is at a critical crossroads. Global-business leaders need to come together to advance the wellbeing of people and the planet. In fact, we think business has to think this way in order to thrive."

The question is whether this effort to transform business goals and practices will include transforming the internal culture of organizations. As the Gallup survey pointed out, "Managers are primarily responsible for their employees' engagement levels." And, that "Organizations should coach managers to take an active role in building engagement plans with their employees, hold managers accountable, track their progress, and ensure they continuously focus on emotionally engaging their employees."

In companies in which people not only don't suffer but thrive and grow, positive leadership behavior and norms are visible: Collaborative engagement; support for learning and innovation; transparency; and valuing people who have an impact on whatever they're applying their capacities to -- not just those who are out for more material reward or prestige.

Center for Progressive Development

Blog: Progressive Impact

© 2013 Douglas LaBier

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