The People vs. The System

Hey man. It is good to be back (although it was really good to be gone) and nice job here on the blog…you have done some serious work with this series, and YES…there is a lot to respond to.

Good stuff.

I do not completely agree.

As you probably expected.

I think that business does need to be saved. You said early in this series that “business finds a way to do business, despite the changing landscape.” Not so much. The lifespan of a business organization is not that long and it is actually getting shorter. I see growing evidence that business is clinging to irrelevance.

I think that business very much needs to be saved…from itself.

I am not trying to make any grand political argument here about capitalism in general. I just see business in general as feeding on the goose that lays the golden eggs. I have no problem with capitalism, but capitalism piloted by individuals, organizations and institutions with an extremely short term focus becomes dangerous and reckless. Over time it actually compromises its own ability to respond to the world around it…it becomes overly reliant on manipulation of perception, markets, politics, etc., rather than new ways of creating value. There is no shortage of examples of this in the form of individual organizations that have gotten very good at doing one thing and focused on exploiting that to maximize short term gains (and share all of their “best practices”)…and then all of a sudden found themselves irrelevant and gone.

I do think business needs to be saved, and I think that one of the defining issues of our time will be whether we have the courage to save it or not.

But this is maybe a minor disagreement.

More important is our disagreement in where our greatest opportunity for progress lies. A couple of statements from your original post:

“Business doesn’t need saving, people need saving.”

“What’s been broken is the employee psyche.”

Not only do I think that business does need to be saved, I think that people do not need to be saved.  People are actually very resilient and I do not think they need to be saved or that it is accurate to say that their psyches have been broken. I think that the real truth is that the employee-employer relationship is what has been broken.


…employees did not break it, business did. At least partially due to the short term ideology I mentioned above.

I am always okay with looking at what individual employees can do to use their power to influence change, but I am never okay with the idea that it is all on them.

b = f (p / e)

Kurt Lewin said that behavior is a product of both the person and the environment (system). When we just focus on the individual, we discount the environment and we ignore power dynamics. This is the approach that leads people to say the solution to poverty lies in poor people working harder. It leads people to believe that we would not have to worry about diversity in the workplace if women and people of color just worked harder and complained less. It discounts environment and power, both of which are huge variables.

This is the same reason why I get scratchy when I hear talk about “empowering employees” …I personally do not see a lot of employees in need of “being empowered.” I see a lot of employees that would benefit from having a whole heap of bullshit politics, absurd processes and bad management gotten out of their way.

When nobody is talking about power, that is where it unquestionably exists, at once secure and great in its unquestionability.

–Ulrich Beck

I am always a fan of personal growth, accountability and responsibility. I love the six things you have spoken to in your series. I also know that you can have and apply all of those things and still get bounced out on your ass.

Inside of the organization today, the employer has centralized power and the employee has diffused power…employees can (and do) drive change, but the deck is stacked against them. You can look back to our collective work experiences to see some examples of how difficult it is to drive change as an individual.

I think that movements to change systems and movements to change the individuals inside those systems are both flawed, we have to do both. They must be parallel, symbiotic efforts. They have to be, because fundamental to real sustainable change is acknowledging and changing the balance of power. We have to include and involve both parties to do that.

I think that you and I have some obligation to swing with both fists, to support and promote individual growth, commitment and courage and also to challenge the environment and speak about power.


1 comment

  1. Geary Rummler and Alan Brache, in their Improving Performance: How to Manage the White Space on the Organization Chart, wrote, “If you pit a good performer against a bad system, the system will win almost every time.”

    They also said, “We have found that about 80 percent of performance improvement opportunities reside in the environment [meaning the workplace, the processes, the tools, the design]. Usually, 15 to 20 percent of the opportunities are in the Skills and Knowledge area. We have found that fewer than 1 percent of performance problems result from Individual Capacity deficiencies.”

    The New York Times’s David Leonhardt pointed out during the Chrysler bailout that labor costs, as a percentage of the cost of a new car, amount to–guess how much?


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