Everywhere I look, corporate people are stressed. It’s true at the top, the middle, and the bottom of the pyramid. Being hired by a successful business used to contribute to personal well-being. I can still remember how giddy I was when a large US multinational hired me out of school and how much it contributed to my early enthusiasm about life. This, in all evidence, is no longer the case. Everywhere I go, I collect stories of rising managerial expectations and reduced access to resources, resulting in a productivity squeeze that destroys the fun of business life and in some cases increases suicide rates. France, for example, is beginning to raise the issue of “work health.” In inimitable fashion, the French want to legislate on the topic, which creates a new class of stressed people: managers afraid of being accused of having induced suicides among their direct reports.
Has business lost its way? How did we get to the point where companies destroy the lives of their people instead of making them better? Like anybody else, I can point to the forces that drive the endless quest for productivity in business: the rise of shareholder expectations, the development of global competition, and the do-or-die nature of the modern labor market. But where in this equation are the ethical braces that prevent humans from oppressing other humans? Have we become collectively insensitive to the point where we’re lost the ability to remember why we’re engaging in business in the first place? And if corporations have become the new gulag, why hasn’t there been a management revolution?
Our conceptualization of business as a company-centric science rather than a human-centric creative network may have something to do with it. Conceptually, we have it all wrong. We should start from the viewpoint that employees and managers have an experience of business, and this experience is as important as the experience that customers have of the business. The latter is much talked about, analyzed, and continuously worked on. There is a rising caste called Chief Experience Officers whose job it is to worry about customer experience. Yet there is no equivalent for employee or manager experience. As long as their frustration stays below suicide range, we are content to take their temperature once or twice a year in the form of an employee survey. The employee survey is usually managed by HR people whose role is to delineate for business managers how far the corporation can push in the name of productivity. This is a frustration containment strategy, a far cry from the experience co-creation strategy it should be. When HR people venture to advocate for the employee experience, they rapidly become accused of being a part of the problem, an obstacle on the road to productivity. Understandably, few of them choose this path.
We should view business as the coming together of a set of individuals, from employees to customers and other stakeholders, in order to invent worthwhile personal experiences through the development of a common economic model. Employees should matter as much as customers. The role of business managers should be to help employees figure out the work experience they want to have for themselves, allow customers and other stakeholders to do the same, and give all of them the tools that will allow them to interact as efficiently as possible. The self-interested pursuit of greater well-being by employees and customers is what will produce the most efficient corporation and create the highest shareholder return. The obnoxious expert opinion of a few top managers on what processes those employees and managers should follow will at best represent a mediocre approximation of what humans with passion and an intimate knowledge of what needs to be done would have devised for themselves. At worst, it will become an oppressive machine with a mediocre economic engine.
Engaging employees in the co-creation of their work experience is job 1 for business. But it’s getting dangerously late. Business, it is time to save your soul.