ASQ - Team and Workplace Excellence Forum

March 1999

Facing The Music In The Global Marketplace

Military Intelligence - Not An Oxymoron

Starting A Revolution Where Everyone Wins

The New Leadership Class

Let's Give Them Something To Talk About

by Peter Block
Sorry We're Closed: Diary of A Shutdown

Brief Cases
Business News Briefs

Views for a Change

Sites Unseen

The Quality Tool I Never Use

Book Review


Facing The Music In The Global Marketplace

NFC: What is your current thinking on the state of organizations today?
Koestenbaum: I am attempting to find a diagnosis of the real problems that businesses and organizations face today. Not the superficial versions, the cliché versions, that everybody understands but that don’t really work. In my opinion, we absolutely need to deepen our understanding, in a truly philosophical sense, of the issues that leaders face today, in order to come up with some effective responses, if not answers. We need reactions and responses that feel like genuine help. There’s a lot of stuff on the market that’s very superficial. Regrettably, it is salable. It’s salable only because it plays into peoples’ denial of the real issues. People are being deceived and cheated, being told that something works when it in fact doesn’t.

NFC: Why do peopledeny the real issues?
Koestenbaum: Because authenticity is intimately connected with anxiety. Growth, which is what is required, is connected with anxiety. And people will avoid anxiety and look for a formula to avoid the anxiety of growing up. That’s sort of the heart of the matter.

NFC: Can you give me an example of some of the things that you have seen that are superficial solutions that don’t get at the heart of the matter of our anxiety around change.?
Koestenbaum: I like to put it, if I may, as follows: I think that the most important task of any kind of leadership education or coaching today is to help people understand the New Economy. It’s not being done enough. And that’s superficial.

NFC: How do you understand what this New Economy is?
Koestenbaum: The characteristics of the New Economy, which you must feel in your bones, are that it’s global and multi-cultural. It’s hightech and high-tech is over-priced. We buy a lot more high-tech than we need, and we don’t use the high-tech that we have. The New Economy is knowledge-oriented and skill-oriented, which means you have to have more and more training to really compete. It is impersonal. It is indifferent to human feelings. It’s a free market and as a result it creates brutal competition. It is inevitable. It is there like a natural force. Nobody put it there and no one can take it away. It is too big to be responsive to people trying to change it.

NFC: I am starting to get very depressed.
Koestenbaum: Well, it’s time for depression. The positive aspect of the New Economy is that it gives opportunities to entrepreneurs. It improves quality and it lowers price. Those are the positive impacts. The negative impacts are that it produces intra-psychic stress, creating conflicts beyond the capability of most people to manage. In addition, the consequences of the global economy are mergers and other strategic responses. But there is not adequate understanding of their nature and implications. Mergers lead to immediate downsizing, culture clashes, and create environments that are unknown to the people who now work there. It creates new hierarchies. It creates tyrannies, anti-democratic governance, which produce intense anxiety and alienation. Loyalty disappears. That’s a diagnosis of where we are today.

NFC: But even before the global economy, we had hierarchical organizations. So while the global economy has changed, who we are in terms of living out our lives at work, the issue is still about how can I be fulfilled in what I do in ways that also fulfill the organization. Correct?
Koestenbaum: Right, you hit on a paradox that people are confronted with as a result of the New Economy. Because the demand is to win in the New Economy. And the other factor, that you have just pointed out, is that we also have to win in the area of personal fulfillment, personal values, personal meanings, in the area of knowledge, freedom, love/intimacy, loyalty, community. We have to win in all of those personal areas as well. I think that we see more and more incompatibility of those two — and that’s the friction. That’s where the conflict comes in. That’s the source of the stress. And yet, those are the realities that we have to confront people with before we can talk about any of the solutions: the owners want profits and the employees want job security.

NFC: Do you think that organizations, in terms of taking care of the self part of it, feel that if they offer child care on site, get rid of the corporate dining rooms, and mechanistically change the organization so that it appears to be flat, that they have done their part to accomplish this?
Koestenbaum: I like to put it in non-business terms. The agendas of the owners and the agendas of the workers, and that includes anyone down from the CEO, are different. The owners, understandably and legitimately, want profits. That means increasing shareholder value. The employees’ basic agenda is security and quality of life. Those two are not commensurate with each other. They are not easy to integrate. The first step of dealing with today’s leadership issues is to be sharply conscious of the harshness of the situation. We need to understand that there is a fundamental discrepancy in the intrinsic agendas of the owners, which is the shareholders, and the workers, who have to then make money for the shareholders. The shareholders in turn have to create an environment in which the employees want to work. I do not think that we are conscious enough of the severity of this difference. Any attempt to gloss over that is counterproductive.

NFC: So what can one do?
Koestenbaum: You start this kind of thinking by understanding and facing in depth the seriousness of the breach. If your child was killed in war, you used to receive a telegram. That’s almost an impossible thing to adapt yourself to. Thus, the first step is to face the facts. The reality is that you can’t live with that thought. The other reality is you’ve got to live. You have other people to take care of and you have yourself to take care of, so you have to deal with that conflict. You start out by seeing it in its naked, stark, harsh reality.

NFC: Many of our readers are asking us to give us the five or ten steps to solve this problem. Yet, there are not always going to be five steps or ten steps or even one step. How would you respond to this request?
Koestenbaum: You respect people’s wishes. It is important to have two lists, the real books and the “cooked” books. The latter will give the 10 points because that’s what their asking for, and you can’t ignore the fact that their asking for it. If you start out by saying that your request for 10 points is illegitimate, then people will fight back, unless you have full credibility. So, what are the ten points. I think that we have to recognize that one of those 10 points is that the question itself is misleading. It’s the wrong question; however that may be the last one of those ten points.

There are several “to dos”. Number one is the power of dialogue. It isn’t the dialogue of one person with another person, but a dialogue of two sides within myself: dialogue within the owner and dialogue within the employee. We should have a structure to make the dialogue easier. And the structure is that the employees are encouraged to own stock, purchase into the company where they work which makes them owners and which puts them by design in both camps; worker and owner.

Secondly, it is very important to challenge people to see the world from the other side. That is to say, the owner sees the legitimacy of the employee’s need for security, and the employee sees the value and legitimacy of the harsh measures taken by business to produce value: cut costs, cut the frills, be focused, work people twice as hard as they can handle, and to see the legitimacy of that.

From the employee’s point of view, the big question is to align a vision of personal greatness with a vision of organizational greatness. Once you see the other side and see the legitimacy of it, then the issue of integrating the two really means “how can I find meaning in light of this job?” or “How can I, when I have this job to offer, help my employees find their meaning in it?” I think that it is a cooperative venture that is very rarely addressed with the kind of fierce commitment that is really required.

What is your meaning in life? Very few people will give you a meaningful answer. What can this Company do to foster that meaning? Conversely, what is the company’s meaning, and what can the employee do to in turn foster that? To integrate those two is the biggest task of the business community.

NFC: So how does one find personal meaning within the corporate agenda?
Koestenbaum: About finding personal meaning within the corporate agenda: The company’s agenda is determined by the market. And you need to find a way to have your personal values satisfied in that corporate context, and that can’t be done by disassociating yourself from the market. That requires loyalty. You are going to have to see those polarities as one, and if you can’t, then you’re in the wrong job. That is a very difficult point. If you adopt a cavalier dilettantism, or detachment from your job, which is what a lot of young people do. In the end, you will fail. Because the global economy will not permit that. You must make a commitment to your work in one way or the other, or you will just plain fail — because the company to which you are connected will also fail. First you have to have meaning, many people don’t. Now you coordinate your meaning in life with the organization. For most people, that integration is the most important job of their career. And very few businesses are equipped to help them in that in any significant or profound way.

NFC: What is my meaning in life, or I could ask you, what is your meaning in life? How will we know when it is the right answer?
Koestenbaum: Basically, a person has to have some kind of passion. Persons need a sense of destiny: something that I must do in this world before I die. Much of that was lost in the post-atomic-bomb age, when people’s future simply dropped out! Now the general view is that it’s no longer politically correct to have a higher goal, a higher ideal for which to live. Even if your aspiration is to find a higher ideal, the goal in life for too many people is entertainment. Entertainment is fundamentally an escape from doing something of significance in the world. It’s relaxation, that’s fine. But as a way of life, it becomes shallow and it dehumanizes people. People become depressed.

NFC: And why is that?
Koestenbaum: Healthy people are engaged in the world. To be engaged in the world means to have something that is more important than we are, for which we are willing to make a big sacrifice. People, in my opinion, cannot live without that kind of striving.It is a striving for greatness, a striving for significance, which if it is absent, dehumanizes life. People think they work so that they can have leisure. The leisure is often empty, shallow, and leads to basically, an early death. Work and love for Freud, were the two key activities for a significant life, and I still feel it is a correct insight. So that you have to have work that gives you a sense of destiny, but you have to do that within the confines of the market as you find it today, or you can’t make it.

That’s what Peter Block and the School for Managing call “creating an organization of our own choosing.” It helps to start, in my opinion, with the New Economy. You start with the New Economy. It’s there to stay. It has definable characteristics. And we’re going to teach you how to win, based on your human traits. We’re going to teach you how to win in the New Economy, by not selling yourself as slave, but by honoring you human nature at the same time which means you take responsibility for you own life, you take responsibility for procreation, you take responsibility for self-discovery, etc. etc. None of that is new, but it has to be represented in a series of what looks like “to do” steps. One of which, is that the question itself disappears.

NFC: The School for Managing talks about the connection before content. In the New Economy that you described, in many ways, we are more disconnected.
Koestenbaum: You are absolutely right! The New Economy destroys connection. Connections are human events, and the New Economy is not a human phenomenon. But you are still expected to cope with it and succeed, and win in it. Our job is not to be like a Greek chorus, lamenting reality, but our task is to understand human nature and to have a prescription for people on how to win.

NFC: How do we win?
Koestenbaum: I taught philosophy for 34 years and my commitment is to bring the philosophy with the psychological bent into helping people with leadership issues. The relationship the between deepening and effectiveness is very close. Effectiveness is a function of deepening, how well you deepen. This requires time, and is foolish to avoid. It is not based on clichés and simplistic things, but I call it Philosophy in Business, because it is philosophy to help people win in business, using the fullness of their humanity. Winning in an ungrateful and brutal world. Using all of the resources of your humanity and winning means winning in the brutal world, but also winning in the area of your values. That synthesis of those two opposites is not going to be achieved by the panaceas and the anodynes that people come up with today. I think that these panaceas, these leadership programs rather foster the dependency of employees, rather that giving them the strength in order to deal with their values and the harsh reality.

March '99 News for a Change | Email Editor
  • Print this page
  • Save this page

Average Rating


Out of 0 Ratings
Rate this item

View comments
Add comments
Comments FAQ

ASQ News