ASQ - Team and Workplace Excellence Forum

July 1999

Teams That Work And Those That Don't

Teaching Dollars And Cents Makes Sense

Cycle-Time Redesign

Baldrige Winner Wins Again

Be Careful What You Ask For

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

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Be Careful What You Ask For
by Peter Block

Sports continues to be a main metaphor for our workplace, so when we need a guiding image, that is where we look. If you doubt that life still imitates sport, consider how the salaries of top athletes become the standard against which top executives benchmark their compensation. And who can blame them? What with college costs soaring, housing costs in the big cities over the top, and Omaha steaks delivered to your doorstep costing over $15.00 a pound, ends have a hard time meeting.

The athlete mentality dominates television commercials with products that transform our bodies from round and soft to thin and hard. Abs now make the man, clothes are a thing of the past. It cost me $150 for a pair of sneakers so that I can jump like Mike. With my new sneakers I have attained a 5 inch vertical leap. Until recently, I didn't know I had a vertical leap.

Now the next generation of the sporting life is upon us: Free Agency. A free agent is an athlete who at the end of a season has no obligation to stay with their current team, and can offer their services to the bidder of their choice.

Free At Last
The new, conventional wisdom is that we should no longer think of ourselves as employees, we are now free agents. The message is coming from many sources. Bill Taylor, co-founder of Fast Company magazine, writes and speaks about it, Tom Peters urges us to "be" the company and do it with a bang and Peter Koestenbaum, my best friend, teacher and philosopher, have all promoted us to president of our own company, "I, Inc." We are on our own, now. Captains of our fate, no longer owned by the company store.

I guess this is an inevitable response to workplaces that in the name of shareholder value and maximum flexibility, no longer value long-term, full-time employees. There was a time when the social contract at work was that the employee loyally put their future in the hands of the organization and the organization, in turn, took care of them. No more.

Companies now outsource whole departments to save money on wages and benefits. We will all soon be part timers, temporaries, and we might as well face up to it. The latest term for our marginality is "supplemental." It is a new job category, and there are "full- time supplementals" and "part-time supplementals." Next time someone asks what you do for a living, tell them you are a supplemental. It means we do not belong with the company, we are marginal, only there for periods of peak loads, and then off to play for the next team.

What is most interesting to me is not what the companies are doing, but our response to this reality. The idea that we accept, even celebrate our free agency. We should be happy to have our own company, single-handedly finding work, seeking meaning, managing a career. We now work in the home office, but instead of it being the headquarters of a company, it is our family room. There is an appealing sense of freedom and independence to this, but at a cost.

Home on the Range
My fear is that we are returning to a period of glorified individualism. The workplace has now become the modern version of how the West was won. Rootless, transitory, founded on personal competition, little support and a place where humanity and vulnerability is considered weakness. Folk heroes of the West considered relationships and community a restraint to freedom and a burden to success. Modern folk heroes have twelve computer screens in their entrance hall instead of two six-shooters on their hip. Now, instead of finding gold in them,there hills, we find it in internet stocks where inflated prices make investing a crap shoot and price unrelated to anything earned. Free agency seems to be the employee flip side to this corporate coin.

When we celebrate free agency we have accepted the view that we are a commodity open to the next most attractive bidder. When I incorporate myself, I treat myself as a product and too easily become psychologically commercialized. I take my isolation as a given. I stop looking to make a commitment, belong to a place. I tend to treat my self as a commodity much as the organizations have treated me. Maybe this is what we have come to, but why treat it as a good thing? Why accept the business world's definition of reality...that economics and market value is the point? Why adopt the mentality that our work should be understood as an athletic contest or an entrepreneurial venture ?

Rather we might rethink the nature of commitment. Stop thinking of our commitment and care as only a product of barter and reciprocity. Commitment does not have to be conditional on the response of the institution: When they stopping caring about us, why should we stop caring about them? I often hear the complaint that the organization has amnesia, no memory and only wants to know what we have done for them lately. Well, that stance has now become ours. What have they done for me lately? And if the answer is "not much", then off we go into free agency. This is the norm in the computer world of Silicon Valley, where people move so often their business cards are printed in pencil.

Commitment for Its Own Sake
Without finding some place to commit to, I fear a world of entitlement and a loss of any connectedness and community. It is a world I am familiar with. I have been a free agent most of my career. A consultant, gypsy, independent to a fault. While it may rank high on freedom, I would hate to base a society on this kind of itinerancy. It breeds isolation and self-centeredness to a point where you think that is the way of the world.

There is a need in us to commit to something communal, something that has a place and a history and a future. We have the capacity to commit without barter, yield to the requirements of a larger system and still be realistic about the nature of today's marketplace. Let us be careful about our heroes and not make Bill Gates one of them, nor treat the information technology world as if it is the model of the future. Be a free agent if you must, but don't glamorize it or look away from its price. This period of corporate indifference to its people will pass and they will at some point need us again. Until then, we can hold to our own values of care, loyalty, commitment as our choice, rather than become a reflection, a mirror image, of a workplace culture which we no longer find attractive.

July '99 News for a Change | Email Editor
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