There Is a Smarter Way to Our Future – It’s Human-Centric and Relational
We seem caught in a mind-numbing dash between solutions and the problems arising faster and faster from their unintended consequences.
It is tempting to see artificial intelligence or green technologies as what will propel us in a better future. Innovations by some brilliant minds do provide welcome solutions to problems: vaccines, electric engines, and so on. But this hope only feeds an age-old addiction to solutions, which does not serve us well anymore. We seem caught in a mind-numbing dash between solutions and the problems arising faster and faster from their unintended consequences. In fact, our addiction to tools, and the associated worship of everything engineering, obscures our most promising opportunity.
This opportunity lies in the full realization of the human potential at work. Billions of us dedicate to it eight hours a day, or more. That’s a wealth of energy, knowledge, ideas and perspectives. Are we making the best of it? Those damaged by the very experience of work would disagree: the disengaged (85% of the workforce in 2019 according to Gallup, costing the global economy $7 billion in lost productivity), those suffering from depression and burnout (now recognized by the World Health Organization as an occupational phenomenon: a $1 billion burden on productivity)... The ones lost to unhealthy or dangerous work practices (120,000 excess deaths every year in the US alone, Jeffrey Pfeffer and colleagues calculated in 2018) are sorely missed.
For those who do put their whole heart at work nevertheless, the experience is far from optimal. The current organization, inherited from the past, is steeped in outdated principles that have become counterproductive: the fragmentation of tasks, the separation between thinking and doing, social stratification, the tiny place made for women, the standardization of behaviors through "semantic straitjackets", as Jon Husband calls them: all this restricts the full human potential. Conventional leadership itself has become obsolete. It is still approached as an individual capacity, linked to decisiveness and self-confidence, placing a few people above everybody else.
None of this will propel us into a better future.
What will, is a different approach to work and leadership.
Organizations could be much more than economic output generators. They could be where social collectives are being created by choice, an opportunity to weave human connections distended by increasingly divergent expectations. It begins by seeing the systems that each of us (often unknowingly) perpetuates. Systems sight, Barry Oshry says, is the source of empowerment. From there, we can change interactions – create much richer, diverse, less unequal relationships. Networks, as technology and as organizing principles, provide this opportunity. Corporate activism in the service of truly shared causes can trigger more unified, creative, and effective collectives. Stepping back from technical solutionneering, from our overreliance on experts, and instead focusing on human processes for community engagement, makes way for sustainable, co-constructed pathways to the future. I know it works; I've experienced it multiple times. It takes exercising a new, humbler type of leadership: leadership understood as a collective and relational capacity. Its benefits extend way beyond the workplace.
Bold leadership is not easy. But we can go one step further and dare to un-lead.
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