I’ve been watching the news in Wisconsin with dismay. But not for the reasons many people are. I think the right questions are not being asked and wrong conversations are dominating.
I personally have sat in the chairs of many different players in this standoff. I was briefly an SEIU president in my very early thirties when our president died unexpectedly and at the beginning of a strike. I was an employee in government, retail, manufacturing, and finance at times in my early work years. I have owned three companies and provided benefits to employees, including retirement, for which I felt a great deal of responsibility. I was never an elected official but I have been actively involved in campaigns and challenging projects in the public domain. For most of my life I have been an educator, advisor, and consultant to many Fortune 500, new economy, and purpose-driven business executives. I have also worked in nation and region building as they are being reconceived, for example during the years leading up to and beyond the forming of the New South Africa and the launching of the European Common Market and the Euro
I have seen most of it and I think that the wrong questions and concerns are being offered on all sides of the debate. For the most part, not with malice—or at least I’m willing to give all players the benefit of the doubt. Currently questions are centered on removing or protecting the rights of unions to negotiate for workers. One side says “yes” and the other “no.” It’s about that black-and-white. But either way there is no consideration of core questions, those having to do with what makes us healthy and vital as humans, makes healthy businesses and organizations, and nurtures healthy nations.
So what are the right questions? From my perspective the first should be, “Is the way we structure work developing human agency?” When I speak of developing agency, I am talking about the role of school, work, and families in fostering human beings who are self-determining, self-directing, and self-managing. A second question might be framed, “Is work connected to outcomes that really matter?” A third is, “How can we create work that will contribute to a healthy planet and healthy economies and communities?” Until we are guided by these questions, negotiations will always be incomplete. They will start at the end instead of the beginning. This set of questions is the shared responsibility of anyone whose decisions and practices affect work—unions, managers, owners, and regulators.
Why does Agency Matter?
In our current world, and in any foreseeable one, unions are the only means by which workers have a larger, collective voice and the power that goes with it, in the same that companies and governments do. We have so few stop-gaps against greed that employees will continue to need the collective voice until the time when there are no more gaps in power. Not likely in our lifetimes—in the meantime, moving to an evolved version, a reimagined union, is critical. Any real likelihood that this will evolve must be founded in a reimagined business model based on the full force of human agency.
Agency is the inner motivation that individuals and collectives exercise when they become conscious of intentions and seek to manage themselves to achieve them. It is the ability to be accountable for one’s own effects on the world and to direct oneself to achieve chosen ends or aims. It is basic to us as humans but it is rarely developed. Far more often agency is suppressed from childhood on. Parents decide for us; teachers grade us; bosses lead us.
When our efforts are purposeful and not just centered on ourselves, they give us the feeling that we are in control of our lives, combined with the feeling that we are in control of the outcomes of our lives in the context of the larger worlds in which we are players. Without ways to guide their own thinking and actions, even very strong-willed and passionate people can invest a great deal of life energy without making real differences.
Managers and unions alike have colluded to diminish effective agency. Managers by the way they design work, including the many standard practices. Examples of practices that frustrate the development of agency are hierarchical delegation that places “agency” in the top of the organization, but not the bottom; standards and procedures set by others without the connection required to awaken the caring; and, one of the worst, external evaluation via feedback and performance indices. All of these foster learned helplessness and submission of individual power to managers and union leaders. They add little to “involve” people while they continue to foster decision-making from the top down—of the business or the union. Under these conditions people simply cannot develop ableness to exercise agency.
Unions often act as third parties when it is not appropriate or intermediate errors in judgment that might otherwise become learning opportunities for individuals and organizations. They often fail to negotiate for more meaningful work systems. Thus unions and management both act in ways that reduce the development and exercise of agency.
A sense of agency is critical to reversing political apathy, grievance, frustration, and helplessness, and where agency isn’t exercised, it atrophies. Beyond The Responsible Business, I’ve often thought non-profit organizations would make great advocates for agency within their areas of focus, helping to ensure a healthy, working society.
Almost all leaders and managers operate with no understanding of the ways that agency develops. As a result, they miss the power that companies, societies, and humans gain, individually and collectively, when the creators of products and services connect with the lives of those who use them and are affected by them. This connection is achieved not by passing on information but by linking workers and suppliers directly to real markets.
Unions and business leadership both need to be regenerated so that they become sources for building the capacity and capability people need to take responsibility for themselves and their effects in the world.
I provide many examples of the ways agency can be developed in The Responsible Business. Umari Haque in The New Capitalist Manifesto, Steve Denning in The Leadership Guide to Radical Management, and John Hagel, John Seely Brown, and Lang Davison in The Power of Pull also speak to the importance of agency and provide examples of the approaches people have taken to develop it.