Examining the issue
To understand the issue, we need to look back at the nature of the employer > employee relationship and why these problematic practices evolved.
Centuries ago, everyone who could work did. Not in paid employment but in carrying out activities to survive.
However, as time passed our forefathers recognised that some people could do things better than others and indeed, some regions produced better materials than others. As a result, we started to trade.
While this brought about significant advantages, not everything was considered equal. As a result, we placed different values on different goods and services which led to differing levels of return.
Further to this, goods that had once been made by hand started to be produced by machines. As a result of these changes, populations around the world were forced to migrate to industrial centres in search of employment (fuelled by the Industrial Revolution) which fundamentally changed the way we worked.
Instead of the average person being able to secure what they needed to survive off the land as they used to, they started accruing costs they needed to cover which shifted the balance of power.
Also, because factories needed their workers to be productive, it set in motion conditions that lay in favour of the business.
As a result, labour became exponentially cheaper in comparison to the value their efforts produced enabling industrialists to increase their dominance all the while lessening the relevance of the individual.
These advancements intensified the plight of employees as they became increasingly exposed to the demands of commerce.
As the decades rolled on, however, dissatisfaction amongst workers led to the establishment of trade unions which ultimately cemented the scenario of ‘opposing positions’ (employers versus employees) thereby entrenching battle lines as each fought for control of the relationship in an effort to try and extract a greater return from the other.
However, because working conditions had been so poor, the public largely supported a shift in power as they could see the effect of the imbalance. While this encouraged Governments to introduce legislation to protect workers, it resulted in companies adopting ever more stringent practices to manage their workforce.
In other words, businesses became ever more focused on embedding ‘command and control’ policies to improve labour productivity as they believed the surest way to achieve it was to force it.
Why is the history of work relevant?
Because we perceive the paradigm of opposing positions as fact, we assume the only option is to try and get more out of the other party to improve our lot.
What is notable about this, however, is it presumes revenue is finite which prompts us to fight for our portion (or what we think is fair based on our efforts) rather than recognising it’s not a fixed resource but a consequence of the value we add.
If a company looked at it this way, it would realise that it could add greater value to its customers thereby increasing the size of its pie. If the pie grew, both parties would benefit meaning they could focus on finding new growth rather than squabbling over current earnings.
Although business historians consider this one of the greatest commercial challenges of all time, conventional management theory has undermined the progress organisations could have otherwise achieved had they focused on human-centred science.
In other words, had organisations examined the situation more closely, they would have realised there is a vastly better way to operate. That is, instead of seeing earnings as fixed, they could have instituted practices that leverage the capability of their respective attributes to generate more value for everyone. Further to this, they would have recognised that people have the extraordinary capacity to change and, therefore, adopt more intelligent and appropriate practices.
What this would have done is not only improve outcomes for both parties, it would have transformed their relationship thereby giving them an unassailable advantage in the market.
Seeing it through a different lens
An analogy I have often used to highlight this point can best be seen in sport. As we know, the owners and managers of a sports team need their players to perform to realise their aspirations. Equally, the players themselves need those in charge to invest in their development to succeed as individuals. If the parties understand they are on the same team and will therefore win or lose together, they will find a way to make things work. However, if they believe they are on opposing teams and therefore focus on trying to extract what they can ‘from’ the other, they will not only compromise their chances of success, they will destroy the integrity of the relationship and enter a meaningless race to the bottom.
While the flaws of opposing positions are obvious in sport, it’s important we acknowledge that this is how the vast majority of organisations around the world continue to operate today, i.e., most business owners see their people as a resource they need to run their company rather than the key to their success as a company. Equally, most employees believe their employer wants to get as much as they can out of them, hence they remain distant and (often) resentful.
The point is, it’s not our lack of technology, markets or talent that holds us back. It’s the fact we continue to use outdated compliance-based practices that not only undermine the power of workplace relations, but they also destroy the very culture or mindset businesses need to embody to reach new heights in their sector of interest.
As a result, we believe the notion of ‘opposing teams’, caused by the continual application of archaic 19th-century practices, remains the primary issue that plagues organisational productivity globally.
This article is part of our white paper 'The Future of Work: a performance-focused insight.' To request a copy, please email us at [email protected]