Are our workplaces making us crazy?

Johann Hari’s article “Is everything you think you know about depression wrong?” has got me thinking. In challenging the medicalisation of our mental wellbeing he paints a bleak yet familiar picture of how our workplaces aren’t meeting our needs…

It turns out if you have no control over your work, you are far more likely to become stressed – and, crucially, depressed. Humans have an innate need to feel that what we are doing, day-to-day, is meaningful. When you are controlled, you can’t create meaning out of your work. (Hari, 2018)

According to Johann, 87% of people don’t like their work. Thats a awful lot of unhappy and disengaged people. For years now, I have advocated a way of working that I believe helps change what Johann describes as an “epidemic of meaningless work” e.g.

  • greater autonomy gives us more control over our work
  • an equal voice in our teams gives us a sense that we matter
  • teamwork creates connection between people
  • alignment with a wider mission adds to a sense of purpose

These changes have certainly made me feel a lot more positive about coming into work, and many of my colleagues feel the same. But in spite of all the benefits, it has been observed that the degree to which organisations are successful in adopting these practices can vary. The reasons for this and what to do about it are the subject of much discussion especially around culture, leadership and how these can change. Johann’s article suggests an underlying cause to people’s unhappiness at work…

In its official statement for World Health Day in 2017, the United Nations reviewed the best evidence and concluded that “the dominant biomedical narrative of depression” is based on “biased and selective use of research outcomes” that “must be abandoned”. We need to move from “focusing on ‘chemical imbalances’”, they said, to focusing more on “power imbalances”. (Hari, 2018)

We take if for granted, but almost all organisations are hierarchical. Unless you are at the very top of the pyramid, there is someone who has authority over you, the extent of which is determined by how much the organisation needs you and you need your job. How this plays out in our day to day experience of work depends greatly on how people exercise this power. Some people use their authority to coerce subordinates, whilst others find ways of doing the work that are mutually beneficial.

Dr Marshall Rosenberg, psychologist and creator of Nonviolent Communication, contrasts to these strategies as “power-over” people as opposed to “power-with” people. He observes that…

Power-Over leads to punishment and violence. Power-With leads to compassion and understanding and to learning motivated by a reverence for life, rather than fear, guilt, shame and anger. (Rosenberg, M)

He posits that central to having “power-with” people is the belief that we are ultimately more likely to get our own needs met, if we first understand and consider the needs of others. Empathy is being present with someone to hear and understand their needs. It creates trust and connection between people. Self-empathy is being present with and connected to our own needs. It enables us to remain centred and helps us to achieve good outcomes for the whole.

For example, I may have a need for our work to be conducted in a sustainable way, and an idea about how this could be improved in our team. As a member of a self-organising team, I don’t have the authority to mandate that the team just try my idea. My colleagues almost certainly have a need for their views to be considered and to shape ideas before they are able to really give them a go. Self empathy enables me to understand that I also have a need to be recognised for ‘my’ idea, and to reconcile this with there being a better outcome for us all, if we collaborate and make it ‘our’ idea.

satya_nedalla-1024x768
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella

All sound a bit too ‘warm and fuzzy’ for business? Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella clearly doesn’t think so. One of his first actions was to give a copy of Marshal Rosenberg’s book to each of his execs in his efforts to address the “toxic culture” that he inherited from his predecessors. (Abadi, 2018)

The way of working I described earlier seems to flourish where those with power have confidence that, given clear objectives and support, people will deliver without having to be directed and controlled. There are practical considerations e.g. as well as knowing how to give people clear objectives and effective support, it also requires appropriate feedback loops that signal to engaged stakeholders that we are all moving in the right direction. But these can be all be worked out.

The opportunity, for those who can see the value, is to learn how to practice “power-with” people. Maybe this is the key to slowly dissolving hierarchies and creating working environments in which people’s mental wellbeing doesn’t suffer. Few people are fortunate enough to find their calling. Even if we do not all love our work, I hope that it is possible for it to be a positive, satisfying activity that goes beyond meeting our need to provide for ourselves and our families.

Summary

Most people are unhappy at work. The more we are controlled, the less our need for meaning is met. There is a way of working that better meets this need, by giving people greater autonomy, however the level of adoption varies. Maybe this variability is to do with how people with authority exercise power at work. Some use their “power-over” people to get things done. Some are able to develop “power-with” people to co-create mutually beneficial outcomes. Nonviolent Communication (NVC) is a way of developing “power-with” people. Maybe focussing on this could increase our success in transforming organisations into happier and more productive places.

 


Image and quotes Courtesy of Guardian News & Media Ltd

References:

Hari, Johann. (2018) Is everything you think you know about depression wrong?’, The Guardian, 7th January [Online]. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/jan/07/is-everything-you-think-you-know-about-depression-wrong-johann-hari-lost-connections

Rosenberg, M. () ‘Marshall Rosenberg’s NVC Quotes’, PuddleDancer Press [Online]. Available at: https://www.nonviolentcommunication.com/freeresources/nvc_social_media_quotes.htm

Abadi, M. (2018) ‘When CEO Satya Nadella took over Microsoft, he started defusing its toxic culture by handing each of his execs a 15-year-old book by a psychologist’, Business Insider UK, 7th October [Online]. Available at: http://uk.businessinsider.com/microsoft-satya-nadella-nonviolent-communication-2018-10

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