All Work and No Play

Winter 2013

Soundings

All Work and No Play

By Mark Fidelman

Mark Fidelman is managing director of Evolve! Inc., a marketing-communications firm. From Socialized!: How the Most Successful Businesses Harness the Power of Social (Bibliomotion). ©2013

If I were a conspiracy theorist, I’d say that the government has socially engineered our culture to emphasize work and de-emphasize play. It’s all a big trick to collect more tax dollars.

Just look at the differences in work and play from only twenty years ago. When I was in first grade, I could wander around my neighborhood with my friends until nightfall. There wasn’t anyone in law enforcement concerned with my “well-being” or safety, and my parents were not setting up playdates. When I was growing up, we just played. No dates, no parental discussions about how the kids got along during the “date,” and no parents asking for follow-up dates. Kids just worked things out among themselves without much of a hierarchy. It was a time when people’s lives revolved more around their home life and less around their work. Yet today, we plan every second of our kids’ lives.

When I was a kid, my father, who worked in technology, went to work at 8:45 a.m. and was home by 5:15 p.m. At work, his boss told him what to do, and he expected my dad to follow his orders. Information flowed top to bottom through written memos, formal meetings, and telephone calls. There wasn’t any play, and there certainly wasn’t any knowledge flowing back to the top. This was your typical command-and-control culture.

Today, in most high-performing organizations, the situation is beginning to flip—people play at work, and they work all day. While some lament the impact on the family, others applaud the effect it’s had on employee satisfaction. These high-performing organizations, like Google, Microsoft, and Southwest Airlines, have evolved their culture to support a more trusting, more transparent, less hierarchical environment that is making the companies more innovative, agile, and efficient.

What these companies have discovered, in their different ways, is the reality of proficiency without control. This democratized view of leadership has upended the deeply held belief that a commanding leadership is the source of all competence. Why, after all, do we insist on employees following our orders, and why do we call it insubordination if they question them? We expect employees to become more competent simply by listening to those above them.

I suspect that this often-used principle of modern leadership—the reliance on command and control—is one of the primary motivators of skepticism about social business, which focuses on socializing employees, breaking down information silos, and empowering employees to take action, make mistakes, and learn from them. The idea that employees can socialize, collaborate, and act without management participation strikes many executives as barbarous, objectionable, and an affront to everything they learned in business.

Yet the companies that are leading in today’s world recognize the benefits of an empowered workforce that feels connected to the organization. Empowered employees understand not only how to make great products but, more importantly, how to create cultures that continue to make great products well into the future. That’s where their focus lies—in developing cultures in which innovation is connected to every facet of the business. From product development, customer support, and marketing to employee career development, these empowered workers care less about the financial impacts of failed innovation experiments (while of course learning from them) and more about developing high-performing cultures that drive customer value over time.

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