People, purposes and participation

by eskokilpi

The quantity and quality of knowledge workers output is correlated with the amount of well-being they get form their work. For this reason the quality of working life has received increased attention lately. We were asked to study well-being in the context of knowledge-work and social business technologies.

The most important thing that came up was that participation in relevant decision-making needs to be increased at the same time as social technologies are introduced. If this is not done successfully, other changes, such as improving generic communication practices, are only temporary and less effective. At every level of the organization, the quality of a person’s working life is proportional to that person’s participation, first and foremost, in the making of decisions by which she or he is affected.

The need for such participation is unsurprisingly also related to the age, competence and educational level of the individual. The younger the worker is, the greater the need to participate is.

Managers cannot be successful anymore unless they understand the difference between “power over people” and “power with people”. Power over was seen as the ability to get people to do things they would not do voluntarily. It is thinking that is based on the outdated and false motivational theory of rewards and punishments.

Everybody we interviewed recognized examples of decisions that were diluted or compromised because those who had to do the implementing did not buy into the rulings. Educated people do not respond well to commands or to somebody who tries to exercise dominance through the power their position gives them. Hierarchy does not work that well any more. Managers must depend on the willingness of their subordinates to act voluntarily. Managers who want authority for its own sake do not fit well into knowledge-based organizations.

Power with is different. It is the ability to connect people, purposes and participation. It is about co-creation and cooperation: doing meaningful things, with meaningful people, in meaningful ways.

In industrial settings, and in principal–agent hierarchy structures in general, this did not matter. Subordinates were dependent on the managers, never the other way round. As a consequence many managers now lack support from their subordinates resulting in low productivity, dismal creativity and slow learning.

Just as subordinates can make their managers look bad, they can also make them look good. This means that managers cannot hold their positions without the approval of both their bosses and their subordinates.

In modern work, leaders create the followers, and, at the same time, followers create the leaders. It is about power with. Equality and efficiency are not opposites; in fact, they become more and more closely connected as the educational and competence level of the workforce increases and as knowledge work becomes the norm.

The social revolution continues. This revolution, as many before it, may be about equality.


On power and status. “Power over and power with“.