Work place democracy critical for organisational success

Work place democracy critical for organisational success

The current societal and business models are not working

Julie Battilana (Picture from Society for Progress)

Massachusetts, USA, July 5, 2020

As the United States and countries around the world consider re-opening after Covid-19, we are faced with a crucial question: Is our current societal model working and, if not, what kind of societal model do we want for tomorrow?

Staying the course would be a recipe for disaster.

The current levels of social and economic inequality both globally and locally have become untenable, and the current pandemic only reinforces these inequalities. Moreover, we are pushing the limits of what our natural world can endure.

The status quo must change if we hope to survive the combined health, social, economic, political, and environmental crises at hand.

Lessons of the crisis

In Ma 2020, Isabelle Ferreras, Dominique Méda, and I joined forces to ask a simple question: What can we learn from the crises that we are facing?

At the time, admittedly, our thinking was focused on making it through the Covid-19 period only.

And yet, the solution we put forth in a joint manifesto, which has now been signed by 5000 academics around the world, outlines a solution – democratising work— that we hope can contribute to fighting the health, economic, social, and political crises stemming from Covid-19 as well as the longstanding crisis of anti-Black racism, for which calls for change have intensified in the wake of the tragic murder of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis Police Department.

Humans are not resources

What these crises are first and foremost teaching us is that humans never were and are not resources. They invest their lives, their time, and their sweat to serve the organisations that they work for and their customers.

As we say in the manifesto itself, workers are not one type of stakeholder among many: they hold the keys to their employers’ success. Without workers, there would be no manufacturing plant, no deliveries, no production.

All workers are essential.

They are thus the core constituency of the firm.

And, yet they remain excluded from participating in the government of their workplaces, a right that is still monopolised by capital investors. This exclusion is unfair and unsustainable and it prevents organisations from reaping the benefits of workplace democracy.

Democracy works (Photo by You X Ventures on Unsplash)

Transiting with clear goals

What I have seen in my research is that workplace democracy may well be critical to the success of corporations in the future.

I have been studying organisations that pursue social and environmental objectives alongside financial ones for more than a decade.

It is time we turn to these organisations and learn from their work as the economy as a whole transitions towards setting clear goals for employee well-being, and environmental and social metrics, alongside financial performance.

My research reveals a critical link to workplace democracy: organisations that are more democratic—that give a voice to their workers—are better at staying the course and pursuing these multiple objectives.

Promising avenue

Finally, democratising workplaces is one of the most promising avenues for creating more just (including more racially just) workplaces where all workers—workers of colour, women, workers with disabilities—have real control over resources, and an actual say, as equals in the governance of their organisations.

By giving employees representation in decision-making bodies and the right to participate and control their organisation’s strategic decisions, we can collectively build institutions that are truly equitable and fair.

Julie Battilana is Alan L Gleitsman Professor of Social Innovation, Harvard Kennedy School. The above article appeared in the Harvard Gazette.

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