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Empowered – or employed?


I just read a neat and good little book by Josh Bernoff and Ted Schadler called Empowered.

It’s a kind of follow-up to Groundswell, and a very practical book packed with case-studies and charts and tools and ‘technical stuff’ about transforming your organisation into one where employees are your greatest asset – interacting with customers (using social media) to build loving relationships that propel you ever more quickly into profitability and revenue growth.

Nothing wrong with that.

But I do have one little problem with it. The use of the word employee. For example, there’s a chapter on IT security – in it one of the principles is to remember you’re an employee. The idea is that employees have certain responsibilities – presumably towards their employer. And that while freedom and empowerment are great things as they relate to dealing with customers, it is vital to always remember you are an employee.

This is clearly true in a legal sense for many people, including the authors of the book, who, it seems, are employed by Forrester Research. But that legal truth seems, to me, to come with an emotional burden and a much broader framing.

The emotional burden is one of duty and maybe even guilt. I ‘owe’ it to my employer to behave in certain ways. Presumably because they ‘gave’ me my job etc. They pay me. And they can take my job away. And like a good father he (I am sure it is a he) will look after me if I perform my responsibilities as an employee.

The broader framing is that my boss, and my company, hold power over me. I have willingly entered into this relationship with them, codified in my legal contract, and that means that while I can do certain things there are many things I must never do. Like question my contract. Or question who is boss.

I don’t want to labour this point. After all, this is perhaps an assumption that a huge number of employed people everywhere hold. I don’t know what Bernoff and Schadler really think, having never met them. And I don’t wish to offend anyone (well, only a little).

So let’s play a different game.

Imagine if rather than assuming that you are employed, and that your employer holds power over you, imagine it is the other way around. You’re the boss. You have the power.

To employ means to put to use. To put something to its natural use.

Imagine you have some needs, and are currently engaged in the process of putting everything else around you into use.

Your computer or ‘phone to read this words. Your chair to sit on. Actually you’re using your bottom to sit on, and in fact you’re using the rest of your body to good avail too. You’re using your body to breathe, see, hear, move, think etc.

And everyone around you is at your command. The organisation you work in is at your command – to do what you want it to do. Your friends and colleagues are also at your command.

Of course, they may not always like it. Like every element of the world you now inhabit they operate according to certain rules that you may only vaguely understand.

You pick up a pen and drop it and it will fall. You pick up a phone, press some buttons, and you may or may not be able to speak to the person you want to speak to. You ask someone to do something and it may nor may not happen.

But despite these natural consequences, consequences that are built into the nature of the world that we interact with, we are at the centre of our worlds, and we are using it. We are employing it. We collaborate within it, we work with other parts of it, to get what we want to be done, done.

This is what I mean by empowered. I usually call it deep empowerment but until I read Bernoff and Schadler’s book I hadn’t really understood why I add the word deep. I now know it is to distinguish it from their kind of empowerment. Which I read as empowerment within limits.

Deep empowerment is a point of view, a framing where you are in charge, and you can question anything. Including what you want your “organisation” to do. What you want your life and your relationships to be like. Even what you are in charge of. Everything.

Sometimes I call this distributed leadership. For me, it is the same thing. The whole idea of centralised leadership – special individuals leading a mass of supposedly unconscious people in one direction or another – deeply offends me. For me, everyone is a leader.

It is a moment-by-moment thing. It is a feeling. It is a framing – a way of looking at the world.

So go on. Take the power. Be the leader. Be the employer. Be deeply empowered.

Author: Pete Burden

New ways to organise and lead - for people with 'purpose' #leadership #inquiry #noticing #complexity #communication

4 thoughts on “Empowered – or employed?

  1. Absolutely!

    Those of us — that is in the U.S. 1/3 of the workforce who do not have full-time staff jobs but work freelance or on contract or permalance — live this experience every work day. We see the world of work very differently and we fire employers (clients) occasionally when they become overly demanding and excessively annoying relative to the income they produce for us or the value their work adds to our skills. We, in effect, hire and work with/for them as much as they think they are only selecting us.

    Until or unless you are able to break free of a wage slave mentality, this is almost impossible to achieve. My partner of 11 years (who, we admit gratefully, will collect a pension for his obedience) is the opposite to me in this respect. He does what is asked and needed, as do most employees.

    Without using the provocative word Marxist, is this not a Marxist view? I choose to sell you my labor — you do not “give” me a job. That is a huge re-frame and essential to the point of view you describe.

    Would that more workers got this or those who hire them. In my forthcoming book about working retail (talk about wage slavery!), I quote a best-selling author, Jack Mitchell, who refuses to call his employees that…He calls them his “people” which is what they really are….Not “his” but people.

  2. Thanks for the comment broadsideblog. Great question – is it a Marxist viewpoint?

    I don’t *think* it is – although I am no expert on Marxism or political/economic/sociological thought in general.

    My little knowledge suggests to me that Marxism thinks, for example, about the means of production being in the hands of certain groups, and that this creates the whole superstructure of society – including its power relations.

    For one thing, I like to think that the means of production are more distributed than they used to be.

    And for another I think of this all more from the point of view of how changes in individual consciousness (e.g. reframing) alter how dialogue between people happens.

    I buy in to the systems thinking approach which suggests that the way systems are framed by their participants affects the way they operate and the outputs they produce.

    If thinking sociologically, I think more of Habermas and his theory of Communicative Action than Marx. I like the idea of co-operative and collaborative action based on dialogue.

    But for me *the way dialogue goes* arises as the result of individual consciousness. Which is ultimately a psychological and personal process.

    Somebody who knows will probably now tell me I am definitely a Marxist! 🙂

  3. Interesting topic. Not sure what our Karl would say, but I do know that since I took the plunge and broke free from the shackles of being employed and decided to to sell my labor to whom I choose – I have never been happier. I feel kind of selfish about that, and there is some regret that I am no longer able to subvert from within the large conglomerates that I used to work for. But in reality I was never gonna win, and so I will continue to enjoy having the power for myself. My life feels much nicer from within this new frame.

  4. I’m pretty sure that most people I know who are contractors / self-employed / freelance will agree with almost all of the above. So why is the employer / employee system so strong? Has it reached it’s peak in terms of popularity?

    Surely as more and more people (employers and employees) begin to realize that work relationships are no different to personal relationships i.e. they are built on trust, win:win, good communication, respect, values etc., things will begin to change.

    Employers are beginning to realize that in order to attract the best people they have to have a relationship with them and that means much more than your average employment contract.

    So, maybe the employer / employee model hasn’t reached it’s peak, maybe it’s just going to be different?

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