Issue #39: History of Belonging at Work

“The definition of the good society is one in which virtue pays.” Abraham Maslow

Excited to share Part 1 of my interview with Corey Morrow, a leadership development expert with a background in organizational design. Corey generously created a chart in Miro to serve as a chronology of key concepts, people and milestones, and organized them on a timeline by themes corresponding to the following colors:

  • Orange: business trends and thinking, (most visible of all the categories)

  • Blue: narrative of interdependence in society and complexity and emergence

  • Green: the individual individuality, your personal identity, your personality.

  • Yellow: developments in the social sciences

  • Red: macro cultural events that affect psyche, sense of place, pursuit of knowledge 

If you imagine these as layers of an iceberg, the (orange) business trends would be the part of the iceberg that is “above water” making them more visible than the other themes. The remaining layers include more hidden forces that both work in concert with as well as against each other over time to craft narratives of belonging at work. These forces are like the submerged part of the iceberg, somewhat hidden from plain view, but still part of the same social fabric as what’s on the surface.” You can reference the diagram below as you read our conversation which has been edited and condensed for clarity.

VM: I’m excited to talk about labor: what labor is, the value and perspectives of labor as it relates to belonging. We are starting from the very beginning of the timeline you created, at the point of colonialism, slavery and genocide of First Nations, where belonging clearly doesn't have a place in work at all. It's strictly economic utility. You also have these notes about “casting off of the tyranny of belonging” and then belonging to an abstract possible future. Can you share a little bit more about this?

CM: The way I'm thinking about the “tyranny of belonging” is, the Europeans called it the New World. This unexplored continent in the West was colonized because of complaints and the various dissatisfactions about living in the Old World under British rule or Spanish rule or what French rule or whatever. America, from the very beginning, comes to represent a way to get away from it all and go on this grand adventure. And I think that's a big part of the American dream: this idea of great promise and the idea of thinking you can have it all or just get away from all of the bullshit that you know.

Whether or not it really was tyrannical in each individual case is less the point. People have all sorts of stories about coming to the New World. It's such a big undertaking. How would you undertake such a risk if you didn't feel burdened by where you were and your sense of place and your people?

VM: When you think about that of both getting away from it all and great new promise, how do you see those narratives showing up in work today and how might they evolve in the future?

CM: The first thing that comes to mind is that it's been translated. The almighty dollar is like the new version of the American Dream. Corporatism tells you, ”If I can just get ahead, be better than my peers, go to a better college, get that better first job, that better second job, or get this big internship, etc., etc., All of that's based on dollars, power and prestige, and they're all interlinked. I think that's one way in which a “tyranny of belonging” and “belonging to an abstract personal future” still live in American society today, and I think this plays into an American narrative theme of individualism.

Economic freedom is the freedom - in a way a type of belonging - that everybody looks for, because it’s convertible, to various degrees, to other types of belonging. They think that freedom will get them the place of belonging that they ultimately want, or freedom from the tyranny that they're currently experiencing. 

VM: And maybe moving into the late 1800s to 1900s, this period as you’ve described it involves a lot of thinking about management, about how we can put metrics in the workplace as the pace of business is speeding up, and thinking about what demographics, or identities are actually in the workplace. When thinking about those moments of change during this time period, how much of change is driven by broader things like narrative and cultural change? How much of it is more grassroots advocacy and change that is more social movements oriented? How much of this change is really in control of individuals, versus systems driving a lot of what we see in this period?

CM: Great question. This little board is obviously incomplete and would really benefit from other people's insights. Your question was basically, as I understand it, was how much agency does an individual have and how much are these societal trends coming from bottom up initiatives and how much of it is top down, whether government or corporate in origin?

VM: What is the balance of systemic manifestations of these things? I'm not a professional historian, but there's a lot of the “Great Leader” school of thought where individuals are seen as coming along and coaching and encouraging people to do things. And then there's just the world we live in that’s more complex.

CM: I see that narrative dismantling. Though, I don't know that it's really anything other than alive and well in the corporate world which is interesting. I see a lot more great thinkers creating a new narrative that says the “Great Leader” idea, it's a myth. I think we are all powerful agents in more ways than we know. However, we are so interdependent that our powers are very linked to, and limited by, one another 

I can point out and give a couple examples here starting in the late 1800s and early 1900s to see a bit of an arc from the narrative in business, and in society at large and how it might be shifting.

For example, in the second time period we’re looking at here, in the late 1800s at the top level of the diagram - business trends - I'm talking about this one individual in particular who had a really outsized impact on work and commerce, especially at a booming time in the nation. Looking at what was happening at that time, this was the second Industrial Revolution. There was a massive economic boom in all types of manufacturing, and there was a lot of money to be made. 

This guy Frederick Winslow Taylor, is sort of an overachiever and kind of social outcast. He became an engineer, and then essentially invented the job of industrial engineer and this idea of scientific management, which includes time and work studies. There's a lot to pull out here. There's some really negative and dark consequences of his work, but I think at base, he was one of the first people to really recognize and speak vocally about the largest wasted resource in all of business: human labor. 

It's not that surprising that human labor was vastly underutilized, I think, coming off a recent history of slavery. When you’re essentially treating the worker as a grunt that exists to obey your orders, you’re completely overlooking, well, the entirety of innate human intelligence in the worker... But that’s what things were like at that time.

The idea of labor management cooperation was novel at that time. It was like, “Oh really, you're just going to ask workers how they think it might work? And care about their opinion at all?” So you can see, not to equate slavery to bad management, but you can see some shadows of a previous way of thinking that only 130 or 140 years ago started to change to something that we largely take for granted now. Like, duh. Talk to your employees.

So it was a huge paradigm shift, some of these now seemingly obvious ideas: the intelligence of the worker, and labor-management cooperation. Unfortunately, what a lot of people took from Taylor’s work was his obsession with greater efficiency. They just think, “Great, this whole scientific management thing is going to help us make more money.” Taylor didn't believe that the employer should be the sole beneficiary of those greater efficiencies. He thought that everybody could gain, really. 

One of the relics of Taylor’s work is individual performance bonuses, which are still alive today. Research shows that individual performance bonuses do actually still work for routine work, or work in what’s called “non-wicked” environments. So for example, if somebody is highly skilled, there aren't too many variables, and it's not a shifting landscape, then individual incentive bonuses can still increase performance. But there are a lot more situations today where that backfires and you can unintentionally incentivize people not working in concert with their own team or larger organization, hiding information, breaking rules, bending rules, creating liabilities for the company, etc. Because they’ve been incentivized with short-term, personal gain. 

So Taylor had a massive influence on business during that time, particularly through the steel industry. I think because the steel industry was such a massive industry back then, all the other industries that were manufacturing related or even unrelated, would be aware of what was happening there, and especially curious and open to adopting promising innovations tested in that part of the market. In various subtle ways that are hard to tie definitive causal relationships to, but very interesting nevertheless to look at, I think the innovations from Taylor and others in the business world shaped our broader cultural narratives, and the research agendas in the social sciences, etc.

VM: That's like a really big turning point in the paradigm of the value of labor, the purpose of labor, and who should inform what that value is. It sounds like you're saying that gets sort of taken and worked in certain ways to serve economic goals. Tying in individual performance bonuses shows us a legacy of what the narrative has left us today. So in looking forward, we live and work within a model of corporatism that diverges from Taylor’s era. Andrew Carnegie was the architect of American public libraries. We wouldn't have them if they weren't for him. The notion of what corporations did, and who they were for was very different. What is another narrative that comes along that changes that perspective on what work is for and who is it for?

CM: I think another thing that certainly affects our notions of “for what” and “for who” of work can be found in the social sciences, and even in philosophy, though people often think of philosophy, and especially philosophers, as somewhat detached from the real world. Some people are talking about critical theory today and how that's interconnected with social movements like Black Lives Matter and other social movements. I believe critical theory started as more robust criticism of the level of wealth inequality present in the early 1900’s, It also highlighted the idea of seeing systems rather than individual agents as the categorical sources of oppression. That theory was developed in Germany by Karl Marx and a group of other philosophers in the 1930s. In parallel, we see some really interesting stuff going on in the social sciences around the same time. 

One German social scientist in particular, Kurt Lewin, was very influential. He was not a philosopher, and I’m not clear on the extent to which was he influenced by critical theorists, but he contributed some fascinating work on group dynamics. He was actually very influenced - interestingly - by Frederick Winslow Taylor. He understood the spirit of equity behind Taylor's work and also was science-forward in his methods. Here's this quote about how the American ideal of the self-made man is tragic. 

“The American culture ideal of the ‘self-made-man,’ of everyone ‘standing on his own feet’ is as tragic a picture as the initiative-destroying dependence on a benevolent despot. We all need each other. This type of interdependence is the greatest challenge to the maturity of individual and group functioning.” — Kurt Lewin

Lewin recognized that there's a whole new world of social dynamics to explore at the group level and they started to think, “Maybe we shouldn't evaluate performance in work systems at the individual level, but at the group level.”

One of Lewin’s contributions was this really forward thinking idea about research methods. Everybody was taught (and is still taught, in many disciplines) to be objective and not involve the subjects in your work. Lewin’s pretty radical idea was that you can fully engage your participants in research, which is similar to Taylor engaging employees in discussions of what the work is, what it can be, and what it should be. This might have been a predecessor to later research methods from the last thirty years which became more popular and more legitimate based on the social constructionist framework. Basically, I think all of these things shape our current reality when it comes to belonging at work, and will shape the future of belonging at work.

VM: Yeah, I see this on the board and Brene Brown, who you also have on here. I believe she's a grounded theory researcher.

CM: As a contemporary researcher, Brene Brown is hugely influential. How cool is that? She has such a big following and such a big impact. It's really nice to see any figure who is really a social scientist at heart - a researcher - be a popular figure. It reminds me of what I imagine what it was like when Maslow was alive and you had these ideas and these frameworks coming out that really created a sort of “popular psychology.” The average person may have only partially understood Maslow’s work, but it was a big buzz and it was really interesting and important. It was shaping the public dialogue and shaping the corporate dialogue.


Upcoming Events

Part 2 of interview: The last part of my conversation with Corey will explore implications for the future of belonging in work. We touch on the future of careers and templatizing organizations. Excited to share and hear what you think!

December meetup: Our next meetup will be December 15 at 5:30 pm PT/8:30 pm ET. Corey will join me to explore the topic of belonging at work with an interactive activity taking a look at history and its implications for the future. RSVP here.


The Future of Belonging examines how we can redesign tools and remodel approaches to fulfill the basic human need for belonging over the next decade as loneliness, alienation, and exclusion become more pervasive. If this newsletter was shared with you, please thank the sender. I invite you to subscribe and join the community as well.