Issue #39: Future of Belonging at Work

"A job is not just income. It is dignity, hope, purpose." — Leila Janah

Excited to share Part 2 of my interview with Corey Morrow, a leadership development expert with a background in organizational design. In Part 1 last week, we explored historical figures Frederick Winslow Taylor and Kurt Lewin and their key concepts and frameworks as well as moments of change from the past that shaped our present-day legacy of belonging at work.

In Part 2, our conversation turns to future implications of our present as we endeavor to imagine a new post-COVID normal for belonging at work as we explore the future of careers and the possibilities that could come from templatizing organizations.

Vanessa Mason: So you have two figures, Taylor and [Kurt] Lewin, who have this counter narrative backed by at least like a scientific paradigm, if not outright scientific research that are saying, “The popular narrative of individuals -- focusing on individualism -- is not where we need to be. We need to be more engaging, more participatory, more inclusive bringing more people in.” But nevertheless, from a business context, we still have quite the opposite of that. What is one force that's keeping that participatory, inclusive thought from breaking through? Now that we have a Brene Brown, who is advancing this kind of thought and who is more in these spaces, do you see opportunities now in the future for this kind of thinking to finally break into work?

Corey Morrow: It mystifies me a little bit that even in the 50s and 60s, when I imagine that business was nowhere near the pace of change that we've approached in the Information Age, you had these brilliant thinkers and management consultants saying things like, “The pace of change is really speeding up. Businesses can't do what they used to do and they need to embrace this more participatory, interdependent, equitable paradigm for their own success.” I'm mystified that we don't really see that all that much as a cultural norm in the business world. I do think it's happening more than we know, but it rarely makes headlines. So part of that might be our news biases and what we're exposed to. I think there are many great stories out there -- wonderful narratives of business leaders doing incredible things -- but it still doesn't seem to be mainstream, which is why I'm mystified. At what point will there be, or will there be a tipping point where short-termism is not the Bible?

The meta-cultural narrative that most people have even though we're trying to belong, is that we have to participate in the system that is extractive, exploitative, hierarchical. Where, “maybe if I can just get ahead as an individual, then I can carve out a little space for me and my family. We can buy a home and then I’ll be okay and then I can give some money to charity.” But right now it's like career, career, career, let's go.!  I think that's still the main narrative that we have in our society. It’s a very narrow, fearful narrative from the perspective of what we all belong to.

Vanessa Mason: It's interesting that you even bring up the nature of career. I was just thinking, what is a career if we do see our interdependence? What is that called when we're really looking at the progression or the pathway of a team, of an organization if we recognize our interconnectedness? What is the future of a career? Which might be a really lofty question for you to answer.

Corey Morrow: I love the question, and I would love to be a part of discussions on the future of careers! It's a very interesting one, but I don't know.

Vanessa Mason: As we're looking at the internet age — I live in the Bay Area and a lot of focus is on DEI in tech — there's been a lot of more companies that have popped up that have been trying to do this. More scientific management oriented ways for more employee participation for the better ones. For the other ones, doing more of this individual narrative there. Where do you see helpful disruptions that are happening now in the internet age that might point to what the next age of work and belonging might look like?

Corey Morrow: First, probably one of the most helpful disruptions is going to be fintech and blockchain. It's a combination of a few things. When I imagine a future where people are using already existing technology like Miro boards and Zoom meetings, and you have massive, open source, well-indexed knowledge banks on everything from finance to management to market intelligence. Anyone can leverage all of these tools that are out there to create organizations that function differently with...not quite plug-and-play...but almost plug-and-play like modules of governance structure. 

When tools are this powerful, and this available, and blockchain allows for financial facilitation and administration of a whole range of different purposes, everyone can be more of an entrepreneur, and anyone can be a participant - in whatever they want! It’s not just who you work for, but who works for you, and who you work with. I think we’re being empowered to belong to many organizations. 

This harkens back to Lewin, to one of the things that he was saying in the 1930s, something to the effect of, “It's imperative for society that the common man becomes trained as a skilled manager.” Everyone needs to become a manager. Wow. That’s a world I want to live in. I think that’s actually where we’re headed, and that’s what I want to facilitate in the work that I do with my clients as much as is practically possible. Big shoutout to by the way, who I think are doing amazing work to this end.

Vanessa Mason: Tell me more. What does the world look like if everyone is a manager? What becomes possible?

Corey Morrow: Well, we could have entirely different representation. You don't need an electoral college. You could even have flexible associations of bottom-up communities and nation-states that opt in or opt out of larger systems. What if your neighborhood wanted to opt into part of a contract with the City of San Francisco, but not all of the contract, and was empowered to make that negotiation from the bottom up? If everyone's a manager and has their sense-making capacity nurtured, their critical thinking nurtured, then they can find the communities that they judge best suit them. They may or may not be right, or make mistakes, but they can learn from that and really have much more, ironically, independence with all that interdependence. They can be more self-differentiated and probably more...therapeutically advanced...with less baggage. That's a terribly made up phrase but I think you get what I mean.

Vanessa Mason: I just had a conversation with someone yesterday who comes from an education background that specifically focuses on social and emotional learning. We got into a conversation about that third space that exists between coaching, which I think is a very lightweight, personal development space, and therapy, which of course is more clinically oriented and a stricter paradigm. There's this middle way between something that is therapeutic and that changes you as a person. We were speaking about how it changes you with the expectation that you then reflect that to other people and act on that with other people. So it's like a systemic intervention that yes is targeted on the individual, but the goal is to make the overall system better. When I hear you say “therapeutically advanced,” I think about how can we develop as people such that we are all contributing to the system in a positive way by constructing positive systems at the same time?

Vanessa Mason: This idea that you had sounds like templatizing organizations in a certain sense. Anything else that you'd like to add to that? Is that the right way to think of it?

Corey Morrow: Yeah, I think that's a good way to think of it. I was musing on the nature of templates just this morning, actually. If you do a good job with a template, It's not a dry data form. It's something to 1) structure and 2) reveal somebody's thinking in such a way that will help them increase their own understanding of, and capacity to deal with challenging situations. Ideally over the short- and long-term. I don't know that most templates live up to that but I find templates can be a powerful tool in my consulting work. 

I also think that documentation and templates touch on a bigger subject of automation and the future of humanity, which is certain to intersect with our sense of belonging. In a big way, humanity appears to still be operating under the assumption that society must continue to be run by humans, either because machines, algorithms, templates, etc. are not sophisticated enough, or because we just don’t want it otherwise. Humans are somehow special. But I think we’re a bit misled there, because much of our behavior as humans has actually been shown to be quite algorithmic. What does the future of belonging look like when most work we know about today - even work we currently consider artful, or nuanced, or human - becomes templatized, indexed, and utilized for the benefit of many? Not templatized in the “one right way” sense, but in many good enough, competing ways with equal opportunity to compare and analyze that performance data? I’m talking about the way we finance and run our businesses, the way we elect representatives and govern our nations - if we will still have nations as we know them today - and our mental models around lofty ideas such as leadership, creativity, and beauty. I think all these things can, will, and should be templatized, for the benefit of our collective sense-making and belonging.

I don’t think this is as far-fetched as people think it is. We can create functional structures that leave room for lots of freedom, and disrupt manufactured scarcity. Even the scarcity in our own brains! Think about it. We have all of the technology we need to create a non-rivalrous society, right now. We can terraform Mars and the Earth. We can alter our brain chemistry. We can have representative governments and incredible transparency as a backstop to corruption. We just have all this baggage, all this momentum, and all these cultural narratives in place that are impeding that change, but I think it’s coming. 

Vanessa Mason: Thank you. That’s a really provocative idea to end on. What would it look like if I templatized my organization or my job? What would it be like if I was a manager?

Upcoming Events

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.