By: Chris White, Center for Positive Organizations, University of Michigan
Creating workplaces conducive to human flourishing is one of the most important challenges facing the world today. Rising to this challenge will not be easy.
One can paint a gloomy picture of the human experience in organizations today. Just 30% of the American workforce is actively engaged in their work. 99% have experienced or witnessed incivility in the workplace. Around the world, there are 168 million child laborers. Of these, 85 million are involved in hazardous work that puts their health or safety in jeopardy.
Moving forward, there is reason to think that this landscape will become even more treacherous. There simply will not be enough jobs to go around. Artificial intelligence and automation, combined with population growth, have led some commentators to predict extreme dislocation of workers and accompanying social unrest. This is exacerbated by systems and policies that are accelerating economic inequality. Indeed, many credit this dynamic as being an influencing factor in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election. In November, disenfranchised voters cast an angry ballot for a candidate promising to bring back the good days in industries such as coal mining that are surely on death’s door.
Yet there is reason to be hopeful as well. As Scott DeRue, Dean of the Michigan Ross Business School, often says, “business has the potential to be the greatest force for good in the world.” Indeed, business will have a central role to play in the accomplishment of every single one of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals. Business is a powerful force for economic development. Globally, extreme poverty has been reduced by 50% (or more) in the last thirty years. Business is a powerful force for human development, too. Millions of people find their organizations to be a source of deep meaning and uplifting relationships in their lives.
We are in an era of intense disruption technologically, politically, economically, and socially. In this situation, we can choose to be victims, accepting whatever hand fate may deal us. Or we can seek to come out of this period of change invigorated by a new and better world of work. In every crisis comes opportunity.
We can make workplaces healing and generative spaces for ourselves and others. Some have argued that the deeper purpose of business is to bestow dignity on those engaged in it. We earn the respect of ourselves and others because of the values we embody and the contributions we make to the world around us. We can create good jobs, paid enough, with working conducive to human flourishing.
We have reason to believe that embracing the pursuit of positive organizations will be better for firm performance, too. At a firm level, there is a correlation between appearing on the Best Places to Work list and their stocks performance. For those of us working within organizations, there are implications. Those who have a high degree of learning and vitality – what Spreitzer and Porath call Thriving – are likely to have higher performance and experience less burnout than those who do not.
The time is now to build positive organizations. The world needs it. And each of us needs it – as leaders, students, scholars, and citizens.
Chris White (@leadpositively, leadpositively.com) is managing director of the Center for Positive Organizations (@PositiveOrg) at the University of Michigan’s Stephen M. Ross School of Business (@MichiganRoss). The Center is the convener of the Consortium of Positive Organizations, a catalytic co-learning community of leaders actively building high-performing organizations where people thrive.