Fast Company

Accelerating Change in the Workplace: Lessons from North Africa

In every corner of the world, people have been shocked and riveted by the velocity of societal upheaval spreading across North Africa and the Middle East. As someone who has lived in the Middle East and is intimately aware of the long-standing suffering of people living under oppressive regimes, the societal force that has been unleashed has left me astounded. Powerful images of mothers and fathers, sons and daughters refusing to accept another day of brutality, oppression, and hopelessness for themselves and the next generation show us that change--even in the most restrictive environments--is possible. It teaches us that when people are united, empowered, and truly inspired to make a difference, nothing is impossible. It proves to us that the human desire for freedom, for personal expression and fulfillment, for having integrity is more powerful than the seemingly impenetrable status quo.

With an eye to the events unfolding in Libya, Egypt, Bahrain, Tunisia and other North African and Middle Eastern nations, business leaders now have a very real point of reference--a contemporary demonstration of what can happen when a large population is truly galvanized and united around a cause. Too often, companies think about change within the workplace on an incremental basis. Rarely does anyone entertain the possibility of widespread adoption of a value, an idea or aspiration that can literally shift a corporate culture in a very condensed period of time.

Why should business leaders pay attention to this from a people and talent perspective? For some, it’s about overcoming the challenge of delivering abysmal customer service with indifferent part-time employees. For others, its about having the opportunity to accelerate innovation with 100,000 employees who are fully invested in the company mission, empowered to collaborate, and committed to developing products and services in the scope of their day-to-day jobs that create shared value benefitting the company and society.

The sooner our nation’s largest employers re-double their efforts towards engaging
their employees--white collar and blue collar alike--in a meaningful, grassroots, and collaborative way, the better off society will be as whole. In a world where social change is possible, where ideas can spread to millions at the touch of a button, therein exists tremendous opportunity for companies to increase productivity, educe operating expenses, and leapfrog foreign competition by working together with employees en masse. We can become healthier as a nation, more educated as a society and reduce our reliance on carbon, all while designing a better future for our children. Companies, not big government, have the ability and flexibility to create the conditions that will bring more unemployed Americans back to work.

In order to make real progress towards achieving these ends, however, leaders need to embrace the truth. Inspiration on the human level requires real emotional connection. It does not have to entail fighting for life, liberty and justice, but it does need to evoke an emotional response from the individual and the group at large. People need to connect with a vision of greatness, hope, truth or beauty in order to feel inspired. The promise of an improved financial outlook or even a narrative highlighting company activities in a glossy CSR report will never create infectious, contagious, electrifying inspiration that can actually be sustained over time.

While the vast majority of publicly traded companies have a CSR, citizenship, sustainability or social good framework, most employees who work for these same corporations could not even identify three things the company is doing to make the world a better place or give a clear articulation of how their job ladders up to the company’s efforts (if you don’t believe me, go see for yourself). And so inevitably the best springboard to inspire, empower, and educate a person, to ignite a population, has largely gone unused. Now is the time to embrace the belief that an inspired group of individuals has the power to bring about real and significant change. Employees have that same power.

Judah Schiller is co-founder and CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi S, a San Francisco based consulting firm focused on activating companies for good.

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  • David Kaiser, PhD

    Thank you, Judah, for stating the position that so many companies have resisted for years: "Inspiration on the human level requires real emotional connection." You can't get this from a bonus system, or from any kind of putivie program, it can only come from an emotional connection between the employees and the the company's mission and / or leaders as people. Squashing emotion as "unprofessional" only drains energy that could be used to advance the company's goals.

    David Kaiser
    Time Management Coach for Authentic Leaders
    www.DarkMatterConsulting.com