A couple of centuries ago, we were "subjects." New ideas, revolutions, and the spread of democracy transformed us into "citizens" with personal choice and freedom — except at work. Our industrial-age organizations are the last redoubts of feudalism. CEOs can still be like monarchs surrounded by courtiers. Behind the progressive window-dressing, a one-way chain of command remains in force. As employees and as consumers, most people follow orders with little voice or influence.
The results are ugly. A recent Gallup Poll shows 71% of U.S. workers consider themselves "disengaged" clock-watchers who can't wait to go home. In Harris Interactive's 2004 Annual Corporation Reputation Survey, 74% say corporate America's reputation is "not good" or "terrible." That's not just a reaction to recent scandals. In fact, the industrial-age fiction that divides the world into employees and consumers is one reason the workplace survives as a last bastion of monarchy, breeding resentment among its constituents.
Take my friend Hanna, a sculptor. When her husband left her with three little boys to support, she needed health insurance and a steady paycheck. She finally landed a job working 10-hour shifts at a call center, but the financial security had a cost. Now she sells high-interest loans to people much like her. She realizes that such products can ravage their savings and erode their credit. She wants to warn them but knows her interests conflict with theirs. How much richer would this company be, she wonders, with products that made families stronger? She hates herself at work and tries not to think about it. You can read the toll in her eyes, though.
Hanna is a victim of the myth that employees are inside the organization and consumers are faceless others "out there." Although employees are also consumers, on the job they are required to treat others the way they themselves dread being treated outside work.
To what do we owe this economic schizophrenia? The starting point was mass production. Instead of unique wares for individual customers, products were standardized and sold more cheaply to a depersonalized consumer. Henry Ford's $5 day helped clinch the deal. An amazing amount of money in 1914, it sent a new message: Obey our efficiency rules, and we'll pay you enough to be able to buy this stuff. The idea was that companies (and their employees) owed consumers only efficiency, because that translated into cheap goods. Anything about a worker that didn't contribute to efficiency wasn't valued. Compliance produced cheap products and the cash to buy them—that's the devil's bargain that justified our split economic personalities.
This legacy persists while everything else has changed. Instead of mass consumers, we're now complex individuals in search of choice, control, and influence. We're not buying just products anymore, but health care, insurance, credit, education—things that intimately affect our quality of life. We want more from companies than efficiency. We want relationships that help solve our unique problems, not anonymous transactions that create more of them.
As frustrated as we are off the job, the old bargain now exacts a high price on the job. Up and down the organization, we find ourselves confined to narrow efficiency rules set by others. All too often, we know that if we could just remove the blinkers, we could create more satisfaction and more wealth. Instead, like Hanna, we are required to ignore the real needs of others and suppress the best of what we've learned in life. Small wonder that one study of customer-service representatives reveals levels of burnout that match or exceed those of high-stress professionals such as police officers, medical residents, and mental-health workers. Divided against ourselves and one another, our stress is amplified wherever we turn.
It's time for a new bargain. Let's drop the myth of consumers and employees. Let's recognize that we are each an individual economic citizen at work or at home. Some of us sell; all of us buy. The cash we spend sustains more than two-thirds of all jobs—so we're actually paying one another. Instead of cash for compliance, we need a new deal in which authenticity, knowledge, and empowerment on the job produces more shared life satisfaction, releasing more cash that in turn supports more jobs. Instead of the old zero-sum roles, let's acknowledge that we are interdependent and assert our rights of citizenship in commerce as well as in politics. If we reconceive the enterprise as being of, by, and for individual economic citizens, what will the monarchs do?
A version of this article appeared in the Table of Contents - May 2004 issue of Fast Company magazine.