What’s the Big Idea? 

A subtle but undeniable shift has been taking place in American corporate management theory. Roughly, the change corresponds to psychology’s shift from punishment & reward focused Skinnerian behavioralism to a focus on human relationships and development. Not surprisingly, it has taken large corporations, which tend by nature toward conservatism (they’re big, so change is  always unwieldy, expensive, and time consuming) , several decades to catch up.  

Harvard Business Review is always a reliable gauge of current trends in management. Its 10 Must Reads on Leadership for 2011 features psychologist Daniel Goleman on the importance of emotional intelligence, and three other pieces about how leaders ought to demonstrate humility and be transparent about their weaknesses. And another one called Why Should Anyone Be Led By You? The focus here is undeniably worker-centered. Leadership means respecting the people who work for you and earning their devotion.  

From management’s standpoint, the question is always more or less the same: how do you get people to give their utmost – in terms of energy, creativity, and diligence – to the company? This is by no means a selfless motive, but the irony those who run corporations are increasingly coming to accept is that an employee-centered attitude is in their own best interests.

Jim Quigley, former CEO and now Senior Partner of Deloitte, and the co-author of As One: Individual Action, Collective Power, has had the daunting task of trying to get 180,000 people on the same page. Central to that task, he says, has been the creation of Deloitte University – a $350 million dollar embodiment of Deloitte’s commitment to its employees’ professional goals and development. 



What’s the Significance? 

Several factors have converged to produce this revolution in mainstream leadership thinking. There’s the aforementioned field of psychology and its enormous influence on popular culture, which has shaped a millennial generation whose brightest lights are quick to quit their jobs (the tough market notwithstanding) if they don’t feel properly challenged or appreciated. There’s also the ferocious success of human-centric Silicon Valley startups like Google. In addition to competing with more traditional companies for employees, they’ve redefined the cultural landscape; When a business generates billions of dollars, its in-office ping pong tables and bean bags cease to be so laughable. 

In management strategy, fads come and go – but this humanizing trend may be here to stay. It’s in keeping with some of the broader cultural shifts that the internet and social networking are producing, away from rigid hierarchies and toward smaller, more collaborative, decentralized work-groups. In a rapidly changing marketplace, businesses whose employees feel integral to the enterprise and empowered to take entrepreneurial action will likely meet challenges more creatively and effectively than moribund bureaucracies with a carrot-and-stick approach to motivation.  

And neither savvy young employees nor the volatile marketplace will be fooled by lip service. Calling every employee a “team member” will make a difference to their job satisfaction and a business’ long-term success only if everyone has a genuine, recognized stake in the game.


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