It shouldn’t come as a surprise that most workers feel unfulfilled at work. Despite the reasons some people may love to work – the feeling of pride from a job well done, mastery of art or craft, our need for social esteem, or fulfillment that comes from creating something of social value – we sure do hate our jobs!
One of the most comprehensive studies on workplace fulfillment, Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace report, found that 85 percent of workers worldwide are cognitively disconnected & emotionally uninvested in their work. Robert Levering, the director at Great Place to Work, has argued that most workplaces are “mildly alienating at best.”
Other polls and economic studies are nearly unanimous in their findings: alienation is pervasive in capitalist workplaces. What is it about contemporary workplaces that make them so alienating? And what is it about human nature that causes these feelings of alienation?
Research on the human brain may hold some answers. Our consciousness gives us the capacity to cognitively abstract ourselves and our actions apart from our physical selves and actions. Before taking any action, we can weigh options, recall relevant memories and experiences, and forecast outcomes.
Neuroscientists have identified our brain’s biological need to use our consciousness to engage in the decisions that affect our lives as the “perception-action cycle” – our cognitive desire for continuous interaction with what impacts us in our environment. Having our “voice” – this very consciousness – taken away from us leads to what social scientists consider alienation: the feeling that we have no agency or impact on the decisions that affect us.
We have long understood that humans have an innate need for freedom. But UCLA neuroscientist Joaquín M. Fuster takes this understanding even further in his book, The Neuroscience of Freedom and Creativity: we also have an innate need to have a fair say in the decisions that affect our lives.
“Our freedom and ability to shape our future are the ultimate offspring of the extraordinary evolution of the human brain,” Fuster writes. To truly engage our consciousness, there must be “continuous functional engagement of our nervous system with the internal and external environments.” To be denied this engagement is a fundamental source of alienation.
What happens if we extrapolate that to the workplace? We spend a large part of our lives working. Work, creativity & innovation are core parts of the human experience. Why leave these aspects of our lives defined by undemocratic & alienating enterprises?
As an economic system, capitalism inherently leaves a large majority of workers with no say in the decisions that impact their environment. But the human brain is not made to just follow orders all day long, completely disconnected from the decisions that change their circumstances.
Instead, every worker must have a real say in the decisions that affect them. Only participatory workplaces, where all workers are engaged and empowered to make decisions that affect themselves and their own departments, will satisfy this human need.
For all workers to have access to this level of fulfillment and engagement, each would need to have a say in decisions proportionate to the degree the decision affects them. If a decision only affects Worker A – like whether they have a picture of their spouse on their desk, then Worker A should be empowered to make that decision on their own. But if, on the other hand, Worker A wants to play a radio loudly that is disrupting others, then those people now affected should be able to have a say too.
This doesn’t mean everyone participates in all decisions, but rather that decisions should be compartmentalized and scaled. If a decision only affects one person, then that one person should have an autonomous say. But if a decision only affects one particular department, then that particular department should have an autonomous say. And finally, if a decision affects the entire workplace, then all workers should participate in that decision.
Furthermore, workers having a say in the decisions that affect them doesn’t mean everyone always gets what they want. Indeed, many times we will not have the results we desire. But it does mean that people feel like they at least had a fair say in the outcome.
Feeling that our voice and our consciousness matter is the key to eliminating alienation and making workplaces more fulfilling for workers. It also likely makes workplaces more productive as well – a recent study found workers who feel heard on the job are nearly five times more likely to say they’re empowered to do their best work.
Economic enterprises affect every aspect of our lives. They affect workers, they affect consumers, they affect communities, and they affect the entire planet. Undemocratic outfits are making decisions that have this immense impact, and yet those of us affected by those decisions have no say in them! Why should we be okay with that?
Real democracy means those affected by decisions have a fair say in those decisions – especially on the job.
Arash Kolahi is an economist, social theorist & consultant. He has over 15 years of experience in economic & financial analysis, consulting & research. His primary areas of research include economic theory, behavioral economics, human nature, psychology & sociology. You can follow him on Twitter at @ArashKolahi.