To avoid being Trumped, businesses must empower employees

Governments aren't the only ones who can stop people feeling 'left behind', says Open University's Peter Bloom.

by Peter Bloom
Last Updated: 19 Dec 2016

The election of Donald Trump as US president shook the political world. Riding on a wave of anti-establishment sentiment, he combined legitimate critiques of globalisation with a troubling mix of xenophobia and authoritarianism. At the heart of this victory was a sense of hopeful nihilism – a desire to destroy the status quo regardless of the costs.

Driving this rather extreme politics was a chronic economic anxiety. Real wages have been stagnant for decades and the lauded recovery has barely reached many, if not the majority, of US citizens. The global ‘race to the bottom’ has made growing numbers feel even more ‘left behind’ by the once celebrated ‘end of history’ of liberal democracy and free markets. Even more worrying, the authoritarian populism is spreading across Europe.

This represents a global challenge to the existing system. How is it possible to combat such dangerous alienation and transform it into something more constructive? A number of solutions are perhaps obvious – if not immediately appealing to employers – more public investment, a strong public welfare system and the building up of a progressive movement promoting economic and social justice. 

However, there is also a positive role for management and businesses to play. Stoking the flames of this populist anger is a mass experience of disempowerment. The supposed ‘inevitability’ of the global free market has produced a longing to retake control of our collective destinies and personal fates. Individuals want to feel more than just a cog in the machine politically and economically.

Within the workplace this manifests in ways that make staff feel they are at the mercy of management decisions. Costs must be cut in order to be competitive. The global marketplace means some people must be made redundant. Outsourcing and plant closings are unavoidable. In these times of seemingly permanent austerity we must all learn to do much more with much less. Zero hour contracts make employment even more insecure and increase anxiety.

Attempts at empowerment can sometimes do little to alleviate such concerns. An emphasis on inclusion can, in practice, appear to merely be a more sophisticated means for getting employees to ‘buy in’ to senior management prerogatives. Their opinions and wellbeing are less important than the bottom line. Similarly, ‘empowerment’ strategies such as flexible working and the call for work-life ‘balance’ are aimed at increasing productivity and work intensification – instead of actually making people feel more autonomous or powerful.

A key way then to reverse this trend is through the creation of a genuinely empowering workplace. This means doing more than simply ‘including’ staff in already decided upon strategies. It requires introducing real opportunities for workers to make their voices heard and help shape the direction of the firm. Further, it reflects the need to foster business cultures that are democratic rather than dictatorial.

It must also involve allowing employees to have a greater say over their own professional and personal lives. Management should be committed to introducing policies that allow their workers to better manage their own affairs without the risk that such ‘freedom’ must come with greater job insecurity or work intensification.

The fear, of course, is that such forms of updated industrial democracy and employee empowerment will threaten a company’s financial competitiveness. However, as the election of Trump has shown, when profits rule then people will eventually rebel. Such upheavals can result in greater social division and even more repressive exploitation. If businesses and society want to not only survive but also prosper, they must first and foremost prioritise the needs and interests of employees. 

Austerity and globalisation are sowing the seeds for the replacement of the current order in quite dangerous and destructive ways. For organisations of all types, business as usual is simply no longer sustainable. The only to way to manage this crisis is through greater inclusion and democracy. To avoid being ‘Trumped’ businesses must do all they can to include their employees.

Peter Bloom is Head of Department for People and Organisations at the Open University Business School.

Image credit: Jamelle Bouie/Flickr

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