In recent decades—especially in the United States—job security, retirement security, and employee loyalty have all declined dramatically. Said another way, companies have completely and utterly abandoned their employees. We are not in this together; we are in this on our own.
Along the way, leaders have either failed to acknowledge the magnitude of these shifts or have mangled their reactions. Way back in 1996 at Ogilvy & Mather, I watched WPP leader Martin Sorrell assure hundreds of employees that he, in fact, was taking care of employees, and that those he cared about had already been compensated appropriately. The vast majority of employees in the room did not fit onto Martin's "worthy" list, yet he still droned on and on with the same BS pep talk. In fairness, maybe he had jet lag... but it was my first exposure to what seemed like truly heartless leadership.
As business has become all about the investors, anyone with intelligence has learned that—all too often—leaders say one thing but do another. Companies are set up to funnel cash to private equity investors, VCs, and also individual investors. Technically, any of us can participate. But the average American hasn't saved enough money for retirement even after 30 years, so how much cash do you have to profit from an "investors first" approach to business? Not nearly enough.
Putting investors first means that employees come last, or close to it. So when leaders start talking about teamwork, collaboration, responsiveness, and adaptability... what does it mean?
It means: do whatever leaders say, regardless of whether that is in your interest.
We all need income, so on the surface, we go through the motions. We try to be "customer responsive" and "adaptable". We read career guides and management bestsellers, to stay at the leading edge, or at least to be able to guess when a flaming arrow is heading for our forehead.
If this sounds a tad negative, I apologize. But it strikes me as schizophrenic that leaders go through the motions of being visionary and inspirational without acknowledging the new reality of the degree to which we are all on our own.
This is not how human society is supposed to function...
In The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone, Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach make the case that human beings depend on community knowledge to survive. One person knows how to kill the deer, another knows how to skin and preserve it, another cooks the meat, and still another protects the camp. They point out that the least capable among us tend to overestimate our knowledge and skills, while only the most expert tend to understate it. This means it is easy to forget how dependent we are on others, and how little we know on our own.
A freelancer-based world in which each worker has to navigate the world alone? This is not how to maximize human achievement or output. If leaders want to build great teams and great companies, they must figure out new ways to unite together the interests of diverse groups of people. Until then, employee loyalty will be dead, customer loyalty will continue to decline, and we will all accomplish only a portion of what we are capable of achieving together.
What do you think? I'd love to hear from you.
(Photo credit: Bruce Kasanoff… Alone is the woods is no way to lead your career. )
This article originally appeared on Forbes.