I enjoyed a recent conversation with my friends and frequent collaborators, Darin Harris and Steve Davis (see www.journey of collaboration.com for a series of excellent courses on facilitation, leadership, and fully engaging groups to reach their potential). Darin brought along a brief video illustrating the interdependence of the economy, showing the simple (yet fundamental) lesson that when we make a purchase at the store, it is not merely an “independent economic decision,” but one reliant upon many others in a variety of places, who in turn depend upon us to make those purchases to keep them employed, healthy, and whole. Darin even commented that perhaps we should celebrate “Interdependence Day.” I totally agree.
The Myth of Independent Work
In our workplaces, we like to think of ourselves as independent workers, and most compensation systems reward us (or not) based upon individual performance. Managers do performance reviews one by one, even in situations where we recognize that those individual contributions rely upon a supply chain of talent to get the job done. We may even compare ourselves to one another and have feelings regarding whose work is recognized, whose is overlooked, whose retention is prized, and whose efforts are “essential” in various ways to the organization. Personally, I feel that I am highly independent in my approach to work, and I like to focus on my personal skills and knowledge as being important to the ultimate outcome of my efforts.
Certainly, our individual efforts are important, but we are products of a myth regarding our independence within the workplace and the economic system. It is an illusion that we passively accept, as the framing of such reward systems is actually a result of our hierachical, bureaucratic ways of organizing our efforts: Our work is actually quite interdependent, where there is a mutually reliant network of workers whose contributions are all essential to the final product or service being offered. We notice this, to be sure, and may even sing platitudes to such relationships, but we still accept the initial underlying assumptions that drive our behaviors.
We are also fond of saying we have “work teams,” but we often use this term euphemistically. Teams are truly interdependent entities. While some groups call themselves teams, they are actually composed of members who work very independent or one another, barely communicating or coordinating with one another, and where their work products are evaluated separately and individually. Other groups are characterized by hierarchy and dependent relationships; these are not truly teams; they exist in service to the leader’s priorities (it’s “Jim’s Team” or “ABC Leadership Team”). Success is measured in terms of how well the group advances the leader’s agenda, which is often externally defined and assessed, and where the group’s power is defined in relationship to the hierarchy and bureaucracy.
In contrast, true teams are composed of interdependent members, where their full skills and talents are aligned in service to a shared mission to which they are fully committed, and where their success is evaluated collectively. In my work over the years with businesses, public agencies, and community groups, I’ve tried to help them sort out the qualities of effective teams that are necessary in order to forge these interdependent relationships. And it has often been a key moment of insight in this process when groups come to grips with their shared identity: Are they truly teams? Do they really aspire to be interdependent? If not, what is their nature and how well does it achieve their collective vision of who they seek to be?
In my mind, all businesses and organizations need to have these conversations if they are going to survive and thrive in this uniquely challenging time. They need to be resilient, adaptable, and nimble to notice how to use their shared talents to respond to the unique challenges of the moment. As discussed in What Matters at Work, the time has come to create “next level organizations” (as Laloux calls them in Reinventing Organizations), where the people, processes, and structures of the organization are aligned to facilitate interdependent relationships in service to a greater good. The current economic system largely fails to properly capture the value and power of such arrangements, failing to transcend our individual contributions in any sustained and meaningful way. It also fails to account for the genuine role of “public goods” in the economy, which would be more fully realized once we accept the premise that our higher nature is one of Interdependence, rather than Independence.
A Declaration of Interdependence: What Type of Society do we Seek to Become?
For those of us living in the US and Canada, this is a week of national identity and a celebration of Independence. Yes, we celebrate the freedoms to choose our life paths (though with widely varying privileges to do so), to earn a living and to express ourselves as fundamental rights (again, this varies widely in both countries). But is this what we should be seeking as the greatest expression of who we are and should be as a society? I suggest that we should celebrate and aspire to a Declaration of Interdependence. We hold these truths to be critically important (if not self-evident):
- That all people, animal and plant species, and other life forms are mutually reliant upon one another on this planet, and that we as People of Earth are uniquely responsible to the sustainability and healthy expression of Life;
- That all people, as guardians of this precious planet and it’s fragile resources, are dedicated to its protection in ways that further its diversity and viability so future generations may benefit from its bounty;
- That we, the current generation, devote ourselves to creating social, political, economic, and spiritual institutions that recognize the paramount nature of Interdependence and commit our lives in This Time to fundamental reforms of current institutions towards that end;
- That we use the opportunity of This Moment to engage in deep examination, reflection, and actions that address fundamental, systemic deficiencies in our current societies to redress those factors that discriminate, oppress, and suppress the opportunities for all to participate fully in determining the nature and direction of our societies.
There is more to declare, I expect, but first we must accept these core principles, listen fully to one another regarding how we experience our lives together, and then determine where we each have power, influence, and Will to get things done. But we have to start somewhere, and this seems like a good place to begin at this time of national celebration. There is a lot to do.