When is Worker Engagement Worker Exploitation?

7165038740_c1361af245_zThere has been a lot of talk lately about the “commoditization of mindfulness” in corporate America.  Invariably, when I post an article that talks about using strategies of mindfulness or positive psychology to improve employee satisfaction or engagement, I get a mixed response.  There are some who believe that by promoting these strategies, I am simply giving another tool to large corporations they can use to control and exploit their workers.  Positive psychology may be used, they fear, to keep workers “positive” in spite of being treated miserably.

I generally disagree with these comments.  I think employers should look after the wellbeing of their workers.  And as an employee myself, I wouldn’t mind getting a dose of mindfulness or positive psychology from my superiors on a regular basis.   I’ve worked at places where I was miserable and I’ve worked at places where I was happy.  I’d rather be happy.

And if this means that the company saves money by trading some other employment benefit for happiness, I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing. Imagine two companies . . . one that treats their employees like shit but pays them well; OR one that pays much less but creates a positive workplace where people are able to do meaningful and enjoyable work that taps into their greatest strengths and their most important goals.  Which one would you rather work at?

I’m not a huge fan of our capitalist system incentivizing everything around corporate profits, but when a company works on creating greater wellbeing for their employees and customers because it is the profitable thing to do, this is an example of capitalism working the way it is supposed to.

All of that being said, these skeptics do bring up an important point.  In our capitalist society, corporations will prioritize profits over people and will use whatever tools they have at their disposal to do so. It is a good question to consider how and when positive psychology could be used or abused to exploit employees.

Here are 5 questions to ask to help differentiate between engagement and exploitation:

  1. What is the primary goal or incentive?  Is the primary purpose of the intervention to enhance productivity and profitability or to increase wellbeing?
  2. Is the participation mandatory?  Does the organization require individuals to practice certain techniques?  Or is this offered as a benefit and a growth opportunity for those who are interested?
  3. Who has to change?  Is this only about the individual adapting to the needs and environment of the workplace?  Or does the workplace also have to change to accommodate the needs of the individual?
  4. Does it exist in culture and in practice from the top down?  Is this an intervention applied exclusively to the line employees while some corporate overlord looks down from above?  Or is it an intervention that is embraced and practiced at all levels of the organization?
  5. Can the individual benefit at the expense of the organization?  Businesses adopt these strategies because they make their employees more productive.  But it is only natural that if individuals begin to use positive psychology or mindfulness to get more in touch with their values, those values may lead them away from, rather than towards, the goals of the organization.

In a recent interview on the Buddhist Geeks podcast, Dr. Ronald Purser, a Zen Buddhist teacher and a professor of management at SFSU, describes “High Wisdom Organizations” that use mindfulness, not as a way to “pacify” their work force, but as a way to create a healthier and more virtuous organization.

1483871472_52b8a6a3baAccording to Purser, at these HWOs, “mindfulness is not just a way to help individuals cope or adapt or accommodate or even accept a dysfunctional culture.”  On the contrary, they “widen the scope” of their mindfulness programs “to look at the collective sources of stress and suffering.”

While an exploitative program may only be about individuals being inoculated against the institutional sources of stress in the organization, a true engagement strategy would have sensitivity towards these systemic problems and seek to eliminate or improve them.  Corporate positive psychology, if done right, should help the entire system evolve.


by Jeremy McCarthy (@jeremymcc)

P.S. My course on Positive Leadership in Spas and Hospitality will be starting again in January 2014.  If you would like to learn more about the course, please email me: jeremy@psychologyofwellbeing.com.


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6 Responses to When is Worker Engagement Worker Exploitation?

  1. Sherri November 21, 2013 at 11:52 am #

    Great, provocative line of questioning, Jeremy. What is the nature of desirable change? Would defining that, and operationalizing it for research, still bring us back to “It depends”?

  2. Dan Bowling November 22, 2013 at 12:56 am #

    I cannot believe that anyone who has ever worked for more than one day in the private sector would actually think that offering mindfulness training is some sort of unfair labor practice. Jeremy, ignore anyone silly enough to criticize your writing in this area.

  3. Dave Shearon November 22, 2013 at 7:12 am #

    Great post, Jeremy. I think questions 2-4 may be all you need. They cover the question. #1 is problematic as I suggest most organizations would not (and generally should not) be engaged in significant efforts that are outside their purpose. For example, school systems should be focused on student learning, and anything that does not contribute to that is not the proper action of the school system. Of course, in that example,the “what” of student learning is critical. Just what is tested by the accountability system? Everything that is included in the “curriculum”. Or, all of that plus skills needed to succeed and developing and maintaining the kind of engagement, behaviors, and relationships that produce well-being throughout life? If all-of-the-above is the answer (and it is mine) the teaching thriving skills becomes and easy decision with the added benefit of helping teachers, improving school climate, etc.

    For a corporation, undertaking activities that will not produce, or perhaps even lessen, profitability over the long haul is much more problematic. However, the argument is clearly that supporting the engagement and well-being of employees supports the long-term adaptability and productivity needed for profitability.

    The most interesting case is the employee-owned organization, and I’m especially thinking of one of the groups I work with – lawyers. Could the partners of a law firm decide to accept a slight lower profit-per-partner in exchange for greater engagement and well-being at work. (Assuming that is a necessary decision – I’m not arguing that it is. But, it might be.) However, as a group decision, it would be a tough one to reach agreement on.

    As for your final point, I think this is an unavoidable consequence of any effort that builds self-awareness. The employee may well realize that his or her role in the organization, or the organization’s culture, is a poor fit and take steps to improve it, which could involve asking for change or leaving, either of which would be disruptive in the short run. Over the long-haul, however, unless the organizational climate is bad for most employees, even these disruptions would produce a more productive, resilient, and profitable organization.

  4. Jeremy McCarthy November 22, 2013 at 12:56 pm #

    Dave, I completely agree with you that the primary purpose of a corporation is profit, and I did think about this point that you raised before including #1 on the list. Many of the critics of corporate positive psychology seem to point at profit as an outcome or a goal of the programming to be an automatic indicator of “exploitation.” But I think it is much more nuanced than that (and to Sherry’s point, yes “it depends” because there are a lot of grey areas here.)

    But I would not go so far as to eliminate this point about the motivations as a part of the criteria to measure exploitation. Although profit will always be a driver of corporate activity, the motivations of all involved deeply effect how we feel about the activity.

    To give you an example imagine a business where the CEO decides to invest $50,000 in a new PP program to improve the happiness of his workers. The workers feel good that their CEO is investing in their wellbeing, they enjoy the program and it is deemed successful by all concerned because both productivity/profitability and worker satisfaction are at an all-time high.

    Now imagine this hypothetical story splits into two versions when a memo from the CEO to the Financial Controller about the goals of this intervention is somehow leaked to the employees. In version 1 the memo shows the CEO expressing how important the wellbeing of the employees is to the values and ethos of the company and that he has found a way to develop this in a way that will also promote, and not hinder, the financial objectives of the company. In version 2, the memo shows the CEO expressing how they think this training will help them to avoid salary increases and will improve morale without having to invest significantly in improving the conditions or the leadership of the organization. When the motivations become more transparent, it starts to feel more like exploitation in version 2 and less in version 1.

    Your comment is a reasoned response to those who cry exploitation every time profit comes in to the picture. As you suggest, profit will (and should) be an important part of the outcomes. But there are differences between those who pursue profit-at-all-costs and the majority of business leaders, who I believe would like their companies to be good for their employees and good for the planet if they can do it in a way that makes economic sense for the organization.

    I agree with your last point as well! Thanks Dave!

  5. Marie-Josee Shaar November 22, 2013 at 5:32 pm #

    Great article, J! I’m with you on all of the above.

    I gave a keynote today to a group of managers for a Park District agency. The most provocative statement I made was “what is the ROI of the drownings you have prevented over the last decade thanks to your safety program? You don’t know, and you don’t care, because certain things you don’t do for ROI purposes.”

    I stand by that statement. Certain things have to be done for purposes other than ROI. Ever-increasing profit isn’t always the right thing.

    Just my perspective…

  6. tiggy November 24, 2013 at 4:08 pm #

    Nothing new hear – programs that aren’t built into an organisations culture aren’t sustainable (org psych 101)

    I do lots of training in organisations. I really don’t care if the organisation is ready for it or not? If 3 in 10 get something that helps them do a little better in life and cope with an ordinary workplace, then I’m happy

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