M. Night Shyamalan published a book on the American education system in 2013. Yep, that M. Night Shyamalan, director of such irrefutable classics as “The Sixth Sense,” and such irredeemable stinkers as “The Happening.”

Titled “I Got Schooled: The Unlikely Story of How a Moonlighting Movie Maker Learned the Five Keys to Closing America’s Education Gap,” the book was funded by Shyamalan’s eponymous foundation and powered by four years of sweeping research by doctoral student James Richardson. The trademark Shyamalan twist? It was actually well-received by many educators, reformers and policy makers.

While “I Got Schooled offers no silver bullets, it does present five interconnected principles found in every effective school they studied: smaller schools not classrooms, more time in school, the right balance of leadership, a process to weed out ineffective teachers, and frequent feedback on teaching practice. The best schools — be they traditional public, charter or private — didn’t employ the principles the same way nor benefit from the same resources. But the principles were all present. The cure for education, according to Shyamalan, isn’t a quick fix; it’s an ecosystem.

Like the human body, each organism has its own physical traits and talents, but remove a lung and it doesn’t matter how strong your heart is.

Systems eat culture for breakfast

Before we start throwing money and programs at workplace fulfillment, let’s take a page out of M. Night’s book. For new initiatives to survive, much less thrive, they must take root in a supportive culture. Professional development becomes professional frustration when employees bring fresh ideas back to a rigid culture. Team building fizzles when we realize it’s easier to escape a room than escape our silos.

Just look at the top responses to a 2017 LinkedIn survey, which asked 14,000 global professionals, “What would make you feel like you belong at the company where you work?”

  • “Being recognized for my accomplishments.” (59%)
  • “Having opportunities to express my opinions freely.” (52%)
  • “Feeling that my contributions in team meetings are valid.” (50%)

These statements operate at a deeper level than perks and programs. They are about being heard, participating in decisions that affect our lives and being treated with dignity. Notice, too, what they are not about: Getting our way, being right or having an equal say.

In a previous article, I cited a PriceWaterhouseCoopers report, which described workplace fulfillment as a combination of growth, impact and relationships. The LinkedIn results point to a deeper demand for participation, belonging and ownership. As philosophers from Kant to Mills and de Beauvoir have each said in their own way, it’s about treating employees not as a means to some end, but as ends in themselves. More programs, better communication, and charismatic leadership can’t do that alone. The era of the fulfilling workplace demands an intentional framework that allows for meaningful participation, one where each employee is a co-owner in their professional growth and impact on company goals.

Co-ownership at the extreme

When Shyamalan began his search for what works in education, he looked to the extremes, observing high-performing schools in action. If conventional businesses want to impart a feeling of ownership, we can find inspiration at the extreme. There is one corporate structure that presumes high employee engagement and literal co-ownership: The worker cooperative, or co-op.

Yep, like your friendly neighborhood co-op grocery, but also like Cooperative Home Care Associates, a Bronx-based home health care cooperative with a staff of over 2,000 and around $60 million in annual revenue. In an industry of predominantly part-time workers, CHCA is able to pay caregivers a full-time wage, provide healthcare benefits and keep turnover to 15% compared to a national average of around 40% for home care workers. As the largest worker cooperative in America, CHCA has been in business for over 30 years and has managed to run a profit in all but three of those years. Through self-governance, they have also managed to inject humanity and dignity into a workforce often treated as expendable.

CHCA’s size and longevity may be exceptional among worker cooperatives, but their performance against traditional firms is not. Overall, worker cooperatives tend to be more resilient, retain employees longer and generate more productivity than similar traditional firms. Additionally, about 63% of the cooperative workers are persons of color. This is no coincidence because people of color, and especially women of color, have for decades leveraged the cooperative model to forge more inclusive, equitable workplaces. In industries as varied as health care, service, retail, technology and education, worker cooperatives have reaped benefits by giving front-line workers agency.

This is not to suggest that all conventional firms should convert to the worker cooperative model. There are certainly risks and limitations to cooperatives, as well as notable benefits that aren’t available to conventional firms. The point is we know, by definition, worker cooperatives require participatory systems. We also know that, generally, cooperatives have a proven track record for increased engagement, productivity and retention. Given all this, leaders at conventional companies could probably learn a thing or two from coops when it comes to designing a framework for more fulfilling work.

Co-opting a more participatory ecosystem

Fortunately, this industry already had its “I Got Schooledmoment. Years ago, professor and social scientist Paul Bernstein pulled together over 50 case studies in worker cooperatives, straddling various industries, 15 countries and 100 years. Berstein and his team identified six core components of effective coops. These components could function at different levels, but to the extent one was missing entirely from the ecosystem, the workplace either ceased to be participatory, or workers demanded the missing component. They published their findings in a short book titled “Workplace Democratization: Its Internal Dynamics.”

Some will recoil at that word: democratization. The workplace, we’re told, is not a democracy. It’s true, worker cooperatives do often include some level of formal voting, often in the form of election of board members or other oversight councils. These mechanisms may not find parity in traditional firms. Yet co-ops — most of which are incentivized by profit — absolutely understand the need for executive function decision making. They cannot afford gridlock at every decision any more than a conventional business. The principles of democracy extend far beyond voting, into a continuum of engagement. This is why, Bernstein explains, they chose the word democratization rather than democracy.

Get hung up on one word, and you just might miss a lush ecosystem for the trees. The goal of a more participatory workplace is not drab equality. The goal is to set rules of engagement that support an inclusive, equitable, vibrant arena of ideas by increasing intrinsic motivation and shared responsibility. It’s a more meritocratic workplace, where previously guarded or silenced ideas bubble up, where experimentation flourishes, where healthy conflict heightens innovation and where reinvention blossoms.

And so, here are Bernstein’s six interdependent principles of highly participatory ecosystems:

  1. Participation in decision-making.
  2. Frequent feedback. (Preferably in the form of economic results to all employees, not just information.)
  3. Sharing management-level information with employees.
  4. Guaranteed individual rights.
  5. An independent board of appeal in case of disputes.
  6. A particular set of attitudes and values.

In the next few articles, I will explore these core components, translate them for more conventional for profits and nonprofits, and provide actionable examples of how you can implement in your work environment. Some will translate easily. Others, like that second principle, clearly require a little more discussion especially for translation into nonprofits. Take part in that discussion by emailing me at [email protected].

Director of Education at Society of Hospital Medicine

Nick is a lifelong learner with over 15 years’ experience in education and organizational leadership. Currently, he brings those very alliterative traits to bear as Director of Education for the Society of Hospital Medicine. He also serves as director on several nonprofit boards, and consults with organizations to design more engaging events and strategic processes. He welcomes your new ideas, challenging thoughts, and banter on Twitter @nmarzano.

Nick is a lifelong learner with over 15 years’ experience in education and organizational leadership. Currently, he brings those very alliterative traits to bear as Director of Education for the Society of Hospital Medicine. He also serves as director on several nonprofit boards, and consults with organizations to design more engaging events and strategic processes. He welcomes your new ideas, challenging thoughts, and banter on Twitter @nmarzano.

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