What’s wrong with the workplace – and what’s next

By all accounts, the current state of work is good. Flexible schedules are beginning a workplace transformation. Hierarchal structures are being dismantled, replaced with decentralized team-oriented organizations.  Rewards are no longer exclusively linked to extrinsic motivations like salary or titles, but to projects that make us feel good and do good for the planet.

Fresh-faced workers are responding in kind with idealism, strong ethics, and bright-eyed expectations to change the world. With energy and impatience to do something that matters. Even in the recession, we shine to thrive.

And it is from such high hopes that we discover such low realities. Where real life makes every effort to shut us down. Cramp the rainbows. Take out the sun. Step on our rose-colored lenses.

One twenty-something likens entering the real world to “a confidence-killing daily assault of petty degradations. All of this is compounded by the fear that it is all for nothing; that you are a useful fool.”

The bully to blame is work politics and its shameful hum in the background of most companies is a deafening precursor to what we know, but ignore:  companies that are built on lies, deceit and manipulation fail.

A recent UK study revealed there is a clear gap between dreams and reality. One in three graduates believes their employer has not met expectations, that management stifles innovation, and that their opinions are undervalued.

Workers are spending more time learning a game with unspoken rules and invisible puppeteers than engaging in any real contribution to society. A fashion designer started a once-anonymous blog to expose such humiliations in his own industry, writing his first posts on “designers whose careers he thought had been unduly advanced by the support of fashion’s power brokers, rather than evidence of hard work.”

But most of us are silent on the issue. Many of us just settle, choosing to bow out of the game, and some bow out of the system all together. Others join the dark side, if you will. And still others – a small, but inspirational minority – bring such goodness and dedication to their jobs that you can almost see halos forming above their brow line.

There is a natural learning curve to growing up, of course. And while it’s okay to learn that change is hard, that everything doesn’t work out because you wish it so, that you have to pay dues, and that life is generally not fair, it’s not okay to live a life without integrity.

It’s not okay to engage in power plays. It’s not okay to cheat and form alliances and be exclusionary. It’s not okay to be unethical or gossip or commandeer confidence and ideas and dreams as a buck-toothed swindler. Pirates, we are not.

When did manipulation become the status quo? When did deceit become “just business”? And when, exactly, did we start ignoring such desperation? When did it become a humming that we worked alongside instead of a shrill invasion?

Instead of gorging on control and power and greed like goblins, companies should take note of Netflix and their “Freedom & Responsibility Culture.” A company that doesn’t theft and abuse the self-worth of their employees, but encourages it with great candor.

“The [Netflix] executives trust staffers to make their own decisions on everything – from whether to bring their dog to the office to how much of their salary they want in cash and how much in stock options,” reports BNET.

In their internal presentation on their work policies, Netflix asks what it would be like if every person you worked with was someone you respected and learned from, defining a great workplace as one filled with “stunning colleagues.” Where responsible employees thrive on freedom, are worthy of a culture of innovation and self-discipline, and even brilliant jerks can’t be tolerated.

Netflix argues that “the best managers figure out how to get great outcomes by setting the appropriate context, rather than trying to control people.” They urge their managers to ask themselves when they are tempted to control their people, “Are you articulate and inspiring enough about goals and strategies?”

The result is that the company isn’t bogged down in the policies, rigidity, politics, policies, mediocrity or complacency that infects most organizations. Instead, they are adept, fast and flexible. And they’re honest and human. Incredibly human.

Netflix is just one example. My job at a non-profit that served the poorest of the poor, but kept laughter flowing through the office is another. My current position is still another.

And those examples are the future of work, the next step after company-supplied daycare and work-life balance programs.

A future without work politics. A future with goodness. And probably some rainbows too.

What do you think are some of the problems facing work today? Have work politics been an issue? What are some trends you see for the future?