Today’s leaders have a choice to make: encourage their workers to be “partners in co-creation” or swim against the tide while clinging to the old paradigm of “management”. David Weitzner shares five reasons why co-creation is the way to go.
It is time for those of us at the beating heart of business to make a choice. Do we want to stay committed to the increasingly unpopular paradigm of “management?” Or are we ready to go all-in on co-creation, a more multifaceted system that can reshape economic organising and bring a greater sense of purpose to all those involved in the cooperative efforts of value creation?
Do we want team players or partners?
Oftentimes, when management gurus talk about cooperation, what they really mean is managing subordinates into self-sacrifice. Cooperation in this paradigm is contingent on repression. A common refrain is that only through sacrifice can we achieve together what cannot be achieved alone. Being acknowledged as a “team player” who takes the bench for the sake of the larger group is a lot like the feeling after winning a participation award … it is something … but not all of it is good. Research shows that even being a team player who is not on the bench can be inefficient, running the risk of burning out by accommodating every request or saying “yes” to too many meetingsi.
Most workers today do not want to be managed, even benevolently. They want to be partners in co-creation, a creative relationship where everyone is empowered to bring their whole selves to the exchange, regardless of hierarchies. They want an opportunity to exercise more judgement and engage in more authentic cooperation as they work.
Feeling like you are being managed is antithetical to work cultures that are likely to thrive today. While certainly exacerbated by the recent global pandemic and the ongoing socio-economic fallout, there has been a long-brewing crisis of worker dissatisfaction. Millennials and Gen Zs, the generations poised to make up the majority of our workforce, view businesses run through the paradigm of managerial capitalism as out of step with today’s prioritiesii. Firms not embracing purpose-driven cooperative partnerships as their default will face disconnected and unmotivated workers unlikely to stay in their jobs.
Manage what is in front of you or actualise potential?
At the core of co-creation is a rethinking of the singular corporate target function of profit maximisation and the exploitive practices that often accompany it, in favour of a multi-tiered and long-term commitment to meaningful social and personal development. At the end of the day, the ideal actions of business should be designed to bring about new cooperative relationshipsiii.
One source of difficulty faced by workers operating under the management paradigm, and why many struggle to find purpose within work, is that most prescriptive business advice seems to direct attention to the role current stakeholders can play in helping us achieve our goals. Managers are instructed to focus on what is in front of them: the needs of existing shareholders, customers, suppliers, co-workers, etc. The paradigm of co-creation turns our attention to that which is in a state of potential: future customers, prospective colleagues, unrealised innovations, new alliances, and the ever-present hope of expanding our community.
We know that elite cultures are those that exhibit highly connected work environments, where there exist meaningful relationships across the organisational hierarchy, from the senior executives to front-line employees. Where folks envision a future of working together, and the relationship is more than short-term and transactional.
Rationalise order or trust your intuition?
Cutting-edge research seems to demonstrate that the decision to engage in cooperative behaviour stems primarily from intuitioniv. We do not cooperate because a manager told us to, or because we engaged in a managerial type of situational analysis and came to the rational conclusion that the optimal path is cooperation. We offer our cooperation when there is the possibility of building longer-term relationships with real human beings who are signalling an interest in something more than order or efficiency.
Furthermore, it appears as if cooperation stems from error-prone intuitions, whereas self-interest stems from more corrective deliberation. And boosting reliance on intuition as opposed to rational deliberation should mean increased cooperation, as rational deliberation only reduces cooperation in social dilemmas, but never increases it. This contradicts the traditional belief that cooperation primarily stems from the deliberate restraint of our selfish impulses.
Awareness of how we influence others to cooperate with us and what their motivations are for choosing to accept our invitation to work together is one of the key steps in choosing a co-creative framework over a managerial one. Understanding how we engage in this exchange of influence, with insight into the motivations we bring to certain social contexts as well as the influencer motivations we are most receptive tov, will allow for more seamless cooperation in our professional and personal lives.
To hear or listen?
Management envisions conversational scenarios where one party (the manager) plays a far more active role than the passive stance expected of the worker lower down in the hierarchy. In co-creation, it is of fundamental importance that both parties be equally engaged and that both parties feel it is a partnership with equitable power distribution. Key to a co-creative exchange is communication and clarity, but these are achieved through challenge and intellectual innovation.
In co-creation, it is not just the speaker who is in an active state of engagement. The interlocutor is engaged in active listening, where they listen in a way that is quite different to what we are used to. The not-yet-speaking party is still participating in and contributing to the endeavour in a critical way. Many of us assume to have mastered the skill of assimilating aural stimuli as children, often equating hearing with listening. But the act of listening involves participating in the experience in a more sophisticated manner. The expectation is that both parties are in a constant state of engagement. Co-creative analysis and interpretation is a collaborative endeavour driven by both the individual who is speaking and the listener who is processing the ideas of the speaker. The listener is always ready to challenge the speaker, not out of hostility but out of trust and respect for the work necessary to achieve the optimal outcome of understanding, progress, and friendship.
Relatedly, a co-creative work culture is one where all organisational members are truly interested in receiving feedback. It is a culture that values learning, operating on the principle that when someone’s work needs improvement, they will be provided with blunt but constructive feedback, thus given the opportunity to grow and to change.
Encourage passivity or risk-taking?
Our culture has begun to associate safety with passivity. We are only truly safe because we withdraw. We are safe at work when our manager lets things be or has managed us into a period of relative calm and stability. The notion of consciously encouraging disagreement, seeing it as a positive force in a conversational exchange, seems to have fallen out of favour in modern times. This is a trend that needs to be reversed. Feeling safe does not mean we are freed from the expectation of taking risks.
But creativity demands conflict and discomfort and is not antithetical to safety. We can trust that our co-creative partners have our best interests at heart even when we are challenged to push ourselves and do something novel. Risk-taking needs to be encouraged, as novel challenges require novel solutions.
In a co-creative environment, the stage is set to facilitate surprise and friendly opposition, where we are actively pushed to do, not just be. By committing to co-creation, each participant is challenged and confronted rather than allowed or encouraged to remain passive. Everybody is willing to take responsibility for what they do, taking risks and owning the consequences.
Leadership as a verb, not a noun
Today’s business leaders have a stark choice: Co-create or manage, because we cannot do both. Some of us may be uncomfortable with this paradigm shift. Using a language of co-creation where we once used the language of management means expanding the boundaries between the social/professional/personal that we have been clinging to for so long.
Executives often ask me: “What does this mean for my power?” But the answer is that the locus (place) of decision-making power remains the same while the nexus (connected groups) takes on greater significance. It may be helpful here to view leading exclusively as a verb and not a noun. Business researchers are finally emphasizing the relational and dynamic aspects of powervi, how a leader’s relationships with stakeholders can be a source of support or resistance and how they must continually adapt to changes in social systems.
There are numerous examples in today’s corporate world of a successful movement away from management. Many business-to-business clients have come to realise that they do not get the best product by managing tech vendors through using roadmaps. Instead, optimal outcomes are often attained by supporting vendors in co-creationvii.
The path to future innovation and greater value creation is through developing authentic partnerships with stakeholders, actualising their best potential, trusting your intuition, really listening, and taking risks. And that is the path of co-creation, not management.
About the Author
David Weitzner (PhD, MBA) is a management professor at York University advocating for co-creation, not management. He is the author of Connected Capitalism, the 2021 INDIES Book of the Year Bronze Winner for Business and Economics, and a regular contributor to Psychology Today with his Managing with Meaning blog.
- Shellenbarger, S. (2018). “You Could Be Too Much of a Team Player,” Wall Street Journal, July 23, https://www.wsj.com/articles/you-could-be-too-much-of-a-team-player-1532352464.
- The Deloitte Global Millennial Survey 2019, https://www2.deloitte.com/content/dam/Deloitte/global/Documents/About-Deloitte/deloitte-2019-millennial-survey.pdf
- Weitzner, D. (2021). Connected Capitalism. University of Toronto Press: Toronto.
- Rand, D.G. et al. (2014). “Social Heuristics Shape Intuitive Cooperation,” Nature Communications 5: 3677.
- Weitzner, D. & Deutsch, Y. (2015). “Understanding motivation and social influence in stakeholder prioritization,” Organization Studies, 36: 1337-1360.
- Lingo, E.L. & McGinn, K.L. (2020). “A New Prescription for Power,” Harvard Business Review, July-August: https://hbr.org/2020/07/a-new-prescription-for-power.
- Weitzner, D. (2021). “Management Is So Passé—It´s Co-Creation That Workers Are Demanding,” The Conversation, November 22: https://theconversation.com/management-is-so-passe-its-co-creation-that-workers-are-demanding-171574.