Rebalancing the Power in the Workplace

It’s fair to say that mutual trust and respect are the foundations of any healthy, adult relationship. And that for both parties to thrive, the power needs to be shared equally between them. Yet the traditional employer-employee relationship is inherently unbalanced. The employer has almost all the power, and expectations and demands run one way, but not the other. Why is work like this?

The parent-child dynamic

Rather than representing a collaboration between adults, the traditional employer-employee relationship is similar to that of a parent and child. The employer has all the power, and dictates the conditions and rules that govern the employee’s work life. The employee must do as the employer says, or suffer the consequences. There is also a clear lack of trust in this dynamic, resulting in the constant monitoring and supervision of the employee’s work and time.

For instance, I once worked for a company that monitored its employees’ toilet breaks. Anyone perceived to be taking too long, or going too frequently, was informed, by email, and advised to speed up the process, or go less often – or else. While this is just one example, it is indicative of what happens when the balance of power is tilted too far in the direction of the employer.

This dynamic is particularly unhealthy, because employees are adults, and adults are used to exercising their own power to make decisions. This is what adult life is about – we are responsible for managing our homes, our health, our finances, and our relationships. Yet in the workplace, we are often stripped of autonomy and forced to accept conditions that we had no say in creating. This imbalance can lead to resentment towards the employer, and a negative feeling around work in general. No wonder so many people are disengaged.

Equal parties in an equal relationship

When you look at what work involves, it is actually an equal exchange – a collaboration where both parties bring something to the table in exchange for something they need. This is true at any stage of one’s career, and at any level of expertise.

The employee brings their skills, experience, and also their time; in exchange they receive a salary, and are provided with the equipment and space needed to perform their job. On the other side of the table, the employer brings stable work; in exchange they get what they need – someone with the skills to drive the business forward and achieve the results they require. It’s an equal trade-off between equal parties. So why doesn’t the employment relationship reflect this?

Perhaps in the past, people were happy to surrender their autonomy and power for the stability of a steady job. There was a sense that employees should be grateful for the opportunity to work somewhere, regardless of the conditions imposed upon them. But this isn’t the case anymore.

Our attitudes and expectation are changing. We now value flexibility over stability, and we desire the freedom to work in ways that suit us. Employees are waking up to the fact that they hold power themselves. What they have to offer is something of value, and they can leverage that power to make choices about how, when and where they work.

In order for work to be mutually beneficial and enjoyable, the traditional employer-employee dynamic has to change. There needs to be a more even balance of power, and both parties should be involved in shaping the way work looks, in recognition of the fact that both have an equal stake in the relationship.

The alliance agreement

At People First, we believe that a more balanced, grown-up approach to work is needed. That’s why we created the People First Alliance Agreement – a blueprint for a new relationship between employer and employee based on mutual trust and respect.

The alliance agreement aims to rebalance the power, and recognises that a professional relationship is a collaboration between two equal parties. As such, expectations run both ways. Instead of making unilateral demands, the alliance agreement asks both parties to make commitments to each other. So instead of entering the relationship thinking ‘this is what I want from you’, both employer and employee say ‘this is what I can do for you.’ Here’s what it looks like.

For those that arrange work it says:

  • We want work to be fun, fulfilling and sustainable and we will work with you to align and grow your skills and life with outcomes that enhance our organisation.
  • We want you to be as productive as possible, so we will create an environment where you can be absorbed in the best of your work.
  • We hope that the alliance works for us both, but if a future alignment between us cannot be found, we will amicably give you good time to find another opportunity that fits you better.

For those who work it says:

  • I want work to be fun, fulfilling and sustainable and I want to grow and help the teams I join. To do this I will consistently explore – for myself – how best I work, what skills I am good at, and those I want and need to improve.
  • I will listen and respond to constructive criticism, and be open and honest when things are not going well or the alignment isn’t working for me.
  • I will be flexible, enjoy new challenges, and tackle them to the best of my ability and effort.


Nick Edwards - http://www.praguecopywriter.com

Nicholas Edwards is a freelance writer and editor based in Prague, the Czech Republic. When he's not helping local businesses master the English language, he loves writing about the future of work for People First. 

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