Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The We Decade

In 1976 Tom Wolfe coined the phrase "The Me Decade" in an article in New York Magazine. It was an extraordinary piece, a brilliant take-down of the burgeoning therapy culture. Fortunately it is available online. I recommend it highly. Link here.

Of course, it takes more than a piece of writing to change a culture. In fact, the Me Decade lasted for two more decades. With apologies to Tom Wolfe the Me Decades lasted from the mid 1970s to late 2008.

Surely, the Me Decade was alive and well in 1999. Then the executive coaching form WJM Associates did a survey of executive coaches and discovered that most executives wanted coaches to help them address Me issues: self-awareness, personal goal-setting, stress management, and improved quality. Link to story here.

You would think that coaches in 1999 were acting like therapists, or were being called on to inculcate the values of the therapy culture.

No one should estimate the challenge they faced. Managing people who thought that their jobs were supposed to help them to actualize their human potential was no small task. One executive described it to me with an old metaphor: providing leadership to autonomous, independent, creative free spirits was like herding cats.

As you know if you have been following this blog, I have been hypothesizing that the Me Decades crashed last fall. Apparently, the orgy of self-indulgence had been underwritten by a seemingly limitless supply of cheap credit. When the credit froze, many people were forced to take a long hard look at their values. Thoughts about personal self-actualization suddenly felt empty. Many shifted focus from Me to We.

WJM Associates reached the same conclusion when they analyzed the results of a recent survey. They found a shift in focus and emphasis. No one was talking about self-actualization. Business leaders were calling on coaches to help them deal with We rather than Me issues.

Some of them were: How do you motivate a team? How do you allocate tasks and exercise leadership? How should a manager set policy and strategy? What does it take to ensure that a policy is executed effectively? What constitutes good communication with people who are more interested in the good on the group than in their personal self-fulfillment.

All of this is good news. Yet, old habits die hard. One of the central challenges of managing in the We Decade is helping people to overcome the bad habits that the culture had been fomenting over the Me Decades, and to lead them to develop good work habits.

For many companies success in meeting these challenges will spell the difference between survival and oblivion.

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