Stewardship and Organization Development

Guest post by Peter Block.

There have been two ways technology and organizational culture have evolved that make the ideas and practices of stewardship more relevant for OD practitioners than ever. As used here, stewardship means a choice to (1) act in service of the long run, and (2) act in service to those with little power.

For organization development and change in today’s world, stewardship translates into creating accountable and committed workplaces without resorting to increased control or compliance as governing strategies. This is not an easy assignment, considering how patriarchal leadership, the common practice in most organizations, acts in service of the short term and works in the interest of those with high power.

It’s a Digital World

1digitalWe are obviously now working in a virtual and digital world, with all of its joys and sorrows. It is a romanticized world, riding on the wings of speed and frictionless transactions with no human beings involved. It is mesmerizing to grasp the world in a handheld device, much smarter than we will ever be. Technology is credited with bringing the world closer together, spreading democracy, changing the nature of business, supplying round-the-clock connectivity. Geography has been made obsolete.

Here are some aspects of this life that OD practitioners deal with every day: Teams are made up of people who have never been in a room together. This gives rise to the question “How do we build a team that never or rarely meets face-to-face?” The forty-hour workweek is no more. People are online and in touch and reachable most of their waking hours. And expect you to follow suit. If you ask people to park their cell phones at the door, 40 percent say that this is not possible.

We work at home. Our bedroom has become our office. We can work in our pajamas most of the time. This allows us to move our residence anywhere, supposedly take better care of our family, and have more control over our time. We can also go to school at home, so our dining room becomes our classroom. Speed is a value in and of itself. If something is quicker, it is attractive. If we are quicker, we are attractive. Slow food is considered a revolution. Fast food, a value proposition.

Controlling costs is now the dominant value for most organizations, replacing the priority once given to the customer and the employee. Most every job and function (except top management) can be outsourced in order to reduce labor and benefit costs. Travel and training are cut on the rationale that current audio and video technology approximates the sights and sounds of being in the room together in real time.
Stewardship is to serve the long run Click To Tweet
The virtual world is sold on these features. A promise of more freedom to the individual. Work at home, learn at will, and control your time. Get information you need on demand. Be a global citizen. All true. Big change in just a few years.

The Business Perspective

The second major shift is the rise of the “business perspective.” The idea that what is good for business is good for the world. What this means is that the private sector has fully come into its own power to name the debate and create the context for what matters.

Business is the dominant player. In other times, the church and the military set the tone for the society, or government led the way for the social good. Not so now. The lens for assessing our common interests and institutional well-being is the business lens. It now defines the conversation. This is not an argument against business, for businesses are the stabilizing institutions in most communities. They contribute to communities in many more ways than creating jobs. They are the institutions most open to change and adaptation to the new world. They also bring to the community talented and committed people.

The point is not to paint business as a villain. The point is to recognize its power to frame the culture, to frame the context for how we choose to be together. The business perspective affects not only the way we work but also who we are becoming. It defines our new heroes. The contemporary hero is now the entrepreneur. A single soul with faith in an idea that reinvents a marketplace, disrupts a whole industry, takes everything to scale, creates new needs, and provides an escort service into the future.

This glorification produces a certain amount of guilt, so now we put the word social in front of entrepreneur. The social entrepreneur speaks to our wish to integrate our surrender to consumption and materialism with the universal desire to do good in the world.

Side Effects

cover issue 16These two concurrent forces––the ubiquitous technology of the virtual and digital world and the preeminence of the business perspective––have their grip on us. They live on a set of assumptions so deeply embedded in our consciousness that we rarely question them and so cannot ever solve the fundamental issues that keep us and our organizations in patriarchy’s power.

The cost of holding onto these assumptions is increasing isolation, anxiety, fear, and concentration of wealth and power, in our organization and society as a whole. This reality is what calls us to stay interested in the idea of stewardship as a form of organizational governance and a template for lasting organizational change.

For OD practitioners today, this means paying attention to the ways in which these cultural forces combine to shape organizational life: Electronic connection, while touted as valuable for building relationships, has the effect of isolating people more deeply. Take Phil, a friend who works at home for a large technology company. This allows him to move around the country, following his wife’s career. The price he pays is that his time on the computer is minutely monitored by the company. The normal workweek is fifty hours, but he is expected to deliver fifty-eight billable hours a week. Phil works in a world where there is little travel budget for him to be in the room with other employees or to see how what he has designed is being used. There is no budget for his development. The digital revolution that promises more freedom also impinges on our privacy and provides infinitely more control than we thought possible. It creates more instrumental relationships. Thus the isolation.

Stewardship is about putting choice close to the edge and requires a level of trust and relatedness. The electronic world shares information widely, but that does not necessarily mean it builds relationships. It may sustain them once built, but something is lost by not being in the room with other human beings. The virtual world in fact works against trust and relatedness with its vast surveillance capacity. It also has eliminated incidental contact, like passing in a hall, eating in a lunchroom, chatting before and after meetings, or going in and out of work. These peripheral moments, captured in sideways glances, are what build social capital; unplanned, face-to-face encounters encourage the informality where trust and connection are built.

The current business narrative is fundamentally one of scarcity. No amount of pay, no amount of productivity improvement, is enough. Even in good economic times the narrative is one of fierce competition, more cost reduction, grow or die. One effect is increased fear at work. People seem more afraid of their bosses now than twenty years ago. The effect is schizophrenic: fear is joined by a sense of enormous business growth and success at the same time as individual earnings and well-being are declining or staying flat.
The current business narrative is fundamentally one of scarcity Click To Tweet
Stewardship is a narrative of abundance: it says that what we have is enough, that there are limits to growth, and it expands our field of vision to care for something larger than profitability.

The rush of globalization destabilizes our sense of place and security. While globalization has the advantages of increasing our cultural competence, increasing our understanding of other cultures, and providing a positive kind of foreign policy, it moves our center of gravity into unknown territory. Being global citizens can cost us our sense of place, our stability, and the experience of knowing where we belong. Stewardship relies on trust, familiarity, and continuity to do its work.

We are consumed by our anxiety about success. Parents worry about the employment future of their children and having them win in the competitive world we have constructed. In some cases, when you hire an employee, you are also hiring the person’s parental management team; one day you might have to answer to his mom or dad on why you rated their son only above average.

Stewardship supports the assumptions of a cooperative world; it replaces competition with collaboration, self-interest with service. It asks us to care more about meaning and impact than about the traditional concern for upward mobility.

Finally, we continue to be disappointed in our leaders, which means our expectations of them are beyond fulfillment. We seek transformational leaders and relational leaders. We want our mentors, and everyone who can afford it wants a coach. We still love leadership; we just want it to be more benevolent. This focus on leaders tends to centralize accountability instead of distributing it. It says that leaders are cause and employees are effect. Stewardship inverts this and suggests that employees are the central point and bosses need to earn their right to govern.

Many organizations are striving to create an alternative to the traditional command-and-control cultures. Most high-tech companies seek less social distance between levels. They create more informal ways of being together, make the office more like home, and encourage sociability. They are valuing more ownership from employees and more decisions at lower levels. Some older major companies, like Mars and Crown Equipment, clearly value the importance of employees, appreciate the importance of learning, and work to develop relationships and keep trust strong by using high-engagement and stewardship practices.

The Point

1fingerThe leadership challenge for practitioners and our clients is to enable organizations to see the human and workplace consequences of the technological and cultural complexity of this modern age. In an era that constantly drives us in the direction of speed, control, and efficiency, it can be difficult to see and create an alternative narrative, which is one way to frame the work of organizational development.

It means we have to find those pockets of a system willing to create a future that transcends the pressure for lower costs and short-term results. Those pockets exist, they are just are harder to find. There are some counter movements like the Conscious Capitalism group and the budding number of social entrepreneurs that seek a different future.
A business perspective takes away from our humanity Click To Tweet

There is also a renewed interest in the idea of stewardship, which holds a restorative set of values, centered on creating high performance by putting the future in the hands of each member of an organization. These are voices for the common good as an answer to the growing isolation and individualism of the culture.

Finally, the question arises about the unique contribution Organization Development brings to this point in time. The key is in the name, which is to focus on the organization in a world dedicated to the individual. OD was born in the late 1940’s out of the mind of Lee Bradford and friends working for the National Education Association. The innovation was called a T-group, short for training group, and was about working in groups, focusing on relationships, and reimagining the nature of adult learning. It was based on the belief that adults had the capacity to learn from their own experience. Until that time, we thought education was all about teaching. Bradford stopped teaching and engaged adults in using the experience of the group as the content for learning. He created space for surprise and unpredictable insights. It worked and was powerful, but the method has now been fully diluted in the desire for predictable outcomes. In the desire for engineered change-management programs. In the desire for low cost and efficiency.

Stewardship asks OD to stay focused on the group. On the wellbeing of the whole. On the voice and participation of groups of people at lower levels to decide what is worth learning about and what is good for the customer and the business. Also, stewardship asks OD to remember that real development moves, like nature, at a slow pace.
Focus on the common good in a world dedicated to the individual Click To Tweet
If we want sustainability, then we are always taking a stance for a process that produces listening and connecting. The modern work world is isolating. OD has the values and methods to overcome that isolation and be a community-organizing force inside systems.

This all matters because our humanness is on the line. There is too much suffering in the world. The bottom line is always the business case for doing what is expedient and instrumental. The business perspective may be a sound one for profitability and operational outcomes, but it takes away from our humanity when it expands into our worldview, our identity, our definition of modern culture. We think we own the tools, but in fact, the tools begin to own us.

The idea of stewardship and the practice of Organization Development fortify us in our efforts to build humanity-creating institutions and cultures grounded on authentic care and relationship.


Adapted from: “Stewardship: Choosing Service over Self-Interest”, 2d ed. (San Francisco: Berrett-Kohler, 2013).

Peter Block is an author, speaker and citizen of Cininnati. His best selling books include Flawless Consulting, The Empowered Manager, and Stewardship. His most recent books are Community: The Structure of Belonging and The Abundant Community co authored with John McKnight. Peter is a partner in Designed Learning, at training and consulting company:



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Marcella Bremer co-founded this blog and She’s an author and culture & change consultant.

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This Post Has One Comment

  1. Moira MacLean

    Eight years on, this post is still as timely and cogent as ever. So glad you invited him to guest post. Sharing!

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