Walmart is Us

A recent article on “The Disposable Worker” (thank you, Rosa) has me ruminating about our culture. Especially after learning that Walmart and Kelly Services are the two largest employers in the United States beyond the Federal Government. Walmart alone has 1.8 million employees, and has been subject to considerable controversy regarding its business practices. Kelly services, of course, is all about temporary workers. So it is this notion of what is happening to people and to the American Dream, or should I say, the American Illusion, that I have been thinking about.

Entwined with the fundamental philosophy of individualism, the belief that anyone can rise to meet a personal dream with enough hard work, are darker threads, including this one: that people increasingly have become commodities, economic objects — the very opposite of what individualism originally stood for. “Commodity” means something that can be bought and sold, merchandise on the retailer’s shelf. The recession has only worsened the trend. People do what they are told, work long hours without benefits or fair compensation, live with the increasingly fearful prospects of unemployment, while the separation of the very wealthy from the bulk of wage-earners continues its appalling rise. The notion that we all end up as millions of “Brand You” individualists, a term coined in 1999 or before by Tom Peters, represents a powerful, scary, and also appalling prediction of where, in fact, we are today. Appalling because Peters’ book celebrated the glorious independence of the contract worker — the death of an entitlement mindset no one needed — but completely missed the people-as-disposable-commodity part, which appears now as the biggest shadow-side to the American Dream. Shadows, by their nature, are not something that fit with our optimist ethic. We don’t like to look at them, but we need to. If we don’t, anger and further polarization are likely, the sort that given enough gestation time and continued wounding leads down the path to violence. I’m not kidding.


Before we get that far, it would be great to identify an alternative business model or two, since many employers (noting the first article cited), are apparently thriving on the shadow trend rather than attempting to disrupt it. But how do we get to that alternative model? We can’t go backward in time. We are not going to recapture the dream of “permanent” employment. That’s the past. And on the future side, we don’t have answers either. Social media and globalization, while encouraging different forms of organizational life and structure, can create a similarly illusionary, romanticized version of groups or communities formed around the notion that somehow people will be naturally collaborative in electronically connected settings — if only they are allowed to have their own wikis and blogs, and mobile devices of their own choosing. It’s a yearning for an electronic utopian democracy in a world where the best ideas always prevail through open debate rather than hierarchical power. But, to be honest, this version is also chock full of shadows. People are people, vertically or horizontally. Behavior is not necessarily better over the net than around a table. There are electronic arguments, retributions and blackmails, certainly destructive talk behind one another’s backs, and not so nicely, either, not to mention sadistic attacks and many other lesser forms of human abuse through everyday snarky comments and other troll-like behavior.

So let’s go a step further and acknowledge a fundamental principle of any business model.

Human creations all have shadow-sides. Hierarchy won’t cure it and neither will Enterprise 2.0. There is no such thing as the perfect organizational design or economic system. Power and status and the distribution of resources and rewards will always be issues. Technologies, no matter how equalizing will not save us from our own propensities to need intangible, psychological things and sometimes go after them in highly dysfunctional, if not violent ways. The question is what we do with our designs, how we behave within them, whether we adhere to an ethical vision of humanness; how we structure our actual relationships more than how we structure the company. Can we recognize the frailties of our humanness without learning patterns of exploitation? How much self-knowledge do we actually have, especially in our impact on others, and do we care about that impact? What do we do about conflicts, especially deep-seated conflicts in values? What is meant by wealth, really? What is the social responsibility of a corporate entity and how does it come about? How much double-think and denial and hypocrisy and exclusion are a hidden part of the systems we build? And what is that caused by? Obviously, people have been searching a long, long time to figure these things out, this elusive set of discoveries that might be the underpinnings of first a culture that nourishes the best parts of the human spirit and then the organizational form of a better workplace. If we are going to find a better model then I think we will all need to start working on the answers to these and other questions in earnest, because, given the trends, time is probably running out.

I genuinely wish I had better answers. Some days ninety-nine percent of what I do seems to be a compensation for bad organizational models. Other days, a similar percent is due to lack of meaningful models at all. But insofar as we create these models out of ourselves and our own ideals, what I do know is that they all contain our incompleteness and our own flaws. And so, if we want to change things, we have to touch those flaws, get to know them well in order to confront our real values and character and soul. Right now Walmart is a symbol. It appears to be us. It is what is becoming of the American Dream. Bunkers of commoditized goods where the only market differentiator is cost. Bunkers of cheap merchandize to fill the holes in the illusion of who we thought we should be. Stark lights. Vast warehouse. Of goods? Or of people? Let us hope, in the effort to find a deal, a bargain, a close-out, we do not look up to find ourselves on those shelves, too. I think of the slogan, “Save money. Live Better.” Live better? Live better?! Are you kidding me?

I’m interested in your views of what we can and should do. What do you think?

Technorati Tags: and . Link to blog posting. Link to Oestreich Associates website.


  • Thank you for writing this Dan. A head spinner for sure. I remember being so charged up about Peters’ “Brand You” essay when it was first published on Fast Company, bringing it to my exec team at the time for deeper study and introspection (I was still in corporate life then), and you are right – it was a different time, and we missed the darker implications of it. However, I remember it as a good thing, for we missed this tumble we’ve taken for the right reasons: we focused on the bright spots, and the good it could deliver in making us stronger than we were, then in a different kind of facelessness. Now we need to have that same approach at minimum, focus on light versus dark, yet this time, we must always remember this: Life is not very satisfying when you go it alone, or end up alone.

    Like you, I am searching for better answers in business model reinvention, tweaking the ‘Ohana in Business model we have used in MWA, for I still place my hope in business enterprise: Those Wall Street and Walmart fiascos are not representative of business in total. There can be heart and soul in business, and in a business which is profitable.

    While it is a struggle to “begin with the end in mind” right now as we search for an answer, for we aren’t completely sure of our vision specifics, I think that focusing on the value of our reinvention journey as teams of people, will bring us the quickest relief while getting us back in touch with our humanity. Thus “small and nimble, small and nimble” has become this chant in my self-talk, and not to ignore big business either, but to put that faces-in-teams view back within it, and faces which are smiling, proud of the work they do individually, but also proud of the team they were within.

    I don’t want our sense of entitlement to come back either, and still feel that reality check was a silver lining in this dark cloud, so another mantra coming back for me is about teams working “on the business, and not just in the business.” We need creativity and innovation which is borne from co-authorship, where no one in a business sits on the sidelines bench-warming and squirming, and for me to be actively working on this right now versus hand-wringing while worrying, the small and nimble, values-aligned team approach is where I am concentrating my efforts.

  • Rosa, thank you so much for this elegant view. For me, your last paragraph is absolutely essential, this “co-authorship” aspect of the enterprise that creates value at many levels simultaneously — for the enterprise, for the person, for the team, for customers, and also for the community. We can be specialized in our work but not in our sense of ownership of the enterprise as a whole. This must be in a way that, as you say, is not “faceless” but represents the heart and soul of business — which means, of course, that the work is best when we individually and as a group are in touch with our own hearts and souls. Thank you so much for sharing that great article from Business Week, your recent wonderful posting on wealth, and for your contribution here, amplifying our understanding once again.

  • Just found this relevant article on an emerging business model at Cisco, thanks to a RT @jonhusband. I have many questions about the leadership culture to pull off the vision articulated, but it’s an impressive one!

  • Diane Desjardins wrote:

    I came to realized that corporations are places where we extract resources to make money. If we want thing to change, we have to change the purpose of the corporation. It is not a easy or probable.

    Our leaders are in a trance that is reinforce by the official view of their role: to extract resources to make as much money as possible. As long as the only metrics are of the financial aspect, production, sales and profits, we forget a major element: corporation are a living context where human beings come together around an idea they want to contribute too and make a living out of.

    We collectively and individually create a place where we live. Unfortunately, we often treat each other as if we were production devices, to pair with a kind of machine, we become things.

    As long as we stay in that trance, we will act accordingly, killing our spirit, our uniqueness, our humanness.

    I have been invited to go to repair the climate of some workplaces that were so damaged, peoples disengages, skepticism rampant, climate toxic.

    All I did was to change the trance by which they were operating. I treated them as human beings, contributing in their own way to the collective life and to the purpose of the organization. I proposed a different set of sunglasses (filter). I offer them a purpose that they would like to contribute to.

    And it worked: spirit came back, trust came back, good will came back. It was not that complicated, it did not need long training, lots of experts, big money.

    In fact, training was always going on as we worked differently together. I kept it simple, I expressed my appreciation,I instill joy in the work. I was the change that I wanted to see in them.

    We tend to complicate things, with large plans, schemes, structures and other means to stay in the same trance even though we see that it is killing us.

    We need to remember that we create life, first. We create a context that can foster more life or one that is so toxic that it kills life.

    What we collectively need to do is to change our trance about work.

    I have a question for those who never have enough money/status: what is money/status a substitute for? What are you lacking to need so much energy? Money is energy. But it can become a symbol of something else. Why do you need it in such a quantity ? What is missing ? What are you so afraid of ?


  • Disdonc

    You ask profound questions here and leave many provocative ideas, all beautiful gifts. Indeed, what do we lack? What are we searching to buy? What could we buy that might fill the holes. In the very process of the search we become like the items on the shelf, things. So it takes someone, a kind of cultural shaman like yourself, to enter the field and help change the “trance.”

    What you say reminds me of a story that Robert Bly used to tell about a village where it had not rained in a long, long time. A shaman was called and arrived from far away only asking for a hut on the edge of town where he might meditate. After three days of meditation, the rain suddenly began to fall and the villagers rushed from their huts to thank and congratulate him for this feat. He replied, “Oh, the rain? The rain comes when the rain comes — I didn’t have anything to do with that. It’s taken me all three days just to get the village centered!”

    May you be called to “bring the rain” to many places. Many best wishes.

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