During one of my Walter Mitty episodes on the 405 freeway, I was explaining to Jon Stewart that democracy does not turn companies into Utopias; rather, it increases coworker engagement, creativity and initiative, making workplaces more innovative and productive, but also more contentious.
I attempted to explain that a company’s workers, like any sizable population, create a bell curve pattern with a small number of heroes at one end, a small number of assholes at the other, and a large number of…. Hmmm. I found myself at a loss for the right word to describe the vast majority of coworkers who, although competent and diligent, lack the comfort with conflict so visible in great leaders and great assholes. And it’s important to acknowledge that the workplace is rife with assholes – a democratic company culture does not eliminate them, although it does much to mitigate their dark powers.
Suddenly, the word popped into my head: Muggles. Fans of Harry Potter know the term and its definition: “Non-magical folk.” What a perfect description for those who do most of the work, but do so through ordinary means and daily effort. The problem is, most company cultures do not respect muggles, referring to them as “worker bees” or “staff” or, ugh, “employees.” CEOs and VPs may get the magazine interviews, but executive assistants, product managers, data entry people, frontline cashiers and a host of others run the company.
In an earlier post, I wrote about the HR executive that tried to talk to Kinko’s Northwest managers about working with muggles, only to learn that the managers refused to accept the idea that non-magical folk belonged in the company.
In retrospect, I realize that the managers’ belief was merely an illusion. It’s not that the average Kinko’s coworker was inherently more talented and ambitious than coworkers elsewhere. The trick was that Kinko’s democratic culture allowed coworkers to be themselves, and the resulting engagement, creativity and initiative simply looked like magic.
Of course, if I ever do an interview on The Daily Show or The Colbert Report, they’ll probably just want to know if it’s true that executives traveling together used to chug Big Gulps and bet on who could go the longest without peeing. Well, at least that would mean they read part of the book.