Healing our nation of corporate lemmings

July 9, 2012, 1:30 PM UTC

FORTUNE — With a disappointing June jobs report, news that U.S. manufacturing is slowing, and the stock market below levels of a decade ago, it’s time to put on some fresh goggles and reevaluate our economic condition.

Certainly, Starbucks (SBUX) CEO Howard Schultz deserves applause for his persistent attempts to push the conversation on our economy and address our need for jobs. And Gary Hamel is right that bosses need to look in the mirror to deal with the sorry state of employee engagement today. Both of these problems are related: one a macro example, the other, on a smaller scale. And both have dragged on for a very long time.

To address these issues, we’ll need to appeal to some upside-down thinking and consider solutions that fly in the face of conventional wisdom. And Tim Phillips, author of Talk Normal delivers just that. Rather than discuss employee engagement in the usual way, or simply encourage it as many might, he pinpoints a major culprit of corporate malaise: when workers identify with their corporations.

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That sounds a bit counter-intuitive. After all, it would seem to make sense that if you get people to identify with the company they work for, they would be more engaged, which should be a good thing, right? But far too many people hinge their identity and self-worth to the organizations they work for. Because of this, Phillips argues, many succumb to corporate pressure to fit in, their ideas are swallowed up by groupthink, and they are less inclined to blow the whistle when they should.

Creative ideas and solutions don’t come from this kind of repetitive head-bobbing either. It also causes board members to forget their broader responsibilities to promoting social good (which Schultz is trying to correct). And identification with the corporate team can blind us to what Julia Kirby and Chris Meyer, co-authors of Standing on the Sun, call the “cult of competition,” which prevents the kind of cooperation that produces real innovation.

Sure, the idea that identifying with your workplace may be problematic sounds paradoxical. But if we are serious about solving the kind of seemingly intractable problems that Schultz and Hamel have in their sights, board members and other business leaders are going to need to become comfortable with counter-intuitive ideas.

Megan Hustad pointed this out in a different way in an article titled “When ‘being yourself’ at work spells disaster. Freelancers who aren’t identified at all with a specific firm have an advantage: they can focus on getting the job done, Hustad argues, and they are less hampered by the politics or distraction of fitting in that seems inevitable in corporate life as we’ve known it.

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I think the best advice I have given any employee first came out when I was delivering a performance review at a financial services firm. It was not a 100% stellar review but it wasn’t a bad one either. And attached to it was a good raise.

“This is just my opinion,” I told him. “Sure, it may be somewhat filtered through others’ views but it was massaged and has come out of my thinking. You may find it helpful — but maybe it’s not. In the final analysis, it doesn’t matter at all what I wrote here. Ten years from now, you won’t care and you shouldn’t. What matters is what you think. Take the good from it that you can — and please discard the rest. I am just one human, trying to be helpful.”

Yes, I got a quizzical look in return and he was probably wondering if it was a trick. But we then proceeded to have a frank discussion. Two people on a journey, nothing more, nothing less.

While we address the economy — and while some bosses start to look in the mirror and consider changing how they behave, we also need to see what the world has been showing us lately. We know our institutions — whether they are corporations, government agencies, or even traditional educational, social, or religious organizations — don’t seem up to tackling the problems we face. Our view of their efficacy has changed. But that shouldn’t make us feel weak. Corporations and other institutions today just happen to be smaller than the sum of their parts. Or, put another way, the power, ability, and skills of the individuals inside our corporations far exceed the capabilities that corporations are demonstrating. For that reason, we need to stop stuffing individuals (and ourselves) mentally into spaces that are too small to contain us.

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If people who work for companies do not believe they require the structure that surrounds them, they may be harder to control. But in giving up the need to control others in that way, we may discover new possibilities: corporations where bosses won’t feel so lonely, individuals who recognize their power to get the national economy moving, and employees who know that what bad bosses think and how they act may have short-term consequences but don’t really matter in the end.

Eleanor Bloxham is CEO of The Value Alliance and Corporate Governance Alliance (http://thevaluealliance.com), a board advisory firm.

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