Organising Good and Productive Work

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Businesses create goods and services and organise the work people do together. Successful businesses design work that is good and effective, efficient and engaging, autonomous and collaborative. The way human work is designed and managed has a significant impact on whether  an organisation can compete in the marketplace and whether people will flourish through their work. Blessed John Paul II explained that “whereas at one time the decisive factor of production was the land, and later capital—understood as a total complex of the instruments of production—today the decisive factor is increasingly man himself , that is, his knowledge, especially his scientific knowledge, his capacity for interrelated and compact organisation, as well as his  ability to perceive the needs of others and to satisfy them”.1 Within increasing globalisation and a rapidly changing marketplace, the farsighted o rganisation of work assures an organisation’s agility, responsiveness and dynamism. This may be expedited where sensible regulations ensure that economic relations and mentalities can develop in a sustainable way, and that virtuous business can effectively profit and excel through its achievements.

Foster dignified work: “It is a scandal,” Pope Pius XI wrote, “when dead matter comes forth from the factory ennobled, while men there are corrupted and degraded”.2 The grandeur of human work not only leads to improved products and  services, but develops the workers themselves.  The Catholic social tradition has been particularly outspoken about the nature of work and how it affects the person. Blessed John Paul II spoke of “the subjective dimension of work", distinguishing it from its "objective dimension". He set forth a beautiful vision, indicating that when people work, they do not simply make more, but they become more. The changes brought about by work cannot be fully accounted for by its objective dimension. The worker, the subject of work, is also greatly affected by his or her own work. Whether we think about the executive, the farmer, the nurse, the janitor,the engineer, or tradespeople, work changes both the world (objective dimension) and the worker (subjective dimension). Because work changes the person, it can enhance or supress that person's dignity; it can allow a person to develop or to be dmanged. Thus "the sources of the dignity of work are to be sought primarily in the subjective dimension, not in the objective one".3 When we regard work from that perspective, we should find a joint commitment fromt both the employer and the employee to elevate work to that splendidn vision. It is the unity of sound business practice and ethics.

Recognising the subjective dimension of work acknowledges its dignity and importance. It helps us to see that work is for the person and not the other way around.4 Employees are not mere “human resources” or “human capital”. Consequently, work must be designed for the capacities and qualities of human beings, and so we must not simply require that people adapt to their work as if they were machines. Good work gives scope for the intelligence and freedom of workers; its context promotes social relationships and real collaboration; and it does not damage the health and physical well-being of the worker. This requires that leaders have the freedom, responsibility and ability to develop the right person in the right job. Good work is directed toward satisfying genuine human needs so that workers may provide for themselves and their families while also serving the flourishing of others. Good work must be sufficiently well-organised and managed to be productive so that the worker can indeed earn his or her living. Moreover, reward structures should make sure that those workers who do engage their labour in a sincere way also receive the necessary esteem and compensation from their companies. The encyclical Mater et Magistra is perfectly clear on this point: “if the whole structure and organisation of an economic system is such as to compromise human dignity,  to lessen a man’s sense of responsibility or rob him of opportunity for exercising personal initiative, then such a system, We maintain, is altogether unjust—no matter how much wealth it produces, or how justly and equitably such wealth is distributed”.5

Create subsidiary structures: The principle of subsidiarity is rooted in the conviction that, as images of God, the flourishing of human beings entails the best use of their intelligence and freedom. Human dignity is never respected by unnecessarily constraining or suppressing that intelligence and freedom. The principle of subsidiarity recognises that in human societies, smaller communities exist within larger ones. For example, a family, itself a small community, is part of a village or a city, which in turn is part of a county, a state or province, then a nation, and so on. The principle insists that the freedom and input of those closest to the effects to be felt should not be arbitrarily disregarded. As Blessed John Paul II pointed out, “a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to coordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good”.6

The principle of subsidiarity, usually applied to  the structures of the State, applies as well to business organisations. We develop best in our work when we use our intelligence and freedom to achieve shared goals and to create and sustain right relationships with one another and with those served by the organisation. In other words, the more participatory the workplace, the more likely each worker will be to develop. Employees should have a voice in their work, especially in the day-to-day work. This fosters initiative, innovation, creativity, and a sense of shared responsibility.
49. The principle of subsidiarity offers business leaders great insights. It encourages them to use their power at the service of everyone in their organization and prompts them to question whether their authority serves the development of all their employees. Specifically, this principle engages business leaders in three related responsibilities: 

  • To define the scope of autonomy and decision making at every level in the company. The business leader should allow these to be as significant as possible, but set limits so that decision rights do not exceed a person or group’s access to the information required to make the decision, and so that the consequences of their decisions do not go beyond their realm of responsibility.
  • To provide employees the needed tools and training and to ensure that they have the experience to carry out their tasks.
  • To establish a corporate culture of trust so that those to whom tasks and responsibilities have been given will make their decisions with genuine freedom. The company informed by subsidiarity nurtures mutual respect and shared responsibility among all personnel. It allows employees to clearly appreciate the link between good results and their sincere engagement.

This last point about decision-making is what distinguishes subsidiarity from delegation. Someone who delegates confers responsibility or decisionmaking power, but it can be taken back at any time. So delegation does not call employees to the same level of excellence and genuine engagement as do arrangements governed by the principle of subsidiarity, and thus, the employees are less likely to grow and to accept their full responsibility. 

Under the principle of subsidiarity, employees on a lower level who are trusted, trained and experienced, know precisely the extent of their responsibilities, and are free to make decisions, can fully use their freedom and intelligence, and thus are enabled to develop as people; they are indeed “co-entrepreneurs”. For business leaders on every level, from team leader up to chief executive, this is very demanding but rewarding. Working under the principle of subsidiarity calls for restraint and a humble acceptance of the role of a servant leader. 

John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Centesimus Annus, 32. 

Pius XI, Encyclical Letter Quadragesimo Anno, 135.

John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Laborem Exercens, 6. 

John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Laborem Exercens, 6.

John XXIII, Encyclical Letter  , 83.

John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Centesimus Annus, 48; see also Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 185–186 and Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1883.