Is “Stewardship Theory” even a real thing?

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In short, stewardship theory is this idea that managers within companies, left to their own devices, will put the interests of the firm above their own. There are a million and 19 buzzwords around this, including “conscious capitalism” and/or the idea that Boy Scouts learn to leave a campground in better shape than they found out.

In essence, this is saying managers won’t be assholes and will lead from the right places, both in terms of people and assets.

If you’ve ever spent maybe six and a half minutes inside most companies, you know stewardship theory is fairly rare in execution. Most managers, unfortunately, are me-first assholes. This has created many work cultures where ethics is in decline, trust is in decline, the setting of clear priorities is barely visible, and respect walked out the door a long time ago.

In those office climates, stewardship theory is a gag-on-buzzwords pipe dream. Now, there are some people who have great bosses and supportive cultures. That’s awesome. And honestly, in any workplace north of about 10 people, some of those peeps will perceive work as awesome — and some will hate it. I didn’t like my last full-time job that much, but some people there religiously loved it above all else. Personally thought the culture was broken and unclear, and some revered it. We’re all different, you know?

In the U.S. at least, this is an important time to consider ideas around “stewardship theory.” Politically, it feels very much like we’re all doing the “party over country” thing — on both sides. That’s the same as some manager putting himself over the company or his people. It’s absolutely the same thing, actually, and you need to realize that connection before trying to analyze modern politics. Some of these tenets we love — “The High Achiever Myth” and/or “The Deification Of The Workaholic” — give us shitty definitions of success (“more is better”), and those definitions seep into our behaviors (“To get more, I need to be unethical.”) We then need a way to rationalize those shitty behaviors, so we align to our poles. That’s where stewardship theory, or the Republican party, begins to splinter.

So is stewardship theory mostly a buzzword?

Yes, in most places. Even the most far-reaching research on it, via Northwestern, says it’s admittedly “nirvana.”

But why don’t managers and employees put firm interests first?

You just asked the psychological question of our time as relates to work. If you want the easiest explanation possible, it’s probably this. Companies don’t operate according to moral norms, nor do they have to. Rather, companies exist to make money for a specific group of stakeholders. (At least within for-profit, but you could argue that definition can apply to non-profit.) Whether you want to bemoan the decline of unions or whatever else, employees are largely not protected these days. HR is supposed to do that, but mostly mollycoddles executives at most jobs I’ve seen. Plus: how can the same department responsible for “developing people” also be the one that people tattle to? Huh? How does that work?

So in short then: you got mouths to feed and necks to protect, right? The company sure as hell ain’t putting you first. Why would you put them first, then?

Could we ever arrive at a place of real stewardship theory?

Without addressing fundamental flaws of organizational structure, absolutely not. What happens, of course, is that once in a while companies go through revenue erosion. No executive wants to admit his products/services aren’t good, so they assume it must be the people. This creates one of two situations: either massive layoffs (fun) or a “change management” process, usually led by external consultants. Change management should be a really important thing. Unfortunately, at most places it’s half-assed, jacked-off, warmed over banana bread. No one admits how scary it is, instead burying their heads in the sand and repeating buzzwords over and over. Nothing is really accomplished.

Much of this stems from some things we ignore about work, too. Work is largely a quest for self-worth and relevance. (That’s why automation terrifies people.) Stewardship theory would imply you cannot pound your chest about how relevant you are. Rather, it’s all in the interest of the company. That would really depress a lot of people. They want to live in a world where how “busy busy busy” they are showcases how worthwhile they are. The ecosystem doesn’t really work like that, but unfortunately most miss this.

First step on stewardship theory becoming real, then: change organizational structures. Shift incentive programs. Redo bonus structures. Until these things happen, “stewardship theory” is like “servant leadership.” It’s fluffy bullshit that means nothing to a world-building executive.

What else would you add on stewardship theory?

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