‘Fractured Workplace’ Chapter 6: Performing Seals

Chapter 6

 Performing seals


Working up against the wall

Nothing is more emblematic of modern management theory and practice than the term ‘performance’. It has a ring about it: it seems to promise that there exists a methodical approach to managing work which carries a guarantee of success.  Furthermore, it tightens the focus of management of people to a small, well-defined arena: if we can only get people to perform what they are obligated to perform the business will achieve all its goals at the highest level: shareholders will receive a good level of return on their investments, managers will be well-compensated, society will benefit appropriately and all will be well.

We have, of course, seen this kind of thing before: this is Taylorism, pure and simple.  Because what is to be performed is simply your job: the segment of work that has been defined by the job description and which you have been hired to do. “Do” is the operative term: the segmentation of work that Taylorism effects is a segmentation by actions.  Ultimately what is of concern to the notional Taylorist planner, this mythical figure or function defining the work segments and their sequence, is the conclusion of each segment, the output; because this is the input to the next segment, and if there is a breakdown in the chain, if even one output of one segment falls short of its designed requirements, the assembly of the work (which doesn’t have to be linear) is broken and the outcome of all the segments is impaired.  You only have to think of a breakdown in a production line: the principle is much the same.

Of course we have not claimed in our analysis of work (chapter 2) that modern work is literally a production line, but we are claiming that the idea and the organisation of modern work runs parallel to Taylorism, and draws many of its implicit assumptions about work and about people at work from Taylorism; and that these assumptions are at best unthinking, and at worst highly damaging both to organisations and to their people.  Let’s see now where performance and performance management fit into all this.

Performance myths and illusions

Performance management has been defined as a polyglot concept which includes “programme structures, performance measurement, target-setting, competency frameworks, 360 degree appraisal, personal development plans, performance-related pay” and so on [i]. These authors remark acerbically, “These activities wax and wane in popularity.”  Common to these elements are the tasks of defining the work segment, of measuring its actual output against the expected output, and of incentivizing or penalizing the worker so as to close any gap; collectively, we would say, managing for performance, or managing in order to secure performance.

Performance management is thus not so much a part of a discipline as “a body of lore and recipes, some based on good research and theory, some based on symbolic resonance and workplace myths.” This is an interesting description as it challenges the aura that performance management has built about itself of rigour, discipline and objectivity.  Not so, it is asserted here: like most management fashions it is an eclectic mixture.  There sits around a legitimate core a cornucopia of popular and subjective conceptions and misconceptions.  Far from bringing the management of human beings into the quantitative sphere of operations management it produces the reverse: operations have to contend with all the vagaries of the things that influence human beings.  Welcome to people.

Performing under threat

There is a clear demonstration in performance management of one of the key elements of Taylorism: the subordination of the worker to the work.  In this model the worker is simply a unit of labour: her only significance to the organisation is whether or not she carries out the segment of work assigned to her, according to the standards that are laid out in the master plan.  Of the significance of the work to her, as an individual, nothing is said.  Performance is a one-way affair: workers perform the work that is required of them; work doesn’t have to meet the demands workers might require of it.

Performance has an unmistakable air of menace about it.  It carries an implicit threat: “Perform or else.”  That is, carry out the actions that are required of you, and for which we have hired you, or you will be sacked, or otherwise penalised.  That is the real meaning that is implicit in the now standard notion of ‘accountability’.  In order to make this crystal clear the requirements are embedded in measures: the famous (which should be infamous) Key Performance Indicators (KPI’s).  Measurement emerged from the dominant management paradigms of the 1990’s: Total Quality Management, and Continuous Improvement.  These are the modern versions of Taylorism, in which all work is reduced to measured elements, held to specific standards.  This is justified in the well-sounding aphorism, “What doesn’t get measured doesn’t get done”–an admission of management failure if ever there was one.  KPI’s in fact become coercive mechanisms.  They are set by higher levels of management and imposed on lower levels.  Moreover, management is able to thrown all the weight of implementation on subordinates: the simple message is, “Here is what you have to achieve; we don’t mind how you achieve them; just get them done or there will be consequences.”

Now clearly there is a place in the organisation of work for planning, orderly implementation, measures, and standards.  Peter Drucker–who I believe is the foremost, and perhaps the only, writer to have identified the central principles that drive business success–states with admirable brevity: “Work, to yield results, has to be thought through and done with direction, method, and purpose.”[ii] Drucker speaks of performance, but only in the context of ‘economic performance’. He is certainly in favour of ‘a unified, company-wide plan for the work to be done’, as he is for goals and targets, and work assignment and responsibilities.  There can be no arguing with these principles: this is how work gets done.

But the issue is who decides the work plan, and how it is developed and implemented.  As we’ve seen, ownership is critical to healthy workplaces.  There is no reason why a company-wide plan for the work to be done can’t be collectively developed by everyone working in the business.  Indeed, wise management will want to gather all the intelligence and creativity of everyone, and involved them in the process (as we have argued in previous chapters).  Setting goals and targets can be done collaboratively.  Work assignments and responsibilities can be jointly accepted rather than imposed.  It’s not the existence of a work plan or the KPI’s associated with it that is the problem: it is rather who sets them up, and how they are used.  If they are set predominantly by the people who do the work, and used by them in completing the work they have accepted as theirs, all the benefits of healthy workplaces discussed in previous chapters will be there.  If they are imposed and used as implicit threats, toxic workplaces develop and organisational achievement shuts down.

Yet performance management has become very widely adopted by both profit and for-profit organisations as the primary means of managing work and managing people.  Let me give you two examples which show the absurd lengths to which this has gone.

Case 1: The Orchestra

Recently I was asked to look at developing a strategic plan for a city orchestra.  They had done some work already and I asked to see it.  Among the documents was a strategic plan that had been developed by a major US consulting company for a neighbouring city orchestra.  It was, to say the least of it, an unimpressive piece of work.  It showed little understanding on the music world within which a city orchestra sits and on which it depends.  This deepened to absurdity when the performers themselves–the musicians in the orchestra–were considered.  The main recommendation was: the musicians should be performance managed.  A more ludicrous proposal it would be difficult to imagine.  What counts as performance for a musician?  How are you going to measure it: by the number of bow strokes per second?  The result of such an ill-advised initiative would be the prompt resignation of the members of the orchestra: what musician, working with all the delicacy and creativity of their highly professional craft, would submit to such crude oversight?  And how is it supposed to improve performance (real performance in this case): what is supposed to be getting better?  It’s almost amusing to contemplate (almost, but for the impact on people’s lives).  Yet it shows two things very clearly: one, that performance management is almost entirely negative in its effect on work and workers; and two, that modern managers seem to be prepared to resort to such idiocies, they must be bankrupt of the knowledge of how to work with their people.

Case 2: The University

Here is a second example.  Universities depend for their very existence and legitimacy on their researchers.  Research is a demanding and complex kind of work: it requires very high levels of analytic skill combined with insight and creativity.  It is often non-linear: it moves in unpredictable ways, backtracks, hits blocks, finds serendipitous ways to advance.  It depends crucially on the fostering of new ideas, which may not fit established paradigms.  Yet as universities, like performing arts organisations, are seduced into adopting what they understand to be modern management techniques, researchers too have become performance managed.  They are required to publish a certain number of articles in rated journals, to accumulate a number of points in rated research activities.  This works strongly against innovative research–it is, in fact, intensely conservative–and frustrates the most creative researchers.

A recent study of university researchers in the UK uncovered the interesting fact that among the most influential researchers across the disciplines few had published much in their first 10 years; their significant publications came later–presumably because they were engaged upon big, difficult research projects.  It’s worth observing that those researchers would not have survived more than a few years of their early careers under modern regimes of academic performance management.

Proponents of performance management may want to respond that these two examples deal with rather specialised work, in music and research, and that for the average run of work and workers PM is appropriate.  All I can give you is the anecdotal view that many others have voiced similar concerns.  Senior front-line police officers have expressed to me their frustration in having to divert resources to meet KPI’s that have been given them away from what they know, from their immediate, local experience, are more urgent needs–needs that in the long run are far more important to the quality of community life.  Farmers have told me of their anger at being held to KPI’s in agricultural grant projects which they know, from their local knowledge, aren’t appropriate.  You can hear the same stories on manufacturing plant floors and in service organisations.

The simple fact is that performance management doesn’t deliver even in its own goals.  It is ironic that an approach which is so closely tied to measurement is not supported by the research on it.  A well-designed, substantial study compared 500 leading private companies consistently profitable over five years with 750 private companies selected at random and 538 public sector organisations on their commitment to performance management.  They reported: “The most important conclusion is that organisational performance is not associated with the pursuit of formal performance management programmes.”[iii]

Assumptions and insults

An even more universal finding of the research on performance management is that people intensely dislike being formally appraised under performance management schemes.  And their reaction is not because they are not doing the job well.  Rather it is because performance management is aggressive and, in the end, insulting.  It carries the assumption that unless you are held to these measures you will work below the level needed for the work and will not achieve the requisite standards; that unless we define precisely what we want of you and hold you to it, you will not do it.

That is a default position.  It’s not based on evidence or experience of a particular individual in the job, but is built into the structure of management. It amounts to saying: ‘We know that, if we don’t keep an eye on you, you will rip the company off; it’s our job to stop you, and performance management is our mechanism of choice to keep you honest’. The negative impact of this kind of thinking on the trust and respect that underpin healthy workplaces is obvious.  Ironically a likely outcome of employing it is that people will work to rule or work slow: ‘If that’s what you think of me, that’s what you’ll get’.  This is the precise definition of a dysfunctional, fractured workplace.

Fear and control

We’ve seen in earlier chapters that the principle of control is central to the Taylorist assumptions that underpin modern workplace practice.  Performance management is all about control.  All it methodologies are directed towards one end: that the work should be done to specification.  Measurement is a reverse methodology: rather than measure what the outcome of work is, measurement is used to coerce work into the shape it’s supposed to be.  People are simply presented with the required standards, and that, from a management point of view, is deemed enough.  It’s then up to the employee to meet the requirements; to be, as the language has it, ‘accountable’.  This is lazy management and it is bad management.  Good management practice, as we have been arguing, puts the manager and the subordinate into the work task together; with different roles, but unmistakably together.  If there are goals or targets or standards to be met, they are met by working together, with mutual support; not by the manager dropping KPI’s on the subordinate, putting a tacit threat in place should they not be met, and walking away.

Performance management keeps the employee in her assigned place within the work programmes.  A researcher has noted:

Programme structures are often at the core of performance management structures. . The hierarchical nature of programme structures. . .gives them a mythical value to organisational management.  It locates employees to a particular place and status in a great chain of organisational being and so reduces the threat that any individuality might pose to to organisational good order.[iv]

Managers always retreat from the spectre of losing control.  As we’ve noted in previous chapters, this is driven by fear and distrust, in equal measure.  Performance management is a central tool for keeping control. It attempts to make people’s work predictable, to the limits of measurability. In the process it loses the creative, lateral contributions that drive organisational success and dismantles the trust that underpins it. Good managers trust their people: they don’t seek to control them, or put them in their place.  Only on trust and respect is continuous and lasting achievement built.

The term ‘accountable’ captures many of these attitudes and assumptions.  It’s a term you hear every day, in all kinds of contexts.  It’s intimately linked to the idea of ‘performance’.  Your work is held to be your own affair; it’s outcomes, for better or worse, rest with you alone; if you fall short or fail you have no-one to blame but yourself.  Indeed, if there is a failure of work there is by definition a failure of accountability: it’s not my fault, it’s yours, you were the one who created the failure, you have not been accountable. Accountability has even take on a shade of personal morality: if you don’t meet the performance specifications this is not only a failure of competency but in some way a failure of moral integrity; the implication being that you could have achieved the required level had you worked hard enough, or cleverly enough, as you can do, but clearly decided not to.  It is not difficult to see in this attitude, so contemptuous of people and of their rights in the workplace, an attempt to justify on moral grounds a set of unethical and dishonest assumptions and behaviours.

Appraisal and communication failure

Finally, let me deal with the view put forward even by critics of performance management that there is something fundamentally positive about aspects of it, by virtue of the exchange it promotes, notably in performance appraisals:

There is no objective evidence that performance management improves an organisation’s performance but there is evidence that people can find it helpful in interpreting and evaluating their organisational roles.[v]

This emerges from the ‘processual’ view of human resources management: the idea that the best outcomes are negotiated through mutual exchange.  We can grant that such an exchange could occur during performance appraisals.  Why, however, is a personal appraisal event required in order for such an exchange to take place?  Isn’t this just one of the exchanges that happen routinely and often of healthy workplaces?  To justify personal appraisals by this logic is like endorsing boxing as a method of interpersonal communication because it involves intimate touch.  And if it is necessary to construct an event of this kind in order to provide for communication of this kind, then the basic fabric of communication which supports healthy and productive work is by definition not in place.

Performance management doesn’t improve the performance of organisations.  It is a major contributor to the negativity of toxic workplaces.  It licenses lazy leadership, and damages trust.  It has no place in a healthy workplace.  Period.

Healthy, productive workplaces

Healthy workplaces are productive workplaces.  They start with healthy people, acting towards and with each other in ways that we all know are healthy.  There is no mystery about this.  Since birth we have been interacting with each other, through all the types and shades of relationship, in family, and extended family, and circles of friends; even with people we don’t get on with.  We know more about the construction of healthy places than all the management theorists put together.  Recognizing what we know and applying it fearlessly is the key to healthy workplaces.


[i] Fisher, C & Sempik, A 2009, ‘Performance management and performing management’ in J Leopold & L Harris (eds) The strategic managing of human resources, 2nd edn., Prentice Hall, Pearson Education Ltd., Harlow Essex, UK.

[ii] Drucker, P 1986 (1964) Managing for results: economic tasks and risk-taking decisions, HarperCollins, New York.

[iii] Institute of Personnel Management 1992, Performance management in the UK: an analysis of the issues, IPM, London.

[iv]Legge, K 1995, Human resource management: rhetorics and realities, 2nd edition, Macmillan, Basingstoke, UK, cited in Leopold & Harris, p.196.

[v] Fisher & Sempik, p. 222

‘Fractured Workplace’ Chapter 5: Working for life

Chapter Five

Working for life

What are people looking for in their work? A natural response is ‘money’ and clearly that’s true. But given that work occupies such a significant part of one’s life, both during the working years and over the course of a lifetime, money doesn’t seem to be enough. It’s not uncommon, in the more boring and trivial jobs of workplaces, to come across a culture of ‘working for the weekend’; as though whatever makes up life is relegated to two days a week, paid for by the other five days. Most people, however, are looking for more from their work. Even those who work for the weekend are likely to wish their work offered more satisfactions.

Here are some of the leading reasons people have for choosing or staying in a job–or for moving, if these aspirations aren’t being met. These are drawn largely from my own experience, although they are supported by the research. There may be debates about their ranking, and there would be other candidates for the list. But I think most people will recognise these in their own experience.

Variety and challenge

Boredom is the most common complaint of workers at every level, far more than workplace bullying [i]. That this should be so is interesting in itself: it demonstrates that people interpret their work experience personally. It further implies, firstly, that there seems to be an inbuilt need in most people to grow in knowledge, capability and skills; secondly, that this kind of development can come about through engaging with problems that need solutions; and thirdly, that engagement in a number of different areas, requiring different kinds of capabilities, different ways of thinking and doing, is seen as valuable to the process of growth, and attractive and important as life pursuits.

Note that this demand squarely opposes the Taylorist model, not just in its narrow industrial application but in the wider sense we have been looking at. It is precisely the delimitation of work in narrowly defined processes and jobs that is at the heart of Taylorist efficiencies; and it is precisely that delimitation which the demand for variety and challenge at work resists. We discuss these implications further below.

Working with others

Most people enjoy working together, if they have the opportunity. That’s not to rule out working on one’s own, and collaborations aren’t always happy affairs. But where collaboration is available, and works, it is highly valued.

At its best collaboration is an exchange between peers, bringing together ideas and approaches that enrich each other and create something new; an emergent process that is as creative as it is task focused. Note the word ‘peers’: even if there are different roles in collaborations, including leadership roles, it is only where there is mutual respect for each others’ ideas and contributions–the essence of the peer relation–that real collaboration, with all its benefits, emerges. Obviously, too, there is the social dimension: other things being equal social interactions are valued in their own right.

As we’ve noted in Chapter 4, working together harmoniously and productively is not necessarily an innate capability. It’s a complex skill which is learned over time: you get better at it. Unquestionably it can throw up frustrations and disagreements; but acquiring the skill of collaboration consists precisely of learning to negotiate and use barriers of this kind in a dynamic of advancement. That requires a steady foundation of trust and respect–the two qualities (really two sides of the same coin) of healthy workplaces that we find ourselves coming back to. That foundation too is not a given: it is put in place and cemented over time, through negotiating successive challenges in carrying out the work itself. At all events, with all its demands and pitfalls we enjoy working together, and unambiguously prefer it to being isolated in an office somewhere for long stretches of time.

Again, creative collaboration of this kind runs directly counter to the Taylorist model. All work, even cooperative work, is in that model tightly constrained: it is anathema to the model–indeed, a serious threat to it–to allow for the unpredictabilities of creative collaboration. Such collaboration may be useful to the planners of the work, who are separated from it, but it is strongly discouraged at the level of work implementation. Healthy workplaces thrive on collaboration, at every level: toxic workplaces systematically suppress it.


This ranks about third in the list, which is itself interesting: given the discussion of the preceding chapter one might have expected it to rank higher, perhaps even at the top. After all, where the natural connection between the worker and her work–its conception, implementation and results–is largely removed the worker herself, would things like variety, challenge and collaboration matter at all?  The answer seems to be that even where the work is alienated from its works, the actual work processes can still deliver some satisfactions in their own right. But ownership, as we have discussed at length in chapter 4, is still fundamental to work aspirations. Its absence seems seriously to damage work satisfaction and make an exit more likely.

Making a difference

Having negotiated a few decades in which neo-liberal market economics has dominated notions of work, both academic and popular, we seem to be returning slowly to more responsible and humane ideas. The ‘greed is good’ ethos, originating in the 1980s and culminating in the 2008 GFC, is being replaced by the idea of ‘making a difference’. Other things being equal, people prefer to work where they can feel that the results of their work in products or services contribute to society; or at least don’t work against or dismantle it. That’s not always the case, of course; I am always tempted to ask (but don’t because if you talk to them they only call you again) the fake call centre which tries to convince me to release personal computing details, “How do you feel about working for a criminal organisation?  What do you tell your children, or your parents, that you do when you go off to work in the morning?”

In the post-GFC work environment (to the extent that it is ‘post’) I see a slow increase in acceptance of the view that work should do something good, or at least something reasonably defensible. I wouldn’t want to make too much of this–the converse is probably still dominant–but evident in those just coming into the workplace is a greater degree of discrimination and an intolerance of the impacts of organisations that are damaging; surely a hope for the future.

The point is made on the negative side in companies whose products are unambiguously harmful; the tobacco companies come inevitably to mind. Here is an interesting fact about the executives of tobacco companies, who for reasons of psychological viability have to persuade themselves during their working lives of the positive value of their products (there are such arguments, believe it or not–stress relief, cultural custom, freedom of choice, and so on). The life expectancy of such executives on retirement tends to be shorter relative to those from other kinds of companies. Whether this is due to tobacco consumption or to belated attacks of conscience isn’t clear; the latter is suspected. Who wants to face the fact that they have spent their life’s work harming people?  To paraphrase Lincoln, you can fool yourself some of the time, even much of the time, but not, in the end, all the time.

The fact is that people want to be able to take pride in their work, not only in the intrinsic qualities of products (“we will make good ships here”) but in their contribution to the welfare of society. Even if that contribution is small, it’s something–‘a difference’. By some margin things are better than they would have been had you not done in your work what you have done. Is this an observable trend the onset of a new civic engagement?  I doubt it; it’s been around for a long time. But increasingly it’s part of what people expect from their work and from the organisations they work for.


Although the idea of a career is rapidly disappearing, it is being replaced by a trajectory of growth in capability and experience. Increasingly it is being realised that work experience is far more than simply time spent on the job: it is education and development of the most valuable kind. Modern employers interviewing candidates are likely to ask “what have you done?” and “what do you know” before they ask “what qualifications do you have?”

There is an important story here. The question is, how do you become qualified for business? There was a time, perhaps 40 or 50 years ago, when education for business meant, at most, an undergraduate degree in business and then starting work. Then came the MBA, invented, it has been claimed, by Harvard University. Business emerged as an academic discipline. At Harvard it was built around the case-study method, designed to give it a real-world context (‘to lend’, wrote W.S. Gilbert, ‘verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative’). It was only in the late 1990s that anyone thought to look at how well it was doing, in practice. A simple study was undertaken, which looked at how well students did coming through the Harvard MBA and how well they were doing in their employment five years after graduating. The results were startling: there was a very good correlation, but it was inverse. That is, the better you did in the MBA course, the worse you did in the real world of business; and, importantly, vice versa–the worse you did in the academic work the better you did in business.

No doubt, for the Dean of the Harvard Business School, this was an unwelcome finding; but it was one that was replicated around the world. It forced a re-evaluation of business education; the conclusion of which was that business expertise is built not only on technical knowledge, but also on knowledge developed in the workplace. The workplace is itself a key environment of learning and development. Hence the proliferation of internships and other so-called ‘placement’ activities.

In support of this finding, I have had CEOs say to me that they won’t hire MBAs on principle. When I ask why, they say, “Because they think they know everything, they won’t learn.”  When I ask what they do want in an employee, they tell me, “I want them to have the core disciplines–accounting, finance, marketing, operations–but above that I want them to be smart, quick, positive, problem-solvers, able to collaborate, able to take initiative. Give me those people and I’ll teach them business!”  It’s well understood that learning and development goes on–indeed, in an effective and healthy organisation (the two things to together) it must go on–throughout the working life of every employee, and that the organisation has a crucial role in allowing for it and promoting it.

So for modern employees the opportunity to grow and develop is now central. That may mean, for example, opportunities to move around in the organisation, to take on different projects; to take on different roles, including management or supervisory roles; to plan their growth of knowledge and experience, in collaboration with the organisation and through its work; to participate in organised learning, through workshops or conferences or courses. It means seeing each employee as an individual person, not as a unit of work, and attending to each person, underpinning the potential they see for themselves.

Included is also the opportunity to move on, if a relevant opening presents itself. Organisations must now accept that development is a responsibility that is part of the total package for people who work for them now, regardless of whether they stay or not. Lifetime commitments to particular firms, even lifetime careers, are in the past. This is not an investment in the future but in the present.

In fact it’s not actually an investment at all: it is part of what you make available to your people because they are entitled to it, as a matter of ethical behaviour. You help people grow and develop with you because it’s their right as people. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights holds education to be a basic right that all people have, and defines it as “the full development of the human personality.”[ii]  Organisations and firms have their part to play in it.

Respect and trust

These have been discussed a number of times in previous chapters, and I have mentioned these above in a number of the elements which people want from their work; but I also want to treat them separately, in their own right in the context of what people want from their work. There is a great deal to be said about them, and I make no apology for speaking about them again: by the end of the book we may have some sort of coverage of them. In a sense all of these elements–variety and challenge, collaboration, ownership, making a difference, and development–come within the arc of respect and trust; or, if I were to choose just one of these, then respect, as trust is generated in large part by respect. I don’t mean here respect for particular skills or capabilities, although that’s important and practical: I mean the respect that is due to people as people. The entry point in working with people should be that respect is their due: that other things being equal they are entitled to be seen and treated as mature, intelligent, creative individuals, whose opinions should be listened to, who should be treated with courtesy and politeness, who should be trusted with important tasks in the business, and whose contributions should be explicitly acknowledged. In other words people deserve to be treated as individual persons, with all their innate dignities and rights, no less in the workplace than outside it.

I’ve heard it said, “they treat me like a person”, as the highest mark of appreciation and as an incentive for fully committed work, for work beyond the position description, the discretionary work that holds organisations together and takes them forward. Conversely, not being treated “as a person” is seen as the lowest of the low. In the workplace, this is explicitly a statement against being treated as an object, as a factor of production, of profitability, as a means to an end. This is the real exploitation that most people rise up against: not so much economic exploitation (although that can certainly be a part of it) but being used as an instrument. It denies dignity and worth, and nothing is more offensive. Yet, under the Taylorist conceptions which dominate the modern workplace, that denial is standard. You hear it in such management phrases as ‘taking the costs out’, which means sacking a lot of people (people are costs) or, as I’ve said, in ‘human resources’ (people are significant only in terms of the firm’s purposes). It exists in the assumptions behind workplace bullying and the aggressive, demeaning behaviour of managers that is so common, and so widely accepted, in our workplaces. That is a disgrace, a shame to the civilised standards of our modern society. Denial of respect is denial of humanity. In my mind nothing that can excuse it. And yet you would think that treating a worker ‘as a person’ would be as natural in the workplace as it is held to be outside it. Certainly nothing is more highly valued in working life, if it is real and sustained.

Some comments

One of the striking things about these elements is that they are, in my experience, all but universal. If you ask the question of groups of workers, at all levels–on the factory floor, in offices, in research laboratories, in executive groups–what they want from their work, they will almost to a person say these things. In fact these elements are largely held to be so obvious they hardly need to be said;  of course everyone knows, everyone wants, everyone values them. So you have to ask the question: why isn’t work structured so as to provide for them?

In fact, as we’ve seen, work isn’t at all seen that way in modern management, either in theory or in practice. Taylorist assumptions explicitly oppose it: to organise work according to these demands, even to include them in it, is from that perspective the height of managerial irresponsibility, in allowing for deviation away from defined work processes and products, and for resources to be allocated to areas other than the productive process. Management theory touches on them in passing, but doesn’t see them as central; even human resources theory hardly deals with them, developed as it is largely from the standpoint of the firm’s requirements. More depressingly, although nearly everybody readily identifies them, just as readily they are seen as unlikely ever to be central to modern workplaces. It is as though there is an alternate reality, ‘the business’, which will always take precedent, in which these things will never be allowed or embraced. Yet these aspirations and hopes stubbornly remain, and people continue, outside monetary rewards, to value their workplaces primarily by them.

The result of this misalignment is an absurd and shameful waste of human potential. Here is a very significant part of most people’s lives, in which, with a little thought, workers could grow and develop as people, even as they produce the goods and services which society needs. After all, what is unreasonable, complicated or unknown about these things?  Hugh Stretton, one of our most distinguished social theorists and commentators, expressed some of these aspirations with characteristic simplicity and humanity[iii]:

  • Interesting, challenging or otherwise pleasing tasks.
  • Tasks with some wholeness or independence, so that workers can enjoy some pride of craft.
  • Sociable roles in small working groups or teams; or in congenial relations with customers.
  • A real concern to develop latent talent. . .
  • A shared concern for excellence, both as a means . . .and as an end; as one of the joys of life.

‘One of the joys of life’: now there’s a concept you won’t find in many management theory books, or, in my experience, around the boardroom table. Yet everyone knows what it means. The legitimacy of business as a human enterprise rests on its ability to provide for just such purposes. Evidently we have a way to go.



[i] Here is a recent study on the psychology and health impact of boredom:  Eastwood, J, Frischen, A, Feuske, M & Smilek, D, 2012, ‘The unengaged mind: defining boredom in terms of attention’, Perspectives on Psychological Science, 7(5), 482-495. See http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2012/oct/14/boredom-is-bad-for-health

[ii] Available at http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/index.shtml

[iii] Stretton, H (2000), Economics: a new introduction, Pluto Press, London, p.282.

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‘Fractured Workplace’ Chapter 4: Participation and consultation–token and real

Chapter Four

Participation and consultation–token and real

For all their rhetoric, firms are rarely participative or consultative: the dominant practice of modern management is unambiguously directive, from the top down.  That is true at every scale of the organization, from CEO to executive, from the executive group to other employees, from business unit heads to business unit employees, from supervisors to the supervised.  There are cultural differences in this: in my experience Anglo-American managers and employees take top-down, directive management for granted; so do Asian firms; European firms are more inclined to consultation (but often token); and Australian managers, while attempting to implement the American model, may well have to come to terms with a more intransigent workforce.  The prevailing paradigm of modern management is, however, overwhelmingly directive.  As we saw in chapter 2, it is built into the Taylorist model of work that underpins the modern workplace model: managers master plan the work elements and their arrangements, and take ownership of the ‘brain’ work, the high-level work which is supposed to be commensurate with their (significantly) greater salary packages.  The market certainly believes in top-down leadership: the best market strategy for a public company in trouble is to change its CEO, which will usually see its share price bounce on the touching faith that the new man (usually a man) will transform overnight the performance of the entire company.

Increasingly, however, this model is being challenged.  In the European Union, for example, employee participation and ownership has a strong basis in the Community’s Charter of Fundamental Social Rights for Workers, and its adoption by the Heads of Government of the then eleven member states at Strasbourg in 1989.  The Charter was remarkable in its grasp of the importance of the workplace to the quality of people’s lives, and the range of issues associated with it.  It proposed principles on which the European labour law model was to be based; and, more generally, the role of work in society.  A list of its key Articles is in itself an impressive commitment to social values in the workplace:

  • Freedom of movement
  • Employment and remuneration
  • Improvement of living and working conditions
  • Social protection
  • Freedom of association and collective bargaining
  • Vocational training
  • Equal treatment for men and women
  • Information, consultation and participation of workers
  • Health protection and safety in the workplace
  • Protection of children and adolescents
  • The rights of elderly persons
  • The rights of disabled persons

An example of the scope intended to apply to the employment relationship by the Charter is the Directive ‘establishing a general framework for informing and consulting employees in the European Community’, adopted by the European Parliament in March 2002.[i] The Directive implements Article 27 of the Charter, which establishes ‘workers’ rights to information and consultation within the undertaking’; that is, within the enterprise.  It requires all businesses with at least 50 employees, or establishments (discrete locations) with at least 20 employees (the choice is left to the member states) to inform and consult with employees on a wide range of matters.  These include, as might be expected, the ‘situation, structure and probable development of employment’ in the business, particularly where there is a threat to employment; and ‘decisions likely to lead to substantial changes in work organisation’.  But the Directive goes further: it requires information and consultation on ‘the recent and probable development of the undertaking’s or the establishment’s activities and economic situation’.  In other words, employee representatives may seek dialogue on changes to senior management, new strategies and vision statements, sales results, demand, new products, overtime, and training and development; everything, in fact, that, in countries such as the UK, has been until now the more or less exclusive province of the executive group.

Many European national labour laws, notably those of Germany and France, have long incorporated the notion of stakeholder voice, as opposed to solely shareholder voice, into the processes of governance and control within companies.  Thus in Germany representatives of employees and in some cases other stakeholders, such as local government and environmental interests, are required by law to sit on the boards of public companies.  Here company law and labour law are closely linked.  The German and French systems are examples of what have been termed ‘insider systems’,  which “essentially see the business enterprise as having an organisational dimension which rests on the contributions made by a number of stakeholder groups, and not simply a financial dimension which describes the contribution of the shareholders.[ii]

Moreover, the concept of information and consultation embedded in the Directive, once it is drawn into the practical realities of the work environment, point to a more sophisticated notion of representation, in which democracy in the EU is considered “less in terms of representative democracy and more in terms of participation and deliberation. . .[it] places the emphasis on obtaining a shared sense of meaning and common will. . .on arguing, reason giving and learning, leading to the transformation, rather than simply the aggregation, of preferences.”[iii]

This is a strong statement of principle, a commitment to a particular view of work life, and a transformed employment relationship in the direction of what is increasingly being termed a ‘partnership’ model.  It is not a theoretical aspiration: the Directive is a reality.  It has been binding on all businesses of EU member states since 2005, although predictably it was resisted by Boards and management.[iv]

However, it’s worth considering what the right to information and consultation might mean in practice.  Like many policies, the devil is in the detail, in this case the detail of how the management of the firm chooses to interpret that right.  As useful framework for considering this question is the IAP2 Public Participation Spectrum[v].  Although it was designed for use in public contexts, the Spectrum is directly relevant to organisations as well (one can argue against equating these contexts, but I am prepared to argue that the principles underlying the two are common and map well onto each other).  It sets out a continuum of possible relationships between central agencies (in this case, management) and stakeholders (in this case, employees), as follows:





It is evident that these categories, read left to right, move from least to greatest participation.  The Spectrum then lays out for each category the nature of the participation goal which characterises each of these categories (here the term ‘employees’ has been substituted for the original ‘public’):

To provide the employees with balanced and objective information to assist them in understanding the problems, alternatives, opportunities and/or solutions. To obtain the employees’ feedback on analysis, alternatives and/or decisions. To work directly with the employees throughout the process to ensure that employees concerns and aspirations are consistently understood and considered. To partner with the employees in each aspect of the decision including the development of alternatives and the identification of the preferred solution. To place final decision-making in the hands of the employees.

The management undertakings which are linked to each of these goals are then identified:

We will keep you informed. We will keep you informed, listen to and acknowledge concerns and provide feedback on how employees input influenced the decision. We will work with you to ensure that your concerns and aspirations are directly reflected in the alternatives developed and provide feedback on how employees input influenced the decision. We will look to you for direct advice and innovation in formulating solutions and incorporate your advice and recommendations into the decisions to the maximum extent possible. We will implement what you decide.

These categories seem to capture well the different stances that management in modern firms adopt with respect to participation and consultation ( ‘management’ here, rather than ‘managers’, because the stance is nearly always one of the firm’s policy, reinforced by cultural norms). Clearly the first three of these categories (working from the left) are associated with top-down management.  The first category is blunt and unpromising, from the employee point of view: “we will keep you informed.”  The second two categories seem at least to embody degrees of interchange, and acknowledgement of the two-way character of anything that resembles participation.  However, I would be prepared to bet that many people reading the first three columns in this table, and reflecting on their own workplace experience, would be sceptical of the commitments articulated here, even at the most basic level.  All too often management curtails information, avoids action on feedback, and fails to follow up consultation.  This is tokenism, pure and simple; it is designed to meet regulatory requirements (such as those in Europe) and to divert the demands of employees for participation into harmless channels (that is, channels that are peripheral to centralised decision-making), while providing a ground for presenting the company as progressive to the community and the market.  In my experience, tokenism is far more often the rule than the exception in modern workplaces.

The irony is that, while designed to shore up the Taylorist structures which dominate modern management, tokenism seriously damages the organisational fabric.  Nothing undermines trust between management and employees so quickly or so thoroughly.  Once dismantled, trust is very difficult to restore. A firm embarking on this path would be better advised not to undertake such measures at all: at least uncompromising, unambiguous control-and-command management has an element of honesty about it.  It is the dishonesty of token participation and consultation that employees find difficult to forgive.  A shutdown of discretionary work and a retreat to work-to-rule is the almost inevitable result.

But a second reason employees react in this way to token consultation is that their expectations have been disappointed; and that is worth examining.  These are expectations of ownership. The opportunity to play an active part in the decisions and implementation of their work is greatly valued by most people.  The value of ownership rests first in the satisfaction of seeing my own decisions and actions worked through into useful outcomes, in products and services and the contributions they make, although that is important.  But even more, perhaps, the ownership that is embedded in real participation is a mark of respect: an explicit recognition that my ideas, opinions and actions matter, that they are valuable; that I may be employed but not as an object, a factor of production, like plant or equipment; that I am trusted to take on responsibility for important outcomes; that I matter, as a person, with all the creativity and intelligence that human beings bring.  All healthy relationships are founded on mutual respect, and the employment relationship is no exception.  That is why participation and consultation promises so much, and why the betrayal (it is not too much to use the word, in my experience) of that promise in token participation is so damaging.

Is it possible, then, for firms and organisations really to implement the third and fourth categories in the IAP2 Spectrum, ‘Collaborate’ and ‘Empower’?  The European Directive seems to believe it is, since the right to information and consultation, as we have seen, is interpreted there as “obtaining a shared sense of meaning and common will. . .on arguing, reason giving and learning, leading to the transformation, rather than simply the aggregation, of preferences.”  This represents truly engaged, shared consultation where there is learning on both sides and the outcome can actually be changed by the process–hallmarks of the Collaborate/Empower modes.

Increasingly, too, there is a recognition among many leading firms that in the modern business environment these participation modes are not only possible but required.  That is, the business case for them is becoming strong.

Firstly, there is an absurd hubris in the idea that one person, the CEO, is somehow the fount of all the knowledge that the success of the business requires.  As noted, the market seems to hold tenaciously to this view, and far too many CEOs fall into the trap of believing that it’s true.  But it beggars belief that in a globally-connected world of immense complexity, with interacting systems of extreme volatility and unpredictability, any one person could plot a coherent business course.  The best CEOs know this is rubbish: they may present themselves as charismatic messiahs to the market, but they know better than to manage like that.  Jack Welch, for example, the well-known (somewhat notorious) CEO of General Electric, presented a public persona of absolute managerial control; but he is said to have collaborated closely with his senior people and was one of the first managers of modern times to understand that the employees of the company were an immense creative resource–he sent his managers onto the shop floors to seek out critiques and ideas, and installed computer terminals to make direct communication with him simple.  Michael Chaney, the former CEO of Westfarmers, is said to be another example: in creating one of the most successful conglomerates in Australian business history, he assembled an outstanding group of business developers and worked closely and collaboratively with them.  Modern companies like Google, operating at the forefront of the Internet space, live and breathe this reality.  In a sector that is evolving at breathtaking speed, significant managerial power has devolved to semi-automous teams in order to allow for maximum creativity and flexibility in new product development.

Second, it is now well understood that all kinds of knowledge comes with people.  Certainly employees can be hired for specific knowledge (note, specific–that is, tied to a particular job description and element in the work process, as required in the Taylorist model).  However, people know a great deal about many things that lie outside the job description, and often a great deal about knowledge that is relevant to other people’s jobs.  The firm’s knowledge base can include all this knowledge, if it is opened to employees.  All too often it is not: the fear of losing control is ever-present and, in true Taylorist mode, renders real devolution of power anathema to modern managers.  Yet, it seems reasonable to ask, in an environment of accelerating and violently fluctuating change, where are the new ideas–the ideas necessary to meet this change and flourish in it–going to come from?  Clearly a wise firm will look first to its own people for that critical knowledge; and that requires establishing structures whereby people can participate directly in decision-making.

But beyond the business case for collaboration and empowerment is, as I argued in chapter 3, is the ethical and human case; and in my view it is primary.  I’ve noted the crucial importance of ownership: it’s not too much to say that no really creative and valuable work can be developed in any organisation without it.  But I want to argue further for the fundamentally ethical commitment that underpins ownership.  It derives from Kant’s ‘respect for persons’ principle, which is, you will remember from chapter 3, ‘always treat humanity in a person as an end, never as a means’.  It is simply not enough, from an ethical point of view, that people have a defined role in the production process, along Taylorist lines.  It must be a role that they themselves value, a role which is important and valuable to them, as people, as they go about their lives and look towards fulfilling their own potential; and that means, fundamentally, they it must be work over which they themselves have significant control.  We can expect–and indeed research confirms–that ownership is associated with greater creativity, commitment, motivation and productivity, but that is not, in the end, why it should be a part of the working environment.  It is rather an inseparable part of the commitment which comes with employment, to treat people with respect, to ensure that their work is not alienated from them, that it plays its part in a fully human life.  The commitment to ethical practice business–in this case, to real ownership–is not primarily driven by the profit motive but by a commitment to humanity: as Norman Bowie has it, it comes ‘with no ifs and buts’[vi].

Finally, I want to argue that at least part of the reason participative decision-making is so rare in business is that managers don’t know how to put it into practice.  This is surprising, as we work collaboratively together in all kinds of social contexts outside business; but we have noted that strange misalignment from the beginning of this book.  Here are some general principles, drawn largely from my own experience, for participative, collaborative thinking:

  1. In general terms a group is usually more intelligent, even wiser, than a single individual.  One can easily think up exceptions–the matter is very technical and someone has the required technical skills; or the group is beset by personality problems–but the general principle still holds.
  2. Collaboration tends to bring out the best in people.  Not only is it in itself a central part of work fulfillment–most people enjoy working together–but the interpersonal commitments that emerge in a group predispose people to give their best.
  3. Successful collaboration is based on attentive, intelligent listening, rather than talking.  All too often individuals in collaborative groups are thinking about what they want to say next, rather than attending to what is being said by someone else.  The first commitment of members in collaboration is to listen and understand, before speaking.
  4. Anything can be put forward by anyone: the whole point of collaboration is to expand the range of ideas, to enhance creative thinking.  Whatever is put forward is to be listened to with respect.  It can be the subject of disagreement, but that too must be respectful, at the individual level.  Personal disparagement or even abuse is absolutely unacceptable, and is agreed by everyone in advance to be unacceptable.
  5. Disagreement or different positions in a group is fine: often it indicates that there is a deeper level of understanding to be reached, which can accommodate the different positions, and which is therefore more powerful.
  6. As a general rule transparency and openness are better than keeping information back.  The default position should be: all information is freely available to everyone, unless it involves agreed limitations, such as personal privacy, or commercial in confidence matters.  Not only does transparency allow for the highest levels of creative thinking but it enhances trust; just as the opposite, refusing to release information, dismantles trust and generates suspicion.  Information in organisations is power: holding back information initiates power relations; and once power relations come into play the coherence of the collaboration is lost.
  7. For a manager, accepting the principle of ownership of decision-making by a collaborating group means accepting that it may well make mistakes–and supporting them when that hapens, rather than walking away.  It also means celebrating successes collectively, rather than taking credit for them.  It means becoming part of the group, participating fully in it as one of its members, fully invested in it, not standing apart in isolated managerial splendour.

Respect, trust, openness, honesty, fairness, generosity, consideration: these are the elements of good participation and collaboration.  But that should hardly come as a surprise, to anyone.  If you’ve grown up as a member of the human race and haven’t worked these things out, you haven’t been paying attention.




[i] ‘Directive 2002/14/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 11 March 2002 establishing a general framework for informing and consulting employees in the European Community’, Official Journal of the European Communities, EUROPA, Employment, Social Affairs & Inclusion,http://eur-lex.europa.eu/LexUriServ/LexUriServ.do?uri=OJ:L:2002:080:0029:0033:en:PDF

[ii] Barnard, C. & Deakin, S. (2002). ‘Corporate governance, European governance and social rights’ in Hepple, B.(ed)(2002). Social and Labour Rights in a Global Context. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom, p.133.

[iii] Barnard & Deakin, p.144.

[iv] Overell, Stephen, ‘Employers fear consultation law’, Financial Times, March 2, 2005.

[v] International Association of Public Participation Australasia, Public Participation Spectrum,http://www.iap2.org.au/sitebuilder/resources/knowledge/asset/files/36/iap2spectrum.pdf

[vi]  Bowie, N. (2002), ‘A Kantian approach to business ethics.’ In T. Donaldson, P. Werhane & M. Cording (eds.) Ethical issues in business: a philosophical approach. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education.

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‘Fractured Workplace’ Chapter 3: Purposes of the organisation–beyond function to people

Chapter Three

Purposes of the organisation: beyond function to people

In 1886 the founder of the Chesapeake Dry Dock and Construction Company, Collis P. Huntington, gave what he called a ‘motto’ to his new venture:

“We shall build good ships here. At a profit—if we can. At a loss—if we must, but always good ships.”

To most people this is an immediately attractive statement; and it’s worth thinking about why that should be.  It’s not strictly a vision statement, which typically is a kind of ‘foresighting’, in which the form of the organisation at some future point—perhaps ten or twenty years—is envisaged.  Vision statements are important, in being both formative and enabling, but that’s not what this is.  It’s closer, perhaps, to what modern managers would call a ‘mission’ or a ‘purpose’ statement.  It has, in fact, elements of all three; but it goes beyond them, too.  It speaks to the people  who are to work at this place, what kinds of values they hold.  The old craft commitment is clearly evident—pride in the quality of the work itself, on its own ground.  There is a commitment to the customer, to the quality of the product being offered; and this commitment is expressed as non-negotiable, placed even above financial outcomes (difficult to see any modern manager conceding as much).  And that speaks to values, even to character.  It is a statement of integrity in its key relationships.  Everyone knows, from their own experience of life, the value of integrity.

Of course intention is one thing and implementation another; and it may be that in practice this statement has been honoured in the breach rather than the observance.  Still, it’s a vigorous statement of purpose; and at least it seems to have contributed to a successful business, which still thrives, as the Newport News Shipbuilding Company, Newport News, Virginia, 126 years and 800 ships on.

One may contrast this statement with the purpose that has overwhelmingly characterized firms, particularly over the past three decades: shareholder value.  There are debates about how shareholder value can best be measured in both private and listed firms.  But the underlying principle is clear:  the primary purpose—indeed, the only purpose of any real significance— of the firm is to increase the financial wealth of its owners.

Now few will dispute the right of owners of firms (or providers of capital) to a reasonable return on their investment[i].  The difficulties arise when this is asserted to be the sole purpose of the firm, and the sole criteria of successful management.  This is a proposal identified particularly with a famous New York Times Magazine article written in 1970 by Milton Friedman, uncompromisingly entitled “The social responsibility of business is to increase its profits.”  Friedman argued that the managers of a company had no business to be thinking about anything else but the business outcomes: that they were neither qualified nor authorized to do so; and that it was only through profitability that the benefits of businesses flowed to society at large. This, it is worth noting, is a proposition that has been implicitly adopted as a law of economic life in the policies of most modern governments, of whatever political persuasion.  It is also worth noting that it has been trenchantly criticised over the past several decades from such perspectives as corporate social responsibility[ii] and stakeholder theory[iii], and more recently of sustainability[iv].

Stakeholders of firms are held to be owners, managers, employees, suppliers, customers and the community at large.  Stakeholder theory holds that firms (and all organisations) must negotiate the allocation of their resources among the claims of the different stakeholders.  This is not always an easy task: for example, partiality to the interests of customers may impinge upon the interests of suppliers and distributors (think, for example, of supplier strong-arming by Walmart, or, in Australia, by Coles and Woolworths); partiality to the interests of shareholders (through dividend levels, for instance) may impinge upon the interests of all other stakeholders. There are no easy answers to these allocation decisions.  The principal value of stakeholder theory, however, was in insisting that there are other legitimate claims on the firm other than the shareholders.  That, in the context of modern assumptions about business, was a challenge of sufficient force to be regarded as radical.

We may, however, go further.  Among the list of stakeholders I would argue that employees clearly have a special place and a special claim to consideration.  Their lives are bound to the fortunes of the firm.  It is their work which is creating the products and services that are of value to other stakeholders.  They have fully committed their working lives and capabilities to the firm as no other stakeholders have.  They live one third of their lives in the workplace in which these products and services are developed.  I argue, therefore, that along with the purposes of the organisation which are embodied in its services or products are a set of purposes of equal status: the well-being and growth of the organisation’s own people, in their own right.  These are purposes which can’t be ignored, put aside, or diminished.  If the organisation is to flourish in any sense, they must be fully and equally honoured.

This way of thinking arises from a fact which ought to be so obvious as not to need stating at all:  employees are, indeed, people, with all the complex and rich dimensions, and particularly the rights, that are part of any person.  In this I am thinking of the alternative description, in modern management, of people who work in firms and organisations as ‘human resources’.  This, I would suggest, is an insulting term, deeply repugnant, and inherent in the antiquated and damaging model of work that I’ve outlined in chapter 2.  It derives from an old concept in economics, the idea of factors of production: such things as machinery, buildings, raw materials, energy—and labour.  The factors of production are the inputs that are needed to produce any given output.  The economic challenge is one of efficiency, seeking the least waste and the greatest productivity of any combination of production factors.  Labour is like any other factor: it plays its part as an input in generating output, and is to be made as efficient as possible. Among all the factors, or resources, that are brought together to accomplish the firm’s work, human elements are like any other factor, a resource; hence ‘human resources’.  It is precisely this view that is embedded in the Taylorist model of work.

This is clearly nonsense.  Human beings are not raw materials, or machines, or even energy:  they are fundamentally different from all of these, and any attempt to reduce them to a set of production factors—in particular, to units of labour—will fail, just because they are human.  Tony Watson acerbically remarks:

“Many managers would undoubtedly like to be able directly to ‘manage people’ and thus straightforwardly exploit the ‘resources’ which those people bring to the organisation.  It would make life easier for managers if the workforce could be tended like a herd of cattle which, with careful husbandry, produces a regular supply of milk, butter and meat.  The human animal, however, is fundamentally different from all others.  ‘Managing people’ is an impossibility.”[v]

Watson goes on to discuss the ways in which people are active, rather than passive, in their work; an important topic which we will take up later in the book.  Here let us focus on what changes in terms of purposes, once one explicitly insists on the human character of work and the people who do it.

A first, and basic, observation is that as human beings employees have explicit rights at work.  This is given unambiguous expression in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “everyone has the right. . .to just and favourable conditions of work”. Employment (as against unemployment), freedom from discrimination, freedom of association in trade unions, and reasonable working hours and paid holidays are all specified rights under the Declaration.  And it is important to note that underpinning these specific rights are held to be more general human rights, which derive from the concept of the intrinsic dignity and worth of every human being[vi].  Make no mistake, despite the general character of the language, these are powerful statements which carry concrete obligations for governments, in legislating and regulating, and on organisations in structuring and managing work.  They underscore in the most emphatic manner that if you employ people you have real obligations to them as human beings which go well beyond the labour units they provide to the organisation.  I wonder how many employers even know of the existence of these formally stated human rights, let alone systematically embed them in their organisations and regularly audit their consistent application.

The word ‘dignity’ is the most powerful of all the rights terms.  It occurs, in the first sentence of the Preamble of the Declaration, and in the first Article:  “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”  Dignity is often associated with Immanuel Kant’s “respect for persons” principle:  always treat humanity in a person as an end, never as a means.  Applied to work, the implication is direct: people are never only units of labour (means to the organisation’s ends, or purposes) but always an end in themselves.

The purposes of firms and organisations thus always include the dignity and well-being of their people.  This purpose—the human purpose—sits alongside the functional purpose represented by the organisation’s products and services.  The human purposes of the organisation can never be subordinated to its functional purposes: that is the whole point of human rights—they are non-negotiable.  They must be explicitly provided for in any work and in any workplace.

Here is one way of drawing the linkages I’m suggesting:


Rights are defined both negatively (freedom from discrimination) and positively (just and favourable conditions of work).  On the positive side we can go further. Here are three important areas of obligation over and above the fundamental human rights which, I would argue, also come with the people a firm or organisation employees:

Ethical behaviour:  The firm must act ethically with its own people (and also with its suppliers, customers, and so on).  Francis proposes four ethical principles of corporate behaviour:

  1.  Preserve from harm.
  2. Respect the dignity of all persons.
  3. Be open and honest except in the exceptional cases where privacy and silence are clearly ethically preferable.
  4. Act so as to preserve the equitability of relationships.

These are linked to practical principles such as equitability, honesty, openness, goodwill, and alleviation of suffering[vii].  One doesn’t need the Declaration of Human Rights to see the sense and rightness of these principles: they are part of everybody’s life experience.  All ethical systems are underpinned by common morality.  In the end, it’s usually not the direction of a particular ethical decision that is the quandary, but rather the decision to act ethically at all.  Firms should simply, as Francis suggests, decide always to act ethically, as a basic principle, particularly with their own people.  There should be no recourse to ‘business is business’ or ‘nothing personal, just business’—craven retreats.  If you employ people, or work with them in any way, you should act ethically towards them; no ifs, no buts.  If you can’t make the business work with a commitment to ethical behaviour, then you’re in the wrong business: make a living by working at something else where you can act like a decent human being.

Growth, learning and development:  People have a right to growth.  That is recognised in the Declaration as rights to education; but it doesn’t end with completion of formal education.  Lifelong learning is well known to be a cornerstone of a healthy life, and nowhere is there greater opportunity for continuous learning, growth and development than at work.  Under the standard model describe in chapter 2 this is anathema: people are hired to do the work attached to a specific job, not to grow out of it.  The idea of people growing and moving on or up directly threatens the model, the last thing the manager of modern management theory would want.  The exception is where development is called training; which means, the development of skills and capabilities that are of direct relevance to the work—the shaping of an individual peg to fill the job hole.  One doesn’t want to exclude this kind of learning—it may be that an individual will find it relevant to the things she wants to develop in herself—but relevance to the firm’s work is not the only or even the best criteria for continuing training or education.  People have all kinds of aspirations for growth and achievement, and it’s up to the firm to understand them and support them as far as it can.  People are always employed as whole people, growing and developing and aspiring, never as only units of labour, and firms should work with and support them in their learning and growth.  It comes with the human territory.

Respect:  Respect is one of those overarching principles of living  which really, when you think about it, includes almost everything we know about the right and best way to behave with other people. Respect and dignity go together in the Declaration: to respect someone is to act so as to uphold their human dignity.  Note the word ‘human’.  There are other grounds for respect: you can respect someone for specific knowledge or a specific capability or skill.  Typically, though, that kind of respect doesn’t survive outside the specific context in which it arises.  But respect in terms of human dignity is something altogether different.  Respect here is something that every person as a human being deserves from everyone, and is asked to give to everyone as human beings, regardless of what they know or what they can do.   Respect covers a lot of ground.  It means acting so as to respect basic human rights.  It means acting ethically.  It means not discriminating.  It means treating people as mature, intelligent, creative individuals.  It means assuming that people want to work with you, not that they are waiting to take advantage of you.  It means listening and understanding.  It means supporting and legitimising difference.  Respect is the ground of all living relationships, no more clearly than in the workplace.

My argument, then, is that the purposes of every organisation, including firms, include human purposes that sit alongside, and are equal to, their functional purposes.  The human purposes arise just because the organisation is made of its people, who are not simply units of labour or resources but whole people who must be treated as such.  That treatment rests on fundamental human rights, but extends beyond them, to the ground of common morality, consideration and decency that characterizes all relationships at their best.  These are not optional actions; they are not costs that have to be managed down; they are not impediments to, or distractions from, the organisational tasks.  They are in themselves legitimate and important outcomes sought by the organisation’s work.  The organisation is a primary arena of human life: the life purposes of its people therefore become part of its own purposes.

It should be emphasised that I am not mounting a business case for approaching people in organisations in this way.  That is, I’m not claiming that the justification for treating your people in this way is that they will be more productive, or better able to deliver organisational outcomes in some way, as a result.  My firm position is that people should be treated with respect because that is always the right way to treat people, at any time or in any place.  At the same time, it is clearly true that if people are treated properly they are likely to contribute to better organisational outcomes. In particular, they are more likely to approach their jobs creatively, with greater energy and application.  The standard model applies a metric driven by the job unit mentality to an individual’s work: just that work is demanded, no more, no less.  Where the fundamentals of relationships are routinely damaged—by breaching human rights, by unethical behaviour, by quashing aspiration, or by lack of respect, and the like, all driven by the standard model—the natural response of an employee will be, work to rule, at the minimum level possible.  Organisations don’t thrive on such repression; they thrive when people’s capabilities are freed by respect and decency.

These are not arcane arguments but practical wisdom, the truths that life experience brings to us all.  It’s not hard to make them the truths of our workplaces, too, once the strangely artificial rigidities of modern people management have been, as they should be, let go for good.

[i] This statement brings into play complex matters of social and political philosophy; and there are contrary views, on grounds of fairness and equity which deserve a respectful hearing (see Baran, P and Sweezy, P (1966), Monopoly capital: an essay on the American economic and social order, Monthly Review Press, New York).  However, that is a wider debate I don’t take up here.  I think current Fabian or other left-leaning social philosophies would accept the statement as it stands.

[ii] Carroll, A. (2008), ‘A history of corporate social responsibility’, in A. Crane, A. McWilliams, D. Matten, J. Moon & D. Siegel (eds) The Oxford handbook of corporate social responsibility, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

[iii] Freeman, R. (1984), Strategic management: a stakeholder approach, Pitman, Boston.

[iv] Moscardo, G, Lamberton, G, Wells, G (eds) (2012), Sustainability in Australian business: principles and practice, John Wiley & Sons Australia, Ltd., Milton, Queensland.

[v] Watson, T (2009), ‘Organisations, strategies and human resourcing’ in J Leopold & L Harris (eds.), The strategic managing of human resources, 2nd edn., Pearson Education, Harlow, Essex.

[vi] Available at http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/.

[vii] Francis, R. (2000), Ethics and corporate governance: an Australian handbook, University of New South Wales, Sydney.

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The Fractured Workplace And Its Remedies by Geoffrey Wells is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

The Fractured Workplace And Its Remedies: Chapter 2

Chapter Two

The standard model of work: a clinical diagnosis

The way in which work itself is understood and organized determines, for better or worse,  the human character of the workplace.  In this chapter I will argue that the model of work that dominates modern workplaces is a vestigial  oddity, now over a century old, that is incapable of meeting the demands of modern life, is wasteful of human capabilities, and is damaging to human well-being.  That it maintains its prominence and is still accepted so widely and with so little questioning is one of the stranger facts of modern society; but so it is.  By understanding its pathology we can look to its cure.

This model of work is associated with the American Frederick Winslow Taylor and his followers.  His name is not now widely known, but his ideas have been—and, I would argue, remain—extraordinarily influential in modern workplace management, even if their source is forgotten.  In 1911 Taylor wrote a book, The Principles of Scientific Management, which had an influence far beyond its immediate objectives.  It was written to re-organize the work of industrial workshops, but it has defined, and continues to define, how modern organizations think about work and about the people who do it. Its damaging effects have been, and remain, incalculable, as we shall see.

Taylor wanted to make a clean break with the “craft” tradition of work that had developed in Europe over centuries.  The craft tradition had been centred on the artisan model, in which knowledge and skills in a particular field, such as building or textiles, was developed in a series of well-defined ranks, from apprentice to journeyman to master craftsman.  The industrial revolution dismantled this system through its requirement for large numbers of people employed in factories (or outsourced) to produce large volumes of goods. Taylor—or, as his system became known, Taylorism—was designed to complete this historical upheaval by bringing work and the workforce into full industrial production.[i]

Taylor’s big idea was to break down work into its constituent tasks, small enough to be standardized.  This was done in a ‘scientific’ way (hence ‘scientific management’): a number of workers experienced in the task were asked to perform it, their performance was measured, usually by a time and motion study, and a standard for that task was developed.  Everything about the task was specified in the standard, “not only what is to be done, but how it is to be done and the exact time allowed for doing it.”   This was, Taylor noted, “a science for each element of a man’s work, which replaces the old rule-of-thumb.”  As Harry Braverman has observed, this effectively dissociated the labour process from the skills of the workers [ii].

Then followed some critical elements.  First, because the skills associated with each task had been reduced, focused and standardized, it became much simpler, indeed necessary, for the firm to “scientifically select and then train, teach, and develop the workman” to carry out these tasks efficiently.

Second, conformity to the task standards was critical:  it became essential “to insure all of the work being done in accordance with the principles of the science which has been developed.”  This is, Braverman points out, a monopoly over knowledge which is used “to control each step of the labour process and its mode of execution.”

Third, management emerges as a new and overriding element in the work structure: “The management take over all the work for which they are better fitted than the workman.”  All of what Taylor described as “brain work” was to be removed from the shop floor and retired to the planning department—to quote Braverman again, “the separation of conception from execution.”

The impact of Taylor’s methods was immediate in the workshops of the twentieth century.  The development of the production line is an obvious example, from the auto manufacturing of peacetime to the munitions manufacturing of wartime.  “Operations” became one of the four pillars of management (the others are finance and accounting, marketing, and human resources—with ICT as the modern candidate for a fifth pillar).

However, it may be objected that Taylor’s industrial workplaces are hardly recognizable in those of today: handling pig iron by hand, the arena of his early work, seems to have little to do with computerized robotics.  To that objection I would give two replies. Firstly, if you have been in modern manufacturing workplaces, such as auto manufacturers, you will find many still people doing standardized, repetitive, monotonous tasks along Taylorist principles; and the robust existence of sweatshops in regimes of low wages and lower work safeguards still damage the working lives of millions of people.[iii]

But secondly, I argue that the imprint of Taylorist principles remains unmistakeably dominant in assumptions about modern work and in the patterns of its organization.  They may not be there in precisely the same form, but their intent and force is intact.  This is not difficult to see if you take the Taylorist principles and look for them in current work practice.

To begin with, there is no doubt that, although time and motion studies may not be involved modern work is certainly segmented.  This is evident from the simple idea of a “job”.  Work is organized around the jobs or “positions” that are seen as necessary to carry it out.  People are not in general hired as people, because of their broad personal base of knowledge and skills but in order to do a particular job.  Knowledge, capabilities and skills are relevant not in themselves but in their application to a particular, well-defined piece of the total work.  This is not after all very far from the Taylorist idea of a task: multiple tasks may be inherent in a job, but they are highly constrained, and together form one job in the array of jobs that make up the work.

Think of the “position description”.  Typically it will first lay out the duties and responsibilities of the position.  In modern human resources management, the process of developing this description has clear analogues to Taylor’s time and motion studies: it may involve interviewing workers or supervisors, observation, group interviews, technical conferences, critical incident analysis, questionnaires, checklists and so on.  The goal is to develop a set of discrete tasks and responsibilities which define “the job” as precisely as possible.

This description then generates a list of skills and capabilities that are required to carry out these tasks and responsibilities.  These become the criteria which drive the selection process, which is supposed to look for as close a fit as possible between the job tasks and responsibilities on the one hand and the candidate’s skills and capabilities on the other.  The candidate that is deemed to meet these criteria best will get the job.[iv]

(We may note in passing the ludicrous nature of most position descriptions.  Not only are the tasks and responsibilities listed usually far more than the actual work requires but the skills, capabilities and experience listed are laughably excessive.  Who, I have often asked, are they trying to hire? Superman?  Wonder Woman?  Moreover, my experience suggests, and research confirms, selection panels usually make their decisions on other grounds entirely: they may tick the boxes if they are required to, but in the end their decision is more likely to be  based on a gut feeling as to whether the candidate in question is “one of us.”  But more on that later.)

Moreover, the definition of work contained in the position description occurs within the context of the organization’s work as a whole.  The idea is that these are the units of which the work of the organization is comprised.  If they are carried out properly, according to the precise specification, in the right relationship to each other, the work as a whole will run smoothly and the organizational objectives will be achieved.  All we need are people who are trained to carry out the units of work and will do it as they are told to.  Isn’t this precisely the spirit of Taylorism?

We can go further.  Who, it may be asked, designed this job?  It must be someone who sits above it, in some way; in fact, someone who sits above the work as a whole, because all the jobs that constitute it have to fit with each other to produce the right outcome, so the designer can’t be embedded in any one level or part of it.  The answer, it becomes apparent, must be Taylor’s: this is the “brain work”, the design work, which is the particular role of management, and for which they are held to be uniquely qualified.

Yet everyone knows that work designed in this way, from above, is often, even usually, woefully inadequate.  Nearly always the people actually doing the work know how to do it much better.  Here is a little story to that effect.  Recently one of the four big Australian banks became concerned about one of its units: the outcomes of the unit’s work were seen as strong, but there was concern among management about whether the unit was controlling risks by following the work manuals (manuals are the modern tool of standardizing work; Taylor used cards).  The management of the bank brought in a consulting firm to audit the unit.  The consultants spent three months in the unit’s workplace, interviewing employees, reviewing documentation, observing work practice, and so on.  At the end of the time they reported to management that 90% of the work being done by the unit was not in the manuals.  Yet the outcomes were excellent.

What had happened, of course, was that people in the unit had simply taken control of their own work: where they saw a way to do it better, they did it.  Those new practices were shared verbally.  When new workers came in they were briefed by those around them.  No one bothered much about the manuals.  They just did the work themselves, together, and did it far better than the design developed by someone else and embedded in the manuals.

There is more to say about the lessons of this story and others like it, but let’s for the moment follow through the logic of work design and of position descriptions.   If you have designed work along a trajectory of segments or stages; if you have identified those work segments with jobs; and if you have hired people to do those jobs; you now have to make sure they do those jobs, precisely as they are defined.  Taylor recognised this requirement very clearly: each task had to be carried out “in accordance with the principles of the science which has been developed.”  The task is defined in outcomes and measures: you have to make sure they are being met.  The belief is that only if every piece of work meets its required outcomes will the work as a whole be achieved.

Now if you are a manager who subscribes to modern people management principles, how do you ensure that people will do what they are, according to the design, supposed to be doing, at the level that is required by the overarching plan?  You institute controls. You assume that there is no way people can be counted on to do the work without them.  It wouldn’t be possible, for example, to discuss the work with them, come to some agreement about who is going to do what work, and when; first, because you couldn’t trust that these are the right decisions, since they operate at a low level of the hierarchy (non-brain work); and second, you couldn’t trust people to actually do what they say they are going to do. So you set up controls.  Modern management is overwhelmingly about control.

I argue that the entire machinery of modern people management is designed to implement these controls.  It is, to pick up the term of the previous chapter, fundamentally coercive in its intent.  Legal coercion is applied through  contracts, between the individual worker and the firm.  Financial coercion is applied through reward, compensation and penalty structures (you can call these mechanisms ‘incentives’ but the underlying human reality doesn’t change).  Performance management ensures conformity of the employee’s actions with the job’s stated tasks and responsibilities.  Instruments such as these are the core of modern people management, and in later chapters we will look closely at them.  Here I want simply to argue that they are all designed, ultimately, to achieve one primary outcome: that the segments of work will be performed according to specifications of “the plan”, under the assumption that this will produce the desired organizational outcomes.  That is Taylorism, in its essential form.  Here is one way of drawing it:


Here I’ve attempted to show the tight linkage between each unit of work, located in its place within the projected work sequence, and defined by the PD, and the specific control mechanisms which are applied to it.  I’ve shown some of these mechanisms–which are, when applied to the person who does the job, coercive–but there are more that are not shown here. Some, such as 360 degree appraisal (boss-colleagues-staff-client-customer evaluations) are formal; others, such as organizational or workplace culture, are informal, but no less powerful.  I argue that you can trace the controlling imprint of the standard model through all of them.

Of course I’m generalizing here, in order to bring out what I see as the underlying character of modern views of work.  This is not to say that every workplace reflects these views, nor that some components of it are not carried out better in some places than in others.  But it has been surprising to me, in my work of some decades, how widely the standard model of work and its control is held, often implicitly, not needing to be acknowledged; and, when challenged, how strongly it is defended.  It appears in many forms in management theory and practice.

I believe this model to be fundamentally misconceived, and damaging both to organizations and to individuals.  On the organizational level, in the modern business environment the best firms know this model to be sclerotic and regressive.  Companies like Google, for example, sitting at the forefront of unprecedented change, have understood that the work can’t be designed from on high, that it has to be handed over to teams in a flattened organizational structure; that no amount of managerial knowledge can effectively direct the work of organizations in complex environments under rapid change; and that the knowledge required rests not with a small coterie of senior managers but with their people.  I argue that this principle applies not just to organizations under this kind of pressure, but to all organizations.  It is in the creativity and energy of their people, their willingness to undertake discretionary work, their aspirations for themselves and for the organization, that real organizational achievement rests.  It is in this capacity of their people for creative and innovative solutions that the ability of the organization to respond to a rapidly changing and challenging environment resides.  The sorts of control that come from the Taylorist view work against organizational achievement, by shutting down these qualities—qualities which, I argue, otherwise naturally emerge, given even the briefest opportunity.

On the individual level, as Braverman points out, the dismantling of the “craft” structure of knowledge tends to reduce the satisfactions and fulfillment people have in their work, in moving from a complex of skills and capabilities across different levels of responsibility, to a single level.  Wider cognitive or intellectual tasks—Taylor’s “brain work”—is separated out and relocated to upper management, a justification, apparently, for arguably excessive levels of compensation.  I recall vividly, in entering a strategy development project for a big manufacturing firm, being visited on the first day by the director of the plant.  “I hear you’re doing some strategy,” he said.  “Can I help?  I think about those things all the time, but I never get a chance to talk about them.”

In the standard model, ownership of work is located somewhere else: this is not my work, it is formulated and designed by someone else.  It’s difficult to take pride in work you’ve had little part in designing, for which you’ve been unable to share your knowledge and insights, work which is essentially developed and owned by someone else.  Here the scope of individual work is tightly constrained: the last thing the manager wants is individual creativity and innovation, which loosens control and throws the design into question. The requirement is rather for conformity, for meeting the standards laid out for the job.

Most importantly, this is a model which is built on suspicion and distrust. The basic assumption is that people can’t be trusted to do their work properly, that without the array of coercive mechanisms in place the firm will be taken advantage of by their employees for their own personal ends. This is insulting, disrespectful and clearly untrue.  The fact is that, as we all know in our own experience, and as research confirms, most people want to do their work well; indeed, given the opportunity most will find ways to do it better.  There are exceptions, of course, but mostly this is true.  Under coercive mechanisms respect disappears, trust is dismantled, and the springs of creativity, innovation and collaboration, which are the normal attributes of people working together, dry up.   Work becomes individualized: the economizing principle—that the individual acts according to her evaluation of the costs and benefits to herself—is brought to the fore.  Fear becomes a paramount instrument of management: fear of failure, fear of consequences, fear of not meeting standards, fear of thinking differently.  The individual becomes alienated from her work, and the potential human value of perhaps one third of her life is diminished.  These losses to life are incalculable.

Of course there will be those who will object that Taylor developed his system over a hundred years ago, and that it can’t possibly be relevant today.  Taken literally it’s a valid objection; but the underlying framework of Taylorist assumptions is, I argue, in robust good health.  Thinking about the Taylorist model has the value of exposing the underlying assumptions that run so deep in our modern workplaces and their management, and that engender management practices so crude in their view of human thought, feeling and behaviour that it is difficult to take them seriously.  Indeed, presented anywhere else in society—in a community or social group—they would be unceremoniously dumped.  Yet that is the reality we are facing.

It is in considering this pathology of organization that the direction of a remedy can be seen.  As we will see in later chapters, it is precisely in reversing systematically the Taylorist assumptions that the way out can be constructed.  The counter assumptions we will explore rest on such ideas as the integrated nature of work, broadly conceived; the human value good work can bring to lives; the intrinsic desire of people to take their work forward, to grow and expand it; the natural capabilities of people to work together, and to conceive of new ways of doing things; the view of people as mature, intelligent, forward-looking associates in the workplace; the view of people as intrinsically worthy of trust and respect.  These ideas shouldn’t be shocking.  Perhaps it’s a mark of how far the pathology of the modern workplace has reached that they are.



[i] Thompson, E.P. (1963), The making of the English working class, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, UK.  A wonderful social history of this momentous transformation in work and the workplace.

[ii] Braverman, H. (1974) Labor and monopoly capital: the degradation of work in the twentieth century, Monthly Review Press, New York.  A ground-breaking and influential account of the modern workplace.

[iii]Even after the Nike sweatshop disclosures, high profile UK companies, including Gap, Next and Marks & Spencer have been reported as continuing these practices in India–with pay rates as low as 25 cents per hour:  http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/aug/08/gap-next-marks-spencer-sweatshops .  And questions about the ethics of Apple’s operations in China remain: http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/gadgets-and-tech/news/apple-admits-it-has-a-human-rights-problem-6898617.html  .

[iv] Newell, S (2009), ‘Assessment, selection and evaluation’ in J. Leopold and L. Harris (eds), The strategic managing of human resources’, 2nd edn, Pearson Education, Harlow, UK.


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The Fractured Workplace And Its Remedies by Geoffrey Wells is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.