‘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

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

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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.