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.

 


NOTES

[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.

 

Creative Commons Licence
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: Procedures for collaboration, licensing & publishing

This is an open book project, and my commitment to collaborative development is real and central to the project.  I welcome input and look forward to engaging with it, to produce a book which is genuinely the outcome of a ‘community of practice’ development. The following points present the way in which this collaborative work will proceed.

The output of the development process will be an online book.  It will identify me as the primary author/facilitator of the project, and it will also recognise all material individual contributions to it.  The book will be published under a Creative Commons license which allows others to download the book and share it with others as long as they credit the author(s), but they can’t modify the book in any way or use it commercially (see the ‘human readable’ version of the license at http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/).

The current plan is to make the book easily available through online book stores as a $1 download.  It will also be available as a PDF download from the website.  There are no plans at present to do a print edition: the intention is that all the development and distribution will be done online.

My commitment is that all material contributions to the final text of the book will be individually acknowledged in the final product.  Those contributions could relate to any part of the book’s production, including concept development, drafted sections, material text edits, provision of further reading/references, and so on.

All comments and input will be made via the ‘Comment’ field.  For example, if you have an idea, or a suggested block of text, or suggested references or suggested further reading, you enter it in the Comment field.  If you have a suggested edit to existing text, you copy and paste the existing text into the Comment field, and enter your recommended new text or comments below it.  All discussion about the book will be open and transparent on the website, to which there is public access.

As the primary author/facilitator I will make the call on what suggestions are adopted in the text, and what contributions to the final text are regarded as material.  I will make those decisions public on the website.

All comments and suggestions will be moderated prior to posting, to ensure that they are genuine and appropriate.  Guidelines on appropriateness are posted separately.

Creative Commons Licence
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: C-Map

Here is the C-Map I developed to begin this project. If you click on it, you’ll get it full screen size.  As you can see, it maps out the main ideas, concepts and relationships of the book, in a general way,at the current point in its development.  C-Map is a great (free) tool for this kind of conceptual mapping, very flexible and easy to use.

The C-Map for the book is not intended to be exhaustive or to lock the project down–it allows for evolving ideas and themes which emerge in the process of writing. It provides a provisional map of the conceptual landscape, which allows me to begin the project and to focus on each topic in turn, within the whole. It frees up the creative process by taking care of the emergent possibilities. The book will evolve, as I shape and re-shape it through my own iterative readings, and in interaction with your comments, and the map will evolve with it–it’s a unique kind of map, in that it changes as you move through the landscape, and things up ahead begin to move around and take different shapes.  It remains a map, though, a central navigational aid, telling you at any point where you are, and where you’re going.

Creative Commons Licence
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 1

Chapter One  

The fractured workplace and its remedies:  the argument

 Organizations are many things: buildings, equipment, bank accounts, knowledge, systems, images, achievements.  Before anything else, however, organizations are people.  It’s said, “Our people are our greatest resource”; but all too often it’s a rhetorical gesture, unmatched by action.  Yet it happens to be true.  An organization is its people.  The achievement of its mission and purposes is the achievement of its people: no one else does it.  Nothing is more important to any organization than the way in which its people work, separately and together.  Yet nothing in modern organizational practice is handled less effectively.  Nothing therefore offers more potential for radical improvement in an organization’s outcomes.

That people in organizations should be handled so badly is, on the face it, puzzling.  Since birth each of us is taught, directly by parents, family, teachers and friends,  or indirectly by the results of our actions, how be most effective with the people around us—how to relate to them, to interact with them, to cooperate, to give and take—first with family, then more widely.  If this is ‘practical wisdom’, as the Greeks had it[i], then it’s not unreasonable to expect that by the time we enter the workforce we should have it in abundance.  With that kind of knowledge distributed throughout the organization the people dimension should be the least problematic.  It should be a bedrock that underpins the development of the more complex capabilities and processes on which organizational outcomes depend.  In practice, as everyone knows and as research confirms, the reverse is nearly always the case: people problems are endemic in organizations and routinely cripple them.

Of course, one can defend current organizational practice, as many do, by claiming that people are imperfect beings and problems between people are found everywhere, including the workplace.  That may be true; but it doesn’t account for the established fact that workplaces are often so much worse, from a human point of view, than other social arenas. Unacceptable behaviour arises in families, for example, or in community settings; but at least it is usually known to be unacceptable, and a range of measures, formal and informal, are mounted in the attempt to confront it. Yet in workplaces such behaviour is implicitly not only permitted but the norm; not only legitimate, but required.  Outside the workplace one set of principles governs behaviour; cross the workplace threshold and you face another set of principles, often opposed to the first set.  How this damaging situation—damaging to organizations and to the individual people who work in them—has come about, and how it can be reversed, is what this book is about.

It may be thought that this is overstating the case, that workplaces may not be ideal but they’re not as bad as that.  Here is some evidence to the contrary, in this case from surveys of workplace bullying[ii].  You might object that bullying is the exception, that bullies are the few bad apples; but you would be wrong. UK evidence from 2002-2003 surveys found that about one in three employees reported having been bullied in the workplace.  One in eight had been bullied in the previous five years, one in ten in the previous six months: half had witnessed bullying during the previous five years.  More than two thirds of victims had been bullied for more than a year.  Similar percentages have been found in US workplaces.  In Australia, it’s estimated that close to half a million employees are systematically bullied in workplaces.

Let’s be clear on what these surveys are talking about.  Workplace bullying has been described as psychological assault.  It has been compared to domestic violence, “an intentional, systematic campaign launched by one or more people against a target.”[iii]  It is said to include degradation, humiliation, intimidation and unfavourable  treatment.  It is linked to power: bullies think they have the power to continue their aggressive behaviour; victims accept that those who bully them have that power.

Crucially for the workplace, it is through the work itself that the aggression is directed.  Common types of workplace bullying behaviour are (see how many of these you recognize): setting unreasonable or impossible targets or deadlines; constant criticism; removing responsibilities and replacing them with trivial tasks; persistently picking on people; withholding information; blocking promotions; and, simply, shouting and verbal abuse.  Sexual harassment is bullying at its worst, with the power differential exploited doubly along a gender dimension.  Although in some circumstances it is illegal, it remains endemic: Australian surveys have established that one in five women (and one in twenty men) have been sexually harassed at some time in the workplace[iv].  Positional power is a key factor, as all too frequent press stories depressingly remind us.

The impacts of workplace bullying are sobering.  The organization loses in many ways: in lost working days–for the UK estimated at 18 million lost days each year–but also in incalculable reductions of productivity and creativity throughout organizations.  But it is at the individual level that the impacts hit home.  A review of studies on workplace bullying found both psychological and physical effects, including the following:

“. . . feelings of helplessness and isolation, withdrawal, fear of being labelled as a troublemaker, fear of dismissal or loss of job promotion opportunities, fear of being transferred to dead-end or mundane jobs, anxiety, feelings of self-blame, suicide, stress, nervous breakdown, depression, loss of appetite, eating disorders, reliance on medication, increased drinking, smoking, insomnia, fatigue, lack of concentration, headaches, nausea, backaches, stomach aches, infections and other illnesses, ill health or early retirement due to stress related illness, low morale, low self-esteem, poor job performance, absenteeism, physical violence to others, and additional impacts on victims’ family life and relationships.”[v]

To these can be added, in the worst cases, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, cardiovascular problems, adverse neurological changes, immunological impairment and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.[vi]

It is difficult to understand how the behaviour which causes such appalling impacts, so widely and on such a scale, should be allowed to continue.  Yet that very fact points to its embedding in a deeper social fabric, which, in the absence of a better term, we call workplace culture.  A culture has to do with the values, beliefs and attitudes that underlie behaviour.  Cultural values are socially developed and transmitted, at any given time and across time, as the culture maintains its characteristic identity.  A workplace is more ephemeral than a community or a society, but it too has its own culture.  Moreover, even though workplace cultures differ from each other, they share some common attitudes, beliefs and values.  The uncompromising evidence cited above points to the unpalatable conclusion that an acceptance, at least implicit, of workplace bullying is one of those beliefs.  It has become a part of modern workplace culture.

I have presented the evidence on workplace bullying as an entry into a broader discussion about the way we work with people.  Bullying is not an outlier in the spectrum of work behaviour, something unsavoury but on the margins: the surveys tell us that it sits somewhere around the centre, not rare but common.  And if that is true of bullying, which is entirely unacceptable by ordinary standards, the question that arises is: what other kinds of dysfunction—less damaging, perhaps, but damaging enough—sit alongside it?  The pervasiveness of bullying is a blunt indicator of something much more deeply rooted and deeply worrying in the way our modern workplaces have developed and now impose themselves on people’s well-being.

My view, based on decades of experience and research, is that the fundamental character of the modern management of people is, to put it bluntly, coercive.  That is, there is a basic assumption in modern management theory and practice that left to themselves people won’t do what they are supposed to do, in the organization’s terms.  Therefore they have to be coerced into that desired behaviour, by a range of institutional strategies, including, as we will see, the standard elements of human resources management, including performance management, compensation, hierarchies, and so on.  Is it any wonder, then, that workplace bullying is endemic?  In terms of the values and attitudes that reach into behaviour, it’s a short step from coercive management to bullying.

I will argue that coercion is a profoundly wrong management principle—a profoundly wrong principle, in fact, in any human context, and no less wrong in the workplace.  It is, first and foremost, unethical: the use of power to coerce individuals is opposed by all the major international statements of human rights.  It is simply wrong. Second, it is damaging to groups and to the organizational community.  It dismantles collaboration and cooperation.  It undermines creativity and accountability.  It is ineffective even in producing and sustaining the desired organizational behaviours; rather, it places irreducible limits on the achievements of organizations.  Beyond that again, it not only damages lives, it sells lives short.  The opportunity cost, in life terms, of undeveloped potential is, for individuals, communities and societies, almost beyond imagining, certainly beyond anything we are likely to estimate.  The impact of underdevelopment in other organizational drivers, such as technology or information or knowledge, are insignificant beside it.

I will argue that the whole apparatus of the management of people in organizations is infected by these debilitating values, beliefs and attitudes.  That is, organizational elements which are now standard, such as performance management, rewards and compensation structures, incentives, threats of penalties, the intangible demands of workplace culture, contractual relationships, and so on, enact coercive values and strengthen them.  An entire language has grown around them, to give them some kind of spurious legitimization:  “It’s not personal, just business,” you hear—a tawdry, unthinking, immoral justification of bad behaviour, if ever there was one.  In public discourse the most common adjective applied in approval of leaders is “tough”: she (particularly she, in proving herself an honorary man) doesn’t back away from tough decisions, is as tough as they make them, toughs it out, and so on.  What happened, we might ask, to insight, judgement, or even wisdom?

I will argue that these values and attitudes are fundamentally lazy and dishonest. They allow people with power in organizations to avoid the real, complex human questions with which they are confronted—questions which may require listening, negotiation, exchange and empathy, under a commitment to ethical outcomes.  They allow managers to resort to organizational practices which throw the responsibility back onto employee; which are, in a word, coercive.  Those employees who comply, who allow themselves to be coerced, stay on; those who don’t comply, leave, or are sacked for a potentially more compliant replacement.  There are plenty more candidates out there, and no need to put up with non-compliance. The fallout for supervisors or leaders is minimized: if a hiring didn’t work out, the fault is not theirs— unless it be that they were not tough enough, not sufficiently coercive.

If this view is right, as I believe the evidence shows it is—and as most of us have experienced in our own work lives that it is—then as a society we should feel ashamed.  How has it come about that the places where most of us spend upwards of a third of our lives should have become so damaged, and so damaging?  Why is behaviour that would be excoriated in any other social context not only permitted, but encouraged, legitimized and rewarded?  How have we come to believe that this kind of human interaction is required for economic progress?  And even assuming that were true (which emphatically it is not) have we become so fearful of economic consequences as to place them above what we know to be ethical behaviour?  I believe we have; and I, for one, am ashamed of that kind of collective cowardice, in which we have all become complicit.

I will argue that the remedies to the fractured workplace are not difficult to find.  We all know, more or less, what works in relationships between people; it is, as I have said, knowledge that has grown with us to adulthood.  Again and again, in my work with groups of employees, managers and leaders, once the attitudes of the workplace culture have been explicitly put aside I have seen a remarkable degree of convergence in views of what is important in work as a human place.  That knowledge is personally constructed, and personally held.  For example, if you ask people to list the characteristics of a leader to whom they themselves would want to be responsible, there is almost complete agreement on a simple group of characteristics –willingness to listen, willingness to give trust and respect and ownership, a commitment to fairness, and so on—which reflects what everyone knows about people and the way they work best together.  Modern leadership theory and practice don’t begin to approach this understanding in simplicity, practicality and power; in fact, as we will see, they act in opposite directions, to dismantle respect and trust.  Practical wisdom, of which the above is an example, is just that: practical, and wise.  Organizations that actively respect it,  promote it, and live by it are healthy, creative places to work, and achieve organizational outcomes of real excellence.

Practical wisdom is built on ethical behaviour.  Ethical theories are answers to the old question, “How should one live?”  Modern management theory and practice give some attention to ethics, but it’s not a central concern: the business case for action, rather than the ethical case, still holds sway.  The view is that first we must be profitable, by all lawful means, then we can think about softer issues, such as ethics.  By contrast truly ethical behaviour is not negotiable: it comes first.   This is generally well understood, in families and communities: a steady commitment to ethical behaviour, without exceptions and backsliding, is the ground on which trust and respect is built.

There are many traditional ethical theories, and many new theories under construction. Among the complexity there are some important key principles to navigate by.  One is Kant’s ‘respect for persons’ principle: ‘always treat humanity in a person as an end, never as a means’. But underpinning all ethical theories is the framework of common morality, the widely understood moral and ethical norms of the community.  Their legitimacy is practical: it derives from their proven success, sometimes over centuries, in promoting individual and social well-being.  This doesn’t exempt people in organizations from the hard work of thinking things through when ethical issues arise.  But it does mean that there is firm ground to stand on, in which everyone, as a member of the community, naturally participates and shares[vii].

I will argue that a truly human workplace is something far more than absence of bullying or other kinds of damaging behaviour.  People come to their work as whole people, with all their aspirations and ambitions.  A healthy workplace provides for growth and development of all its people, as individuals.  It allows them to pursue avenues of work they find challenging and personally fulfilling.  It provides opportunities for them to be inventive and creative, to try things out.  In my work with organizations I have often been struck by a simple fact: if you want to know how to do something better, ask the people who are doing it—they will already have worked out a better way, even if they have not been allowed to put it into practice.  Given a chance, most people want to grow and to find new ways in their work.  I will argue, therefore, that the purposes of organizations are always in two directions: towards the fulfilment of its mission; and towards the respectful treatment and fulfilment of its people.  Although these are goals that can be stated separately, they are, in the end, inseparable.  In a well-founded, healthy workplace, actions to meet organizational and individual purposes depend on each other, and strengthen each other.

I will argue that a truly human workplace is more like a community than a collection of contractual obligations.  Any organization is, in the end, a group of people working together for common ends.  In a healthy workplace community people take strength, stimulation and pleasure from working together.  Principles of respect and care are intrinsic to such a workplace, taken for granted, just as they are in healthy families and communities anywhere.  Here both purposes, organizational and individual, are transcendentally well realized.  And this is not a counsel of perfection: it is the normal kind of work life that most people expect, and which they value above everything else.

Here we will have come a long way from a workplace culture where bullying is endemic, the rule, not the exception; so far, in fact, that it may seem impossible to get from one to the other.  What kind of change program could achieve such a transformation?  But if what I will be arguing is true, then it is not nearly as difficult as it appears.

First, the basic ground of desiring change, and the capabilities to achieve it, is, I argue, already there, in the experience and knowledge of the people of the workplace themselves: it simply has to be allowed to give shape to the workplace.  Second, as each building block of a healthy workplace is put in place, the toxic workplace is at the same time, step by step, dismantled.  Third, the principles that drive this change, and the behaviours that embody it, are immediately seen as true and as deeply human: in the hundreds of groups I’ve worked with, without exception, these ideas have been recognized and welcomed—you could say, welcomed back—with relief.

There is no motivating to be done, no champions of change to be developed, no complex organizational gymnastics to be endured.  These are things about people that everyone knows, as deeply as they know anything, to be true.  That people really are allowed to shape the workplace according to the basic truths they know, that the old ways, the damaging ways of behaving, are really that, damaging, and don’t have to be accepted,  is the only step needed.  Once taken, it is seen not to have been hard step, or a hard path, at all.  Nothing, it turns out, could be more normal.

However, normal as it may be, we are coming off a low base of abnormality in modern management practice.  It’s necessary therefore to work this argument through, step by step.  We need to understand how such unacceptable practices could have developed at all, let alone become accepted as somehow best management practice, and strangest of all, morally justified.  I will trace the history of this pathology.  Then I will dismantle one by one the main supports of modern people management theory and practice—hierarchies, leadership, job descriptions, performance management, compensation, motivation, and so on—and reconstruct them on the principles outlined above.  At the end of the book we will have arrived at a clear view of what has gone so wrong in our workplaces and how it can be put right.  Throughout I will be drawing on the many brilliant, funny, brave, hopeful, creative, decent people I have been fortunate to work with: to all of them I offer my grateful acknowledgements and respect.  I hope you will find the journey as stimulating and as inspiring as I have.

 


 

NOTES

[i] The phrase is Aristotle’s, from The Nicomachean Ethics.  See discussion below, p. xx.

[ii] Cartwright, S., & Cooper, L. (2007), ‘Hazards to health: the problem of workplace bullying’,The Pyschologist, 20(5), 284-287; Harthill, S. (2010), ‘The need for a revitalized regulatory scheme to address workplace bullying in the United States: strengthening the Federal Occupational Safety and Health Act’, University of Cincinnati Law Review, 78(4), 1250-1306; Kieseker, R., & Marchant, T. (1999), ‘Workplace bullying in Australia: a review of current conceptualisations and existing research’, Australian Journal of Management and Organisational Behaviour, 2(5), 61-75.

 [iii] Cartwright & Cooper (2007), p. 285.

 [v] Kieseker & Marchant (1999), p. 67.

 [vi] Harthill (2010), p. 5.

 [vii] Kagan, S (1998), Normative ethics, Westview Press, Boulder CO, p. 25.; Beauchamp, T., Bowie, N., & Arnold, D. (2009), Ethical theory and business, Pearson Education, Upper Saddle River, NJ, p. 36.

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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.