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