Management Lies

In his final column in the Observer on Management, Simon Caulkin suggests that the past decade’s excesses have led to a wholesale failure in management:

[Simon Caulkin: Farewell, with a last word on the blunder years | Business | The Observer]

When I joined the paper in 1993, the brief was to make visible and discussable something that was intangible, taken for granted, and, for better or worse, affected us all. That was the easy bit. The column instantly drew a rich and argumentative response that ensured a constant supply of issues to address that meshed directly with readers’ own.

But from this exchange emerged a second agenda item that soon overtook the first. Across both public and private sectors what readers experienced as “management” was pervasively problematic. It just wasn’t what it said on the tin. Wherever they looked, readers found a glaring discrepancy between “official” and “unofficial” versions, between talk and walk.

The talk was empowerment, shared destiny, pulling together: the walk was increasing work intensity, tight performance management, risk offloaded on to the individual. The talk was flat organisations: the reality, centralisation and a yawning divide between other ranks, required to minimise their demands for the greater good, and a remote officer class whose rewards had to soar to motivate them to do their job. Employees were the most valuable asset – until costs had to be cut. Repeated mis-selling and other scandals demonstrated it certainly wasn’t the customer who was king.

Somewhere along the line the edifice of management had been turned upside down – it was shareholders who had become monarch, their courtiers lavishly rewarded managers whose MBA courses had taught them to manage deals and numbers, not things or people. Management had suffered a reverse takeover. Finance annexed reality, cost ousted value, the means became the end.

Work-related suicides appear to be rising (especially at France Telecom), as people cannot accommodate the pressures of modern work life:

[via Hating what you do]

The most obvious reason for the rise in unhappiness is the recession, which is destroying jobs at a startling rate and spreading anxiety throughout the workforce. But the recession is also highlighting longer-term problems. Unhappiness seems to be particularly common in car companies, which suffer from global overcapacity, and telecoms companies, which are being buffeted by a technological revolution. In a survey of its workers in 2008, France Telecom found that two-thirds of them reported being “stressed out” and a sixth reported being in “distress”.

A second source of misery is the drive to improve productivity, which is typically accompanied by an obsession with measuring performance. Giant retailers use “workforce management” software to monitor how many seconds it takes to scan the goods in a grocery cart, and then reward the most diligent workers with prime working hours. The public sector, particularly in Britain, is awash with inspectorates and performance targets. Taylorism, which Charlie Chaplin lampooned so memorably in “Modern Times”, has spread from the industrial to the post-industrial economy. In Japan some firms even monitor whether their employees smile frequently enough at customers.

A more subtle problem lies in the mixed messages that companies send about loyalty and commitment. Many firms — particularly successful ones — demand extraordinary dedication from their employees. (Microsoft, according to an old joke, offers flexitime: “You can work any 18-hour shift that you want.”) Some provide perks that are intended to make the office feel like a second home. But companies also reserve the right to trim their workforce at the first sign of trouble. Most employees understand that their firms do not feel much responsibility to protect jobs. But they nevertheless find it wrenching to leave a post that has consumed so much of their lives.

Management seems to have responded to the new stresses in the world’s increasing globalization by passing them along to the workers, and operating under an ersatz ‘we’re all in this together’ bonhomie while they sharpen the knives for the next round of cutting. This leads to a growing alienation of people from their work, and from those that they work with.

Whether a cultural transformation for the good will arise from these ashes remains to be seen. Richard Sennett wrote, in The Corrosion of Character – The personal consequences of work in the new capitalism, “If change occurs it happens on the ground, between persons speaking out of inner need, rather than through mass uprisings. What political programs follow from those inner needs, I simply don’t know. But I do know a regime which provides human beings no deep reasons to care about one another cannot long preserve its legitimacy.”

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