"I favor general use of the psychic-prison metaphor to free people from the traps of favored ways of thinking and to unleash their power and creativity."
--Gareth Morgan
"We cannot just remodel the prison. No, we've got to get out of it."
--W. Edwards Deming

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Healing the Workplace Culture

Danna Beal:
What I'm seeing in the workplace today is a web of egos that battle and compete for power. I see managers disempower employees. I see coworkers hurt and sabotage one another. This internal competiveness, this rivalry is based in fear. But, I believe that if we replace fear with trust and compassion, people everywhere can be restored to their true identities...

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

A lose-lose game

Advice from a former employment attorney:
"In the end, employment litigation is a lose-lose game. Plaintiffs I represented who received hundreds of thousands of dollars were usually broke within three years. And companies I sued didn't end up treating employees more fairly; they just made their employee handbook thicker. I truly believe the system causes more damage than benefit, and that's why I'm glad I have been out of it for the last 10 years."
In regard to making the employee handbook thicker, William L. White writes:
"'The last act of a dying organization is a thicker rule book.' The need for rules to control staff members marks a dramatic change in mutual respect, loyalty, and the esprit de corps that characterized earlier stages of organizational life." [1]
While David Whyte writes:
"Corporations, for their part, have been engaged in a willful battle against the very grain of existence. Like the good Dutch boy with his finger in the dike, they have spent enormous amounts of energy putting in place systems that attempt to hold back the shifting, oceanic qualities of existence. The complexity of the world could be accounted for, they fervently hoped, by a simple increase in the thickness of the company manual." [2]

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Ritual loss of creativity

Howard Schwartz writes about how the ritualization of work leads to a loss of creativity:
The Transposition of Work and Ritual
When work, the productive process, becomes display, its meaning be comes lost. Its performance as part of the organizational drama becomes the only meaning it has. Accordingly, the parts it plays in the organization's transactions with the world become irrelevant. When this happens, work loses its adaptive function and becomes mere ritual.
At the same time, the rituals that serve to express the individual's identification with the organization ideal, especially those connected with rank, come to be infused with significance for the individual. They become sacred. Thus, reality and appearance trade places. The energy that once went into the production of goods and services of value to others is channeled into the dramatization of a narcissistic fantasy in which the organization's environment is merely a stage setting.
Consider how this shows up in the matter of dress. One can easily make a case that patterns of dress among organizational participants often have some functionality. But when the issue comes to be invested with great meaning, one must suspect that ritual has supplanted function…
The dynamics of the ways in which ritual comes to assume the importance work should have help to explain the dynamics of the ritualization of work. For the willingness to allow one's behavior to be determined by meaningless rituals comes to be justified by an idealiza tion of the organization that elevates its customs above and discredits one's values--one's sense of what is important.
Loss of Creativity
The delegitimation of one's sense of what is important gives rise to a special case of the ritualization of work--the loss of creativity. Schein (1983) describes the condition of "conformity" that follows from an insistence by the organization that all of its norms be accepted as being equally important. Under that condition, the individual "can tune in so completely on what he sees to be the way others are handling themselves that he becomes a carbon-copy and sometimes a caricature of them." Consequently, Schein notes: "The conforming individual curbs his creativity and thereby moves the organization toward a sterile form of bureaucracy" (1980).
The lack of creativity, since it is a lack of something, cannot be positively demonstrated. As an experience, it makes itself known as a feeling of missing something different that has not occurred, even though one does not know what the different element would have been.
When the devaluation of the individual’s sense of what is important is enforced by organizational power, this can constitute a form of abuse. Emily Bassman writes about the same unmeasurability of something that is lacking:
It should be clear that organizations make unmeasurable sacrifices in productivity and profitability by tolerating employee abuse. What makes the losses unmeasurable is the concept of opportunity costs. One cannot measure something that isn’t there; no one knows how productive a person can be under different circumstances. As Ryan and Oestreich (Ryan and Oestreich 1991) point out, in organizations where fear is prevalent, the organization generally will survive and may even be reasonably successful. The important question is, how much more successful could it be? No one can say, because lost opportunities cannot be measured, especially if their possible existence is not even considered. (Bassman 1992)
Schwartz continues about the loss of creativity:
In benign times, one may experience boredom: the consciousness of a sameness, a lack of originality. When circumstances are harsh, partly as a result of the lack of creativity that the organization needed if it was to have adapted, one may simply experience the intractability of the situation….In the hard times, I suspect, one rarely comes to recognize that the ideas that the organization needed in order to have avoided its present hopeless state may have been upon the scene a long time ago. But the individuals who had them might have been passed over for promotion because they were not "team players," or perhaps they were made to feel uncomfortable because they did not fit it in, or maybe they were scapegoated whenever the organization needed a victim. Indeed, ironically, the very ideas that were needed might have been laughed at or ignored because they were not "the way we do things around here." (Schwartz 1990)
Schwartz writes about the horror of a working life where one’s own creative self must be repressed. Further than this, what happens on an individual level when the scapegoating he mentions becomes full-blown workplace mobbing, or on a broader scale when the opportunity costs happen to encompass major unmet societal needs? Who else out there is asking these kinds of questions?

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Breaker of horses

The following is excerpted from David Whyte's Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity.

The inherited language of the corporate workplace is far too small for us now. It has too little poetry, too little humanity, and too little good business sense for the world that lies before us. We only have to look at the most important word in the lexicon of the present workplace--manager--to understand its inherent weakness. Manager is derived from the old Italian and French words maneggio and manege, meaning the training, handling and riding of a horse. It is strange to think that the whole spirit of management is derived from the image of getting on the back of a beast, digging your knees in, and heading it in a certain direction. The word manager conjures images of domination, command, and ultimate control, and the taming of a potentially wild energy. It also implies a basic unwillingness on the part of the people to be managed, a force to be corralled and reined in. All appropriate things if you wish to ride a horse, but most people don't respond very passionately or very creatively to being ridden, and the words giddy up there only go so far in creating the kind of responsive participation we now look for.

Sometime over the next fifty years or so, the word manager will disappear from our understanding of leadership, and thankfully so. Another word will emerge, more alive with possibility, more helpful, hopefully not decided upon by a committee, which will describe the new role of leadership now emerging. An image of leadership which embraces the attentive, open-minded, conversationally based, people-minded person who has not given up on her intellect and can still act and act quickly when needed. Much of the wisdom needed to create these new roles, lies not in our empirical, strategic disciplines but in our artistic traditions. It is the artist in each of us we must now encourage into the world...[1]

Saturday, April 19, 2008

The winning metaphor

Allan Revich, in his Work it Out Blog, writes about finding an answer to the question "what does winning look like?" in a recent blog post.

When people have undergone some significant physical and/or emotional trauma, even if it’s to some degree of their own causing, hypervigilance is a common outcome. So, the skills required to help clients at The Center For Victims of Torture in Minneapolis may be different, I’m thinking, than straight conflict management and negotiation skills. Can psychological workplace injuries rise to that level? Reading William L. White’s The Incestuous Workplace and his discussion about his clients who had become "victims of professional distress" in their workplaces and subsequently been painfully extruded from their jobs, still suffering years later from the aftermath, one might be tempted to say “yes”.

I wonder whether the work of James Carse has informed the conflict management community, in particular his book: Finite and Infinite Games. Winning is just another metaphor, after all. To have no losers, we can either modify the metaphor to make everyone a winner, or allow for the continuation of play, as in Carse's notion of infinite games, such that the play does not come to an end, and so the winning metaphor thus loses its meaning.

To review the thesis of finite and infinite games, as Carse says, "in the simplest possible manner":
A finite game is a game you play to win.
An infinite game is played for the purpose of continuing the play.
James P. Carse, Religious War In Light of the Infinite Game ...

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Cheese as metaphor

From the bestselling business book with cheese in its title:

"What did you do with the Hems who didn't change?" Frank wanted to know. "We had to let them go," Michael said sadly. "We wanted to keep all our employees, but we knew if our business didn't change quickly enough, we would all be in trouble."

Laura Lemay, in her essay "The Cheese Stands Alone", writes about that aspect of the book:

"Ahhh. You will read the cheese book, and you will like the cheese book. It will change your life. Or we will fire your ass."

Jon Carroll from the San Francisco Chronicle offers another critical view of the book in his article "I got your cheese right here". He says that employees forced to read the book discern that "cheese" is a metaphor for "continued employment". Carroll delivers this hard-hitting conclusion:

"Reading 'Who Moved My Cheese?' I was reminded of another book about 'littlepeople' who were constantly required to survive in a mazelike environment characterized by cruel and arbitrary change, another place where the search for cheese was constant. That book is 'The Gulag Archipelago.'

Monday, February 25, 2008

Scared Happy

From a comment posted to an online article:
"People in Singapore do not have a right to be unhappy, technically speaking we do not have civil liberties, namely we do not have the right to free speech, nor the right to assemble, nor the right to protest, etc. The Singapore people are afraid of the government, we cannot speak up and voice our unhappiness since it would clearly breach an OB marker. Being 'unhappy' is a serious matter in Singapore since it implies the authorities are not doing something right and they do not take such matters lightly. Growing up in Singapore, we are conditioned to accept the Singapore way of life as is, unquestioning and unopposing. Essentially we are technically 'happy' because we are afraid. In the end, happiness is subjective and for me, 'I am a happy Singaporean'. Trust me, you would be too if you grew up here; and no I'm not kidding."

This reminded me of one definition for totalitarianism: it is the process of defining other people's happiness for them. I came across this definition in Howard Schwartz's writings on organizational psychodynamics. Schwartz gives the original credit for this definition to Earl Shorris, who wrote about totalitarianism so defined as a central theme in his book, Scenes from Corporate Life. Here is one critical review of Shorris' book.
A striking fictional representation of being "scared happy" that I remember seeing long ago is a scene from an old science fiction movie where, as I recall, weary wayfarers ala Grapes of Wrath are led into to a new camp. In stark contrast to the memorable scene in the film Grapes of Wrath in which Jane Darwell's character reacts to the unexpected generosity of the camp leader, the sci fi movie's leader offers this chilling remark: "People are happy here. And if they're not happy, then we kill them."

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Letting go

Venture Chronicles: Manage your team: "Most -- if not all -- companies lose momentum and efficiencies when they let employees go. Any employee. Even if those employees challenge the corporate culture status quo. There is artful resonance in the reevaluation, continuous development, redeployment, and ongoing incentive motivation of your existing employee base. Even for those employees that are the most challenging."

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Panopticism revisited

Microsoft seeks patent for office 'spy' software - Times Online: "Microsoft submitted a patent application in the US for a “unique monitoring system” that could link workers to their computers. Wireless sensors could read “heart rate, galvanic skin response, EMG, brain signals, respiration rate, body temperature, movement facial movements, facial expressions and blood pressure”, the application states.

The system could also “automatically detect frustration or stress in the user” and “offer and provide assistance accordingly”. Physical changes to an employee would be matched to an individual psychological profile based on a worker’s weight, age and health. If the system picked up an increase in heart rate or facial expressions suggestive of stress or frustration, it would tell management that he needed help."

Marching good people out the door

CIO - Firing Line: "For an example of a common, yet inadvisable procedure, McCausland says look no further than the practice of ushering departing employees off the premises. Far from preventing people from stealing data or lashing out in some other manner at their former employers, this process might actually be encouraging them. 'Employers sometimes ask me: 'Should we escort people out?' And I say to them: 'Why? Are they going to damage something on the way out? Or steal something? No. Treating people like a suspect is more likely to cause them to retaliate.'
'Treating a terminated employee as a serious security risk - by escorting them out of the building under guard, for example - increases the likelihood that they will be a danger,' agrees David Creelman, chief of content and research at human resources management portal HR.com. 'Terminated employees don't have guns to pull at the termination interview. But if they feel betrayed and humiliated then they may go home, get a gun and come back. Most companies overreact on security. They march good people out the door under security escort, which simply damages morale in the company and greatly enhances the likelihood of a wrongful termination suit or other retaliatory action.'
Top security executives chime in as well on this point. 'You probably are asking people to retaliate,' says Grant Crabtree, vice president of corporate security at Alltel, an $US8 billion telecom service company. 'Under some circumstances it might be warranted, but it would have to be exceptional for us to do that. I think many of my colleagues would agree.'"

Monday, January 28, 2008

The highest aspiration

The following is quoted from a corporate annual report:

Beauty is intrinsic in nature and existed before Man did. All the most beautiful things that a human is capable of making are merely conscious or unconscious imitations of what is already present in nature. The beauty of nature is a source of inspiration not only for human endeavours, but also for human sentiments – and therefore ethics can be considered to be the transfer of beauty to human behaviour. The quest for beauty -- in this wider meaning of the term -- is the highest aspiration of any human.

Similarly, the quest for socially responsible management is the highest aspiration of any company wishing to fulfill its natural function, i.e. satisfaction of human needs.