When the good Dr Phil and I published our little book, “Humanity at Work” we only had one review of note. It was from a very left-wing reviewer from “The Age” who accused us of making work sound like it could be enjoyable which was obviously a manipulative capitalist ploy designed to exploit “the workers”!
Apparently from this point of view work is something to be largely avoided and provides no inherent benefit (except for wages) to the worker.
In support of this thesis Phil also related to me a story about visiting a dysfunctional workplace. On encountering one of the more disgruntled workers standing outside the workshop having a cigarette Phil asked him the seemingly innocuous question of, “How are you going?”
The response was rather disconcerting. “How am I going? I am at work aren’t I. My father said he had never enjoyed a day’s work in his life and to date my experience has been no different!”
So, I guess, these sentiments were a reflection of the confected class war between capital and labour. The ethos behind them suggested that capitalists depended on employing labour and then exploiting employees unconscionably to ensure they maximized the profits of the capitalists. The proponents of this point of view posited that work was a zero-sum game where one side, be it capital or labour, could only profit at the expense of the other.
In this scenario, labour, purportedly represented by the unions, is a reluctant provider of its services and in turn should try to use its influence to ensure that workers get the maximum benefit for the minimum input. It ignores the fact that enterprises succeed or fail based on their productivity and in the end (despite the protests of unions and often the ill-advised subsidies of government) unproductive enterprises fail to the detriment of their owners, but just as dramatically to their employees. Even where productivity is introduced into the bargaining equation productivity improvements are not freely given but saved up to be traded off at the next enterprise agreement.
In workplaces where this dysfunctional paradigm holds, workplace relations become adversarial.
Early in my career I was given the task of improving a number of such workplaces. In one such place the workforce was very militant and industrially hostile. It was almost impossible to get the simplest task achieved without running into an industrial issue – sometimes real but more often contrived. Productivity was low, absenteeism was high and, as well as often being unsafe, the workplace was dirty and poorly cared for.
When I was brought in it seemed to me that there was a battle in progress between management and the workforce (represented by their unions) about who was really in control. And it soon became apparent to me that management certainly wasn’t. But the disconcerting thing was that although in this workplace where the employees were virtually in charge, which you might have thought was a desirable state of affairs if you were an employee, morale was the lowest I had ever seen and the usual indicators of discontent (absenteeism, turnover, days lost to industrial disputes, lost time accidents etc) all bore this out. Now this was a great indictment on management who had allowed such a state of affairs to develop. But it still seemed paradoxical that a workforce who by and large seemed to have gotten what they wished for was inherently unhappy.
If there is a single common feature that characterises workplaces like this it is that, within them, work has largely become meaningless. In essence the people do not come there to work. They might come there to earn a living. They might come to enjoy the camaraderie of their workmates. They might even come to gain gratification from the games they play to distract themselves from the mindless labour they would otherwise perform, or they might come to fulfil ideological aspirations or exercise power, but their motivation is certainly not the work itself.
The position was clearly stated by the author, working under the pseudonym of Yatri’ who wrote in his book Unknown Man:
“Few modern industrial workers have much sense of pride and achievement in what they do. The article he or she produces, or helps to produce, is of little consequence in their lives. The purpose of such work in the first place is to earn a living so that another part of life can be spent in leisure. The main purpose of the work for the employer is to increase profit. In such a situation both work and worker become depersonalised as the job becomes an activity without love.”
As suggested above, the management-workforce relationship in these depressing workplaces will typically be adversarial. Trust is almost nonexistent and the motives and activities of the protagonists are treated with suspicion by each ‘side’. Both groups know that these places are dysfunctional and, since each group sees the world through its own paradigm filter, each blames the other party for the malaise.
Management looking down at an untrusted and unproductive workforce sees a labyrinth of industrial demarcations and restrictive work practices. Surely, they reason, it is obvious to any reasonable person that these are the root causes of the problem? In such circumstances, they also attribute to the workforce a lack of work ethic or destructive socialistic ideals. They deduce that the only effective management response is close control, lots of directive supervision, detailed measurement of performance and a myriad of performance indicators.
The hierarchies constructed to control and enforce order in the workforce are not only hierarchies of power but implicit in them is the assumption that they are also hierarchies of moral rectitude — that trustworthiness and commitment and concern for the welfare of the enterprise and the well-being of the country, and heaven knows what else, according to the dysfunctional enterprise leaders (I don’t like the word “bosses”) diminishes as you get closer to the workplace. In good workplaces this is demonstrably false.
On the other hand, the workforce, looking up, sees the whole problem as one of management incompetence and ‘bloody mindedness’. They didn’t create the straitjackets of restricting jobs, they argue. Management did that. Disaffected employees blame management practices based on Taylorism and Fordism and ‘scientific management’. They enumerate the thousand and one indignities and impediments that the bureaucracy imposes on them which demean them and prevent them from working effectively. They protest that management can’t blame them for acting like children if they treat them like children. Besides, they argue, management appear to the workforce to be greedy for profit or power and shows little concern for the real quality of the employees’ working lives and are only interested in how they can contribute to the “bottom line”.
The employees believe that management always wants the workforce to change so that they will be more productive, but, they ask “When is the management ever going to change”, when in their perception many of the impediments to productivity improvement are imposed by management.
The paradox of such organisations is that none of the participants are pleased with the outcomes. These organisations are not happy places in which to work. Employees get little satisfaction from performing work that is of poor quality and does not engage the intellect. Such work has little meaning for them because they can see no alignment, or compatibility, between their aspirations and the purpose of the enterprise.
Management, on the other hand, is frustrated by the lack of productivity and concerned about growing uncompetitiveness. So much of its energy is invested in just achieving the basic day to day outcomes required for survival, that there is little left for strategic thinking and planning. Personal development and fulfilment is virtually unachievable for all involved.
Among all the types of waste that such organisations generate, the greatest are the waste of intellect, the waste of ability, and the waste caused by the unrealised potential of participants searching for satisfying and productive lives.
The question to ask then is “Does work have to be this way?”
Well I certainly don’t believe so and my management career was underpinned by a desire to make work meaningful for my employees.
Work is little different from life in general. It is not always wonderful and it would be deceitful to mislead people that it was. There are tasks to perform that are boring, that seem mindless and perhaps pointless. But in your leisure time you still have to take out the garbage, mow the lawn, pick up after the kids and so on. So why are such activities acceptable in a non-work environment?
We accept these indignities because we know there are greater rewards. We do the maintenance to our household because overall we get a greater benefit. We want to look after the welfare of our loved ones. Our interactions with them inspire us to do whatever we need to do to maintain the equilibrium of our household.
Good workplaces are little different. We gain stimulation and inspiration from our work.
Certainly we have to put up with trivial tasks and uninspiring work, but that is overwhelmed by the acceptance that in our work we are doing something significant, that somehow we are making a difference.
Some time ago I came across a Hay’s study which examined a broad range of key components of employee satisfaction. They found that trust and confidence in top leadership was the single most reliable predictor of employee satisfaction in an organisation. Effective communication in three critical areas was the key to winning organisational trust and confidence.
- Helping employees understand the company’s overall business strategy,
- Helping employees understand how they contribute to achieving key business objectives,
- Sharing information with employees on how the company is doing.
If you look at other essays I have written on this subject I have talked about the management of meaning. It is imperative that employees know how they contribute to the purpose of the enterprise and it is essential that the organisation has a sense of purpose, an ideal to make a contribution to society more than just making a profit.
Perhaps we could do little better than pay heed to the statement once quoted by an Exxon executive, T. McKinney:
“A master in the art of living
knows no sharp distinction
between his work and his play,
his labour and his leisure,
his mind and his body,
his education and his recreation.
He hardly knows which is which.
He simply pursues his vision
of excellence through whatever
he is doing and leaves others
to determine whether he
is working or playing.
To himself he always seems to be
(The American author James A Michener is reputed to have said something similar but I have been unable to substantiate the source of this quote.)
To my mind, and reinforced by my own experience, with good leadership and a proper understanding of what it means to be human, work can be and often is stimulating and meaningful. When work is demeaned by the mindless conflict between unions and business, the principal losers on most fronts are the workers.
Don’t get me wrong, I believe that workers need some protection from unscrupulous managers. History has shown that given too much power some businesses will exploit their workers. The previous government’s Work Choices legislation did indeed give great options for employers and workers to come together and work in concert for the benefit of their respective enterprises to the betterment of all concerned. But some employers used the legislation to take unfair advantage of their employees. As a result the current government has intervened and under Fair Work pushed the pendulum too far in the other direction in favour of unions and to the detriment of business and with dire consequences for the economy.
When employees and employers can work together in an atmosphere of trust and where work can engage the minds as well as the hands of employees, we are all better off. If we were able to design work such that it is on the whole interesting, meaningful and recognises and utilises the capability of employees to contribute to the improvement of our business processes, we would indeed have a win-win scenario.
Rather than being a necessary imposition whose principal motivation is merely to earn a living, for many of us work can indeed be a labour of love.