Thinking as a subversive activity

While a number of posts on this blog have been dedicated to calling in to question the claims of contemporary management theory to enable managers to predict the future, there can be no doubt that much of it is dedicated to controlling employees. Or rather, there are always new developments in management theory aimed at increasing organizational efficiency and effectiveness but which have the effect of disorienting employees and keeping them permanently on the hop. Management theory is replete with suggestions for dividing, atomising, reorganising and scrutinising employees whilst denying them time to sit together to make sense of what is going on. In fact, usually they are discouraged from doing so: it is quite common to find people expressing antipathy towards meetings which might turn into ‘talking shops’, or alternatively sense-making opportunities may be described as a ‘luxury’ which the organisation cannot afford. Of course, I am not recommending that people spend more time in meetings simply for the sake of it, but I am always interested when people I am working with tell me that they don’t have the time to think about what’s going on.

The effect of constant management initiatives can be disorientation and a lack of time to deliberate. It contributes to conditions favourable to accepting heroic and transformational leadership or authoritarian working relationships which appear to cut through uncertainty. One might argue that the way that managers are encouraged to manage creates the very conditions for which more managerialist methods are deemed to be the remedy: the dynamic is self-amplifying. Leaderism thrives where employees are both destabilised and demoralised.

One way of dividing employees against each other is by introducing competitive performance-related pay and a grading system such as the so-called ‘rank and yank’ system. During the once yearly performance appraisal 20% of the employees are praised and rewarded, 60% are told that they are satisfactory but that they should work harder to aspire to being in the top 20%, and the ‘bottom’ 20% are told that they are on notice to improve otherwise they will be asked to leave. This keeps everyone on their toes by creating anxiety and a continuous insider/outsider dynamic. Those at the ‘top’ want to hang on to their status, those in the middle aspire to the revered status of the top band and fear dropping into the bottom, and those at the bottom may be terrorised into conforming or perhaps see the writing on the wall and leave. And so the workforce is kept in constant churn.

Another way of achieving the same effect is to reorganise constantly and oblige employees to reapply for jobs in a new structure which is designed to realise a new vision and a new culture. The stated idea is to engineer wholesale change at a stroke and implement ‘necessary reforms’. Managers might propose this because they are trying to be ‘agile’, because they are trying to be ‘lean’, or because they are creating a purchaser/provider split, which was the organising principle around the last NHS restructuring. Managers invited to apply for jobs in NHS England, for example, were told that the new structure was a chance to resolve all of the problems of the old way of doing things: they would be working in ‘one organisation’ with shared values and mission.

The difficulty is that post-reorganisation very little is shared for months because all of the existing working relationships are disrupted. Not only this, but in any reorganisation there are winners and losers, people who have jockeyed for position and will have triumphed, or lost out, which provokes very strong emotions both in survivors and victims. Of course, sometimes working relationships do need to be changed, but if everyone’s working relationships are fractured at the same time, those who survive in the reorganisation are left disorientated and wondering which way is up.

Next there are a variety of ways in which work life is increasingly scrutinised, measured and ranked. This is done by measuring the key strokes on computers, by listening in to telephone calls to ‘ensure quality and for training purposes’, by placing CCTV cameras in offices, classrooms and lecture theatres, or by introducing software which employees are obliged to fill in to account for every minute of their day. In the UK civil service, for example, employees must fill in a system called Clarity where they must account for their working day in 15 minute blocks. Even if a civil servant is travelling during the working day they must account for this in Clarity by choosing ‘travelling while working’ or ‘travelling while not working’. (Guess which category most civil servants pick?) The ostensible reason for introducing such a system is to increase productivity and to remind civil servants that they have to account for every pound of tax payers’ money. As a result, civil servants have to think about what they are doing as well as how they will present what they are doing, which leads to inevitable gaming strategies. Nor does the system say anything about the quality of the work being completed.

Perhaps the most egregious example of keeping employees under surveillance is used by Amazon, where picker-packers are tagged as they run round hangar-like warehouses, much as convicted offenders on home leave are tagged. The tags are connected to GPS systems which monitor the employees’ walking speed as well as their location. This ensures that they are all working at a trot and don’t take too many toilet breaks.

Another way of sorting, ranking normalising and engendering fear and anxiety are school and hospital inspection regimes, Research Excellence Frameworks for universities, and grading systems for care homes. OFSTED, the British schools inspectorate, has now introduced snap inspections which take place with only 48 hours notice. This means that school staff have to be constantly vigilant, always up to date, and always looking over their shoulders. No teacher wants to be the one who lets the side down. In some organisations employees are kept constantly busy trying to achieve ‘ambitious stretch targets’, i.e. targets which are impossible to achieve. One academic institution I know instituted ‘challenge meetings’ where employees were ‘challenged’, often in very robust terms, to account for why they haven’t met the targets which everyone knew were near impossible to achieve in the first place.

The net effect of all of these methods of scrutiny is to create the Panopticon which Jeremy Bentham recommended for managing prisons and which Foucault represented as an account of contemporary society. Surveillance becomes ubiquitous and natural so that we begin to discipline ourselves and each other.

It is very hard to avoid being weighed in the court of authoritarian judgement in contemporary organisational life. The overwhelming implication is that employees cannot be trusted to do their best unless there are constantly monitored, cajoled, evaluated, appraised and reorganised.

In these circumstances it is easy to see why meetings convened to make sense of what is going on seem to go very much against the grain of the rush to improve. Developing some detachment from the constant flux of organisational life, asking questions, raising doubts can be experienced as subversive activity and may not be welcomed.

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6 Replies to “Thinking as a subversive activity”

  1. My interpretation of the thrust of your writing is that despite many years of management education, many things are just like they used to be. In the NHS the language might be different e.g collaboration, co production, engagement, patient centredness however the lived experience of the application of these words would have been familiar to Ford and Taylor..

      1. If right – it’s a sad indictment to our lack of progress. Perhaps we are fundamentally wired to assert power over each other?

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