Wednesday, June 04, 2008

The sociology of abdication

David Franz’s discussion of the origins of cubicle hell closes with a useful analysis of power in businesses with egalitarian ideals:
The ideals of office equality, fluidity, and collaboration in all their forms—including servant leadership, worker empowerment, and flattened organizations—required a kind of control more diffuse and amorphous, but also more personal than the old hierarchical bureaucracy. As Tom Peters and the other management theorists of “corporate culture” saw (albeit in a more positive light), the real managerial possibility contained in the cubicle was not lower costs or even the ability of managers to watch workers more closely. It was rather the creation of a culture in which workers would feel obliged to manage themselves. With everyone visible to everyone else, managerial obligation could spread itself throughout the entire office, becoming more personal and intense at the same time.
The ideal of the cultural workplace and its embodiment in cubicles also moves against another longstanding distinction of office work—the distinction between managers and workers. The ideal of a boss-less company has not been realized on anything like the large scale the management writers dreamed of, if it has in fact been realized anywhere. However, the impulse to equality and management through culture has led to something like the opposite of the boss-less company with bosses everywhere. As the managerial role is increasingly shorn of “authoritarian” tendencies and managers adopt the stance of a servant and facilitator, the scope of demands upon ordinary workers has risen. Observation, evaluation, encouraging the proper attitude and habits in other employees—these are all managerial tasks that are supposed to be shared. Such is the nature of being a team member.

Here we see the likely root of the ridiculous aspects of corporate culture personified in The Office’s duty-avoiding Michael Scott. Team-building exercises, sensitivity training, motivational seminars: all are necessary to a workplace that pretends no one is in charge but still demands the most of its employees. These heightened demands are then masked by lofty words about empowerment.

Such trends only aggravate a detrimental spiritualization of the workplace and the corruption of culture by the ideal of “total work.” As Joseph Pieper writes in Leisure: The Basis of Culture:
There can be no such thing in the world of "total labour" as space which is not used on principle; no such thing as a plot of ground, or a period of time withdrawn from use. There is in fact no room in the world of "total labour" either for divine worship or for a feast: because the "worker's" world, the world of "labour" rests solely upon the principle of rational utilization. A "feast day" in that world is either a pause in the midst of work(and for the sake of work, of course), or in the case of "Labour Day" or whatever feast days of the world of work may be called, it is the very principle of work that is being celebrated--once again, work stops for the sake of work, and the feast is subordinated to "work." There can of course be games, circenses, circuses--but who would think of describing that kind of mass entertainment as festal?

Perhaps workplace-focused mass entertainments like The Office are themselves signs that work unduly burdens our leisure time. The absurdities of work are so overwhelming that, without such comedic catharsis, our productivity will suffer.

Franz’s thought applies to many other areas of life in which man’s little, brief authority has been abdicated, especially authority in relation to children. The parent who tries to be a friend only transfers all of his or her anxieties about power and responsibility to the unprepared child. The hip teacher similarly forces his incapable students to become their own instructors. These flights from the office of adulthood then subject youth to the unforgiving and unwise control of their peers.

In such cases obvious hierarchy, whatever its drawbacks, is surely preferable to the unacknowledged mess of diffused power.


Steve Nicoloso said...

And because diffused power, since individual actors possess an illusory slice of it, is seen as a good somehow in contrast to "absolute" power, it is I think all the more dangerous: While failing to protect in any meaningful way against the corruption of power (as any non-conformist minority in staff meeting of "corporate values"-yes-men types will surely attest), simultaneously and intentionally it blurs the lines of responsibility for that corruption, when it (inevitably) occurs. Everybody, ostensibly, shares the rewards of success. But nobody, in practice, gets the blame for failures--failures that are attributable by common sense to particular mistakes made by particular persons. Instead, because every contributor is assumed under this mgmt model to be equally talented, it is the "process" that gets the blame. The process that led to the particular process, however, strangely never gets much scrutiny.

Anonymous said...

So what's the complaint, really? Is it about the attempt to diminish hierarchy, or is it about the illusory nature of particular attempts to diminish hierarchy? The argument seems to support the latter, but the rhetoric here seems to support the former.

Can anybody really believe that "the ideals of office equality, fluidity, and collaboration in all their forms...required a kind of control more diffuse and amorphous, but also more personal than the old hierarchical bureacracy"? Or is it just that these ideals are so often a sham? I have worked in environments that were minimally hierarchical, in which almost every person involved in the organization was able to voice criticisms and make suggestions that would be taken seriously, in which we felt that our work was our own. I did not experience any of the problems that Steve Nicoloso associates with being a minority voice. The difference, I'd suggest, is that in the sorts of environment that Nicoloso is referring to, the whole 'corporate culture' thing is really a sham. There really is a fairly clear hierarchy, and the 'corporate culture' functions to keep things moving in exactly the way the people who design it want, without allowing for much dissent. In my experience, on the other hand, we never talked much about our 'corporate culture,' but almost all of us felt as though our role in the company mattered, as though we really were part of what made it work. We certainly had ideals of equality, fluidity, and collaboration, but we didn't fit Franz's description.

What's Franzie really afraid of, I wonder? Is he a manager who misses the power of the old days?

Steve Nicoloso said...

Is [David Franz] a manager who misses the power of the old days?

Sure, Anonymous. Or maybe he's a peon who misses the individual responsibility of the old days, wherein his incompetent fool of a manager might have been sacked or demoted, instead of being allowed, because he inspires (or more likely parrots) such egalitarian feelings among his colleagues, to hide behind "process" and the illusion that we are all just so equally competent.

To be fair, the Dilbert Culture decends upon companies in direct proportion to their size and market cap (all things being equal). Small startups might have cubicles because they cannot afford more; they may not even have cubicles, but merely desks in a large open space, because they truly are working collaboratively and truly are joint owners in the success of the venture. Large corporations (like my own) tear down walls and doors and install cubicles (at great expense) in the hope of cashing in on the "startup culture". But it is a cargo cult manifestation.

But really, Anonymous, do you think that a contrarian anecdote and a vague wave in the direction of the author's subrational motives are sufficient to bring down a well-researched, articulate 3500 word essay? Dilbert is funny and popular precisely because it reflects, with only minor deviations added for humorous effect, the lived experience of many (of course not all) cube workers.