Do today’s large organisations actually hate their staff?

So a few months ago, I was reading Loehr and Schwatrz’s book The Power of Full Engagement, which you find extravagantly praised in management and personal development blogs and podcasts.

If you don’t know it, it’s a perfectly sensible, if not ground-breaking, book, aimed at helping people to discover what’s important in their life and to devote their energy to it, rather than to some generic, imposed to-do list. The modest but useful advice it contains has apparently been taught to Wall Street Titans, CEOs of international companies and heads of public institutions as well. It even comes with a recommendation from a senior manager at MacDonald’s.

And then I looked at the date of publication — it was 2003, and apparently these sensible, if not revolutionary, ideas had been widely taught for a decade before that. This started me looking through my small but select library of books on similar subjects, and at the Internet sites on management, productivity and personal development that I occasionally visit. It turns out that, over the last twenty years, a flood of sensible, practical, evidence-based advice on management has been provided to Very Significant People in Very Large Organisations all over the world. They pay fabulous amounts of money to attend seminars and training courses, and write enthusiastic blurbs for the covers of new books advising managers to treat their staff like human beings, and to avoid being obsessed with short-term financial gains. Revolutionary stuff like that.

And what effect has all this had on the way organisations are actually run? Approximately none at all. Over the last twenty years, a lot of organisations have gone from being simply mediocre to dysfunctional to being downright evil, and from just ignoring their staff to actively treating them like dirt. I ask people quite frequently whether they know of an organisation — theirs or another they deal with — that actually functions well. The answer is always “no”.

It wasn’t always like that, of course. Thirty or forty years ago, organisations were, in general, well enough run, and most managers treated their staff like fellow humans. Management itself was seen basically as the mechanics of getting people to work together towards a common objective, and its procedures were generally quite simple. Yet organisations have evolved not simply to ignore all the research done, then and since, on what motivates people and makes organisations function well, but to have deliberately rushed off in the other direction. All sorts of ideas that were known to be dumb to begin with (open-plan offices, stack-ranking, management by objectives, mission statements — need I go on?) have been embraced in a death-grip by large organisations around the world, in spite of being comprehensively rubbished by practical experience and by any number of pragmatic studies.

So what’s gone wrong? Are senior managers today just evil? You might reasonably think that they keep copies of Management Secrets of the Waffen-SS and Seven Habits of Highly Successful Pirates in their desk drawers, underneath their well-thumbed copies of How to Make Enemies and Destroy People. But it’s a bit more complicated than that, even if some studies have shown that a disturbing proportion of people in senior positions in large organisations have psychopathic tendencies.

In any organisation, there are two sorts of people: those who are good at the job, and those who are good at getting promoted. In theory, the people best at the job should be promoted, and the closer the two categories are aligned, the better the organisation will perform. But in recent decades, and for several different reasons, organisations have allowed, or even encouraged, these two categories to diverge. So, many of the people at the top of large organisations today are good at getting there, and staying there, but aren’t actually any good at, you know, managing. They are, in effect, amateurs. (Ambition and ruthlessness are not management tools, after all.) Since they are usually afraid of being replaced by somebody else even more ruthless and ambitious than they are, their management style, such as it is, is based on paranoia and control-freakery. If the organisation suffers, well, there’s always another job, or even another organisation. And so these ideas spread like a stain, even into areas like the public sector, into which ruthless and ambitious people have not traditionally gone in search of lots of money.

In such a situation, the people who work for you are at best a nuisance, at worse a hostile force. They need to be recruited, paid, and somehow motivated (or at least frightened) into working, whilst being kept from threatening your position. This is why the ideal Anglo-Saxon organisation, at least in the private sector, would have no staff at all: just a bunch of Very Senior People with automated systems taking in money, creaming off a percentage and spitting it out again. And it does actually look as if banks might start to move in that direction in a few years.

So good luck to all those people writing sensible, pragmatic, evidenced-based books on effective management. Nobody in positions of importance is listening. “Against stupidity” wrote Schiller “the gods themselves contend in vain”. If you add in amateurism and short-term financial gain, it’s doubtful that, in this case, the gods would even bother to make the effort.