Thursday, 1 May 2014

Good news: In management we don’t have electric shock.

An excerpt from the book Homo Imitans by Leandro Herrero:

The good news is that in management we don’t have electric shocks. The bad news is that there is a worse kind of pain than that inflicted by voltage: psychological pain. The dynamics of power in our organizations are very rich. We exercise power, obey orders and follow instructions. We also challenge them, resist or decide not to comply. In the process, organizational life sometimes serves as a coverall excuse for many things that would not be accepted in normal life. How many times have we said, or heard, “It’s not me, it’s the system. If it were up to me, I would let you do it.”

I have always been fascinated by the pervasive use of ‘they’ in organizations. ‘They’ want this. ‘They’ forced me to do that. What fascinates me even more is how often I have heard it used by senior people, even those at the very top. Who is ‘they’ in those cases? In my experience, it’s a virtual, almost Olympic ‘they’ – the system, the best, most convenient and unaccountable management black hole.

We don’t need the man in Milgram’s lab to tell us, “Keep pushing, it’s an experiment, for goodness sake. Do you think you can break the protocol just like that?” Our managers, supervisors, directors and vice-presidents, you and me—65% of us, if Milgram is right— will say “I am sorry, John, it’s not me, it’s the system. I have to inflict this pain on you. I don’t want to, but I have no choice.” In organizations, such behaviour comes in many forms and shapes. A 30-volt shock, for example, is forcing people to do something that is a hassle, unnecessary and serves no purpose other than to boost the ego of the person giving the instructions. A 50-volt shock might involve denying someone that little, perhaps one-off, opportunity for flexi-time that would make all the difference to the employee’s family and no difference whatsoever to the business. A higher voltage could entail submitting somebody to unnecessary humiliation and considerable psychological pain by requesting an action that serves no purpose other than as a public show of power.

I have seen the latter done to someone going through a terrible family crisis. Nevertheless, she was told, “I am sorry, we have to do this, it’s the system. There is nothing I can do.” It was a fantastic lie; there was a lot the manager could have done.

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