Monday 25 February 2008

Touching Base with Managerialism

Ever since I started working at 17, managerialism has been a real bugbear of mine. This is not an animus toward managing people as such. After all management will still be required in the new society, albeit management that reflects the triumph of democratic socialist planning. No, my beef is with managerialism elevated to the level of ideology, of dressing banalities up as profundities, of managerial "concepts" like team building, and axioms such as 'there's no 'i' in team' and 'don't bring me problems, bring me solutions'. Of giving mundane work practices absurd "funky" names, such as calling boring departmental meetings 'fishbones' (something to do with cause and effect analysis, apparently). And of course, the away days management consultants lay on for building trust, developing interpersonal skills, and maximising 'people potential'. If you ask me, I've always looked at these rituals as manufactories for the armies of David Brents that bedevil all large organisations, be they private or public.

So it was out of curiosity that I allowed my name to go forward for a day entitled 'managing working relationships', a course designed to increase assertiveness and effectively manage relations with our PhD supervisors. Once we had all arrived, consumed our green teas and coffees and greeted one another, the moderators, Pete and Crispin, introduced themselves and got us to do a few warm up exercises. They asked us to mill about, say hello, and achieve eye contact. Then - rather bizarrely - we got into pairs and got us to clap, touch, and stamp our feet in sequence. Ice broken we sat in two rows of six and were told to speed date. Sadly, instead of trying to impress potential mates we took turns to answer and ask pre-set questions. The one I was lumbered with was 'what weaknesses do you bring to your working relationships?' The rest were much in the same vein - what strengths do you have, where do you fit in the workplace hierarchy, etc. Having cycled through everyone, the pair with the same questions were invited to brainstorm the most frequently-given responses. Our team duly reported back on low confidence, defensiveness, language issues, being an 'outsider', and disorganisation. But not to worry, afterwards Pete and Crispin told us we have every right to be more confident - us PhDs are among the top 5%, the creme de la creme, etc. We're the elite dammit! I wonder if the same patter's given to gormless management types?

Their acting skills were shown off after the break with a short supervisor/student scene, between a domineering and overbearing professor, and a lad who might as well have had 'tread on me' on his forehead. The good professor berated his student for his general incompetence, and he just sat there and took it all in. Our task was to make suggestions to both of them to improve their working relationship. These generally involved making the prof nicer and more patient, and injecting vast quantities of concrete into the hapless PhD'ers spine. The scene was played through again, but this time we interjected at key points and modified their behaviours. The moral of this exercise? Having scrutinised their relationship can we not turn that gaze back on to our working relationships?

Before the meat of the afternoon, we were treated to the gravy of a managerial trust game. We were paired up and had to "drive" around our partners while their eyes were shut. I think there were a few near misses when I was being driven, but I got my "motor" round the room without incident. Not bad for someone who's failed four driving tests, eh? We were then treated to a bit more assertiveness training. One of us pretended to be a customer service desk-type at a well-known department store, and the other a poor sod whose recently-purchased dinner service had spilled over the pavement outside. Utilising my CWI training, I patiently explained the situation to my partner, but he was having none of it, "what's it got to do with us?" he replied. Obviously the lad had never worked in customer service - when I used to sit behind a desk for a living my lips got sore from all the bums I had to kiss.

The next task challenged us to manage workloads. One was a put upon worker, and the other an office manager who had to parcel out an absent colleague's work. Worryingly I slipped into the managerial role all too well - I wasn't a macho arsehole, but I did want to sit down with my subordinate, offer them a cup of tea, and discuss with them how I could intensify my exploitation of their labour time.

The final big game of the day was a session examining a simplified version of transactional analysis. An offshoot of psychoanalysis, transactional analysis teaches us there are three key modes of being, which we all alternate between: child, parent, and adult. Crispin invited us to define behaviours that characterise each, and asked us to position ourselves along the child-adult-parent spectrum as we considered our relationships. Gratifyingly I didn't move out of the borders of adult, though I tended to move more toward parent at times. (I couldn't help thinking the revolutionary left spends all too much of its time in parent and child, and rarely moves into the adult zone, but I digress). What this exercise enabled us to do was, again, examine the relationships we have with superiors and subordinates, of appreciating what it takes to remain in adult and endeavouring to stay there instead of veering off into child and parent.

All in all, it was a very jolly day. I can't say I got a great deal out of it other than a few laughs and some new chums. Pete and Crispin were excellent moderators and seemed born to do this sort of thing. For what it was, it's faultless. But - and it's a very big but - an appreciation of power was completely missing. In fact, the operation of power relations were masked by the light hearted games and touchy-feely fun. Are you put upon in your workplace? Do you have problems with your superiors? What YOU need is a robust communications strategy. YOU need to work on behaviours, countenance, modes of address ... the emphasis is always on you need to do this, you need to do that. If there's a problem, you have to solve it. If there's a conflict, it's up to you to address it. Systemic power relations are dissolved into patterns of miscommunication and problems of task resolution. None of this should come as a surprise to socialists - power is not comfortable with what it sees in the mirror, it prefers to fight shy of its reflection, which is why so much bourgeois ideology mystifies and obfuscates. Managerialism is a particularly cringeworthy species of this tradition, and deserves exposure as such.


Anonymous said...

I was once reduced to a state of almost hysterical laughter by a presentation on leadership by the renowned Dr.Meredith Belbin. My disrespectful behaviour was met with icy glares from some 'trouser suits'. The sad thing was that these people that could not recognise total quackery were human resources 'professionals'.

Phil said...

From what I've seen over the years, a lot of it is emperor's new clothes stuff. So what of his nine roles did you fit into? Were you a shaper? A resource investigator? A completer finisher?

Anonymous said...

I, along with a load of other science PhD students who would have much rather been in labs or in front of computers, once had to attend training to teach science undergrads. Upon being encouraged to write on post-it notes what we wanted to 'get out of the session' the wag sat next to me interjected 'I just want to get out of this session'.

Rob said...

I don't think this is a new phenomenon, and I think your analysis of power is spot on. Have you ever read Herbert Marcuse's One Dimensional Man? He has an awesome example of this:

In investigating the walkers' complaints about walking conditions and wages, the researchers hit upon the fact that most of these complaints were formulated in statements which contained “vague, indefinite terms,” lacked the “objective reference” to “standards which are generally accepted,” and bad characteristics “essentially different horn the properties generally associated with common facts. In other words, the complaints were formulated in such general statements as “the washrooms are unsanitary,” "the job is dangerous,” “rates are too low.”

Guided by the principle of operational thinking, the researchers set out to translate or reformulate these statements in such a manner that their vague generality could be reduced to particular referents, terms designating the particular situation in which the complaint originated and thus picturing “accurately the conditions in the company.” The general form was dissolved into statements identifying the particular operations and conditions horn which the complaint was derived, and the complaint was taken care of by changing these particular operations and conditions.

The whole chapter is very interesting.

Anonymous said...

A good response to "there's no 'i' in team" is "but there's plenty of 'u' in fatuous".

Phil said...

You're quite right Rob. What I think is different now is the extent to which management expects its take on the world to be taken seriously.

And yes, I've got One Dimensional Man on my book shelf. It was was of the first radical books I ever purchased, and I've read it twice. I could really do with reading it again. It's been a long time ...