Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Research: You don't have to be stupid to work here...

One of the great parts of being a professor is that my job can sometimes be to take a widely accepted idea and test it to see if it is true. This is very similar to what workers do around the lunch room when they roll their eyes at the latest employee engagement efforts, but just a bit more thorough.

The point of this style of research is to suss out ideas and approaches that don’t work as advertised in the hope of sparking change. A recent essay by Andre Spicer entitled “Stupefied: How organisations enshrine collective stupidity and employees are rewarded for checking their brains at the office door” is a good example of this kind of research. It is well worth the read.

Spicer examines the rather common experience of new graduates who are hired to exciting job descriptions based upon their skills only to find that their actual job is low-level paper pushing and that no one is interested in their ideas for change. The result of this false promise tends to be cynicism, learned passivity, and/or staff turnover (which continues until a suitably cynical and passive worker is found).

Bureaucratizing work is a key mechanism by which organizations stupedify their workers. Complex processes and forms (often enacted under the guise of risk management and quality control) limit workers’ scope for innovation. This happens in at least two ways.

First, creating a set process means that when a worker has a good idea, there isn’t a way to express and advance the idea (i.e., “there isn’t place for this on the form”). Second, advancing an idea outside of the existing norm tends to be slow, labour-intensive, and subject to multiple points where the idea can be shut down.

Underlying this approach is a Taylorist model of organizations as machines where all parts are expected to work in lock step towards making a single product )”you can have your Model T in any colour so long as it is black”). This logic is often unspoken (and sometimes exists below the level of consciousness).

Smart employees quickly get the idea, though, and then check out—either psychologically or physically. Management efforts to re-ignite engagement (e.g., buzz-wordy stuff like strategic planning, rebranding, and adopting best practices) typically fail because they don’t attend to the root the cause of the disengagement (i.e., the absence of opportunity to meaningfully shape work.

The opportunity cost of these sorts of behaviours is huge—both in wasted effort and in developing a culture of “three bags full, sir”. The costs of such behaviours are rarely borne by organizational leaders, who move onwards and upwards.

-- Bob Barnetson

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