Mental block on values

Companies’ desire to control employee behaviour has been wrapped in corporate jargon.  But what happens to the misfits?

Shortly after buying the New Lanark cotton mills, outside Glasgow in 1800, the social entrepreneur Robert Owen introduced a new innovation called the silent monitor. The silent monitor was a small block of wood suspended near each worker painted in four different colours. Whatever side was turned towards the front showed the conduct of the worker on the previous day. White reflected ‘super excellence’ of conduct, yellow denoted ‘moderate goodness, blue ‘a neutral state of morals’, and black ‘excessive naughtiness’. The day’s behaviour was also written up in a ‘book of character’ – although workers enjoyed a right of appeal against a supervisor’s assessment.

It would not be quite right to see the silent monitor as an anticipation of later performance management.

The followers of Frederick ‘speedy’ Taylor’s scientific management theories were interested in output, and in efficient work practices. The silent monitor, however, was a psychological barometer. A modern parallel is the kind of ‘listening in’ done in call centres. Managers check for friendliness, tone of voice, and whether call handlers are projecting an aural personification of the company’s brand.

I thought of the silent monitor when I read an article in Personnel Today recently about how employers might like to establish a ‘resistance-to-change continuum’ as a way of eliminating employee disquiet about their plans. ‘Mapping individuals, groups and business units on the continuum provides an informative topography of stakeholder sentiment and behaviour and allows those who are resistant to change to be identified and monitored,’ the article said. It didn’t mention a right of appeal.

Today, morals are out and commitment is in. But dissent is no more welcome a part of the employment bargain than it ever was. Where there has been an unmistakable break from the past is in the extent to which workers are free to think their own thoughts. The contemporary worker is expected to give themselves to their work, body, mind and spirit. Where once physical presence was everything, and psychological presence irrelevant, the balance has now shifted as the economy has evolved: psychological presence is the obligation and physical presence is secondary. Feelings can help you rise. And feelings can get you into trouble. The modern world of work has very strong views on appropriate emotions and inappropriate emotions, and enforces them accordingly.

Hence anything smacking of dubiousness or reservation on the part of employees will be labelled as obstruction, poor attitude or the ever dependable, ‘negativity’, while the people behind such thought-crimes will be portrayed as misfits and drop-outs. The increasingly pervasive view is that employers have an absolute and inalienable right for the people they employ to exhibit certain character traits. When they don’t get the traits they want, their reaction is to feel that their rights have been violated. In this atmosphere, there is no future for those who endure bright ideas as patiently as a crown of thorns. Only the cheerleaders thrive.

“Being a top performer will require transformational leadership based on a vision of what’s needed,” noted another Personnel Today article recently that went on to recommend companies teach their workers ‘values’. “Communicate that vision to staff so they embrace it.” The weird notion that employees ought to ’embrace a vision’ as a routine aspect of their work is now so common, it tends to pass unnoticed.

Like a sly perversion, it doesn’t do to take too open a pleasure in the control of others, though. So the ownership of feeling gets hidden beneath an ugly vocabulary of leadership, values, culture, discretionary effort, and the psychological contract. But all of these splendid ideas contain an agenda of control at their core. And they all have the potential to get twisted in the encounter with real life.

Leaders, we are told, account for the difference between an employee ticking over and throwing their heart into their work. Yet the more this doctrine is repeated, the less obvious it seems that discretionary effort is something employers have to earn – something additional that employees willingly give to inspirational leaders. Soon enough, it becomes an entitlement all employers have a right to expect as soon as the ink is dry on an employment contract. If they don’t reckon they are getting it, many employers will conclude they are being unfairly denied something by workers who won’t play the game. Neutrality is the new naughty.

It is the same story with values. Robert Owen may have been ahead of his time in attempting to check employee behaviour, but today’s employers have a grander ambition: rewiring the thought patterns that drive behaviour – what the jargon calls ‘values’. So they drill the organisation’s values into their staff, be they ‘service’ or ‘customers’ or whatever, so that workers can reconcile their own personal values with their employer’s corporate values and ‘truly buy in’.

What fate befalls those who want to keep their values to themselves in a private space that employers have no right to intrude on? What happens to those who think going to work is beginning to involve far much artificial emotion?

Misfits should keep their negative, obstructive attitudes to themselves and feel what they are told to feel, and love what they are told to love, because people are our greatest asset. Twist the monitor to black.

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