On harassment and management

Off the back of his excellent work on exploring the idea of “silver bullets” in the business world, my colleague Steve Hearsum posted an item on LinkedIn that referenced a report that included the observation that a survey had found that 91% of an Indian workforce would prefer to chat to a robot about stress and work rather than their manager.

Obviously, caution needs to be taken with statements like this, ripped from their context. Moreover, it is important, in such circumstances, to appreciate that observations like this cannot be properly understood without acknowledging the cultural overlay that will exist.

With those caveats in mind, though, it called to my mind a doubtless apocryphal tale where a staff member responded in a seminar to a question as to whether they would raise concerns about their stress at work with their manager by simply stating, “Would you try and discuss your malaria problems with the mosquito?”

All that notwithstanding, it so happened that I was at that moment revisiting Carroll M Brodsky’s book, The Harassed Worker, which first appeared nearly half a century ago in 1976 and – whilst still powerfully relevant – is seemingly and sadly out of print at this time. Brodsky’s work demonstrates just how intrinsic to organisational life is the very idea of harassment. Of particular interest to me was the way in which the author tends to show harassment to be a crucial element of the managerial repertoire.

Early in this insightful work comes this core definition, which helps us to understand the way in which harassment links to the day to day practice of being a manager, even in these supposedly enlightened times,

‘Harassment behavior involves repeated and persistent attempts by one person to torment, wear down, frustrate, or get a reaction from another. It is treatment that persistently provokes, pressures, frightens, intimidates, or otherwise discomforts the other person.’ (p2)

I suspect that, even as you read this, you may well be able to call up from your memory instances – if not prolonged experiences – of this sort of behaviour directed at you. Brodsky observes that it often emerges in the work group (and between those therein), particularly in terms of flagging unwritten rules of behaviour amongst that workforce when new people join – or where resources to get the job done are in short supply.

As I moved deeper into the material, I was reminded of the way Morrell and Learmonth (2019) explore the concatenated term “manager and worker” in contrast to the more contemporary notion of “leader and follower”. To their mind, the former is founded on the notion of potential antagonism between those two, with each motivated by different perspectives and expectations in the workplace. The latter carries with it the ideological (and mythical) intimation that “we are all in this together” and that there is a unity of purpose and approach.

This – to my mind – is expressed extremely well by Brodsky, albeit in language which unfortunately relies exclusively on masculine pronouns to make its point:

The supervisor’s concern is economic – to finish the job in the shortest time possible while keeping costs down. His watchword is efficiency. The worker, on the other hand, wants to achieve good performance, but he also wishes to be seen as an individual. He does not want to be pushed beyond his self-determined capacity and resents being pressured by his superior. The superior may be additionally burdened by having a supervisor above him, producing problems of the “middle man” whose motivations are complex, because he must please subordinates, peers, and supervisors. (p9)

Hence, with the very best will in the world, it seems inevitable that we conclude that – the individual manager’s notional ethical orientation towards others in their workplace notwithstanding – they remain structurally constrained to reproduce management as a regime of oversight, oppression and harassment. If this holds, then the challenge for us all is to imagine ways in which organisations could be made different so that this intimate relationship between management and harassment is uncoupled.

This means that we need seriously to address the powerful cultural observation that is made in Brodsky’s work in this regard, where a case study provides the following earthily scatological epigram:

It’s easier to shit downward than upward (p48-9)

Where hierarchy persists, then (and it does, of course, even in those organisations in our capitalist society that declare themselves “flat”), our first principle and primary concern is not so much how we tackle that discrete levelling from top to bottom as how can we – all of us, but primarily those in management positions – stop flooding our workplaces with sewage?

Only then will we be able to consider excising “harassment” from the heart of “management” – and make organisations places where unnecessary and irrelevant pressure, generated solely out of hierarchy, can be lifted off everyone’s shoulders.

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