Don’t listen, witness

John Higgins and Mark Cole

Mark has spent a lot of time in recent months designing workshops, working through the learning points, crafting slides and getting the overall flow just-so… Much of this is undertaken by Mark with one careful eye on his audience and another on those who have commissioned the work. And there are times when the expectations of those two groups diverge – and occasionally conflict.

Most people who come to these workshops want a platform where they can be heard, where they can say what they need to say in their own words freed of any pre-arranged model, experience being born witness to – as they go public with the sometimes horror, sometimes ordinariness, of what they’ve been through since March 2020.

We nearly wrote: ‘Most people SIMPLY want a platform’… but simple has nothing to do with it. The managerial discourse wants to park such free format expression as simply too unfocused and unnecessarily personal, subjective even! Instead, the ‘drive’, and the language tends to be of a mechanistic turn, is to turn everyone’s attention to the FUTURE. History is, after all, bunk in the still largely Fordist model that soaks through organizational practice.

An honest response?

At a recent on-line workshop, Mark witnessed an anonymous contributor be put through the grinder of the approved future-thinking. When the compulsory participants in a January 2021 workshop were invited to share their ambitions for the year ahead, one wrote in that their goal was ‘To survive’. In the round-up that followed this primary school style show and tell exercise, this response was called out. Mark recalls the group being told that we should do better than that and to aim instead to thrive.

For some amongst us, this is, of course, a perfectly legitimate ambition. Some people have had a ‘good pandemic’. Their careers have come on in leaps and bounds, while their family and friends have been untouched. Many others have not been so fortunate. It should be humbling to recall that.

What is playing out in workplaces across the country is a continuation of habits of mind that discount the breadth and potency of personal experience. The ambition is more often than not to get people to refocus, ‘laser-like’ as one would be US plutocrat put it, on the corporate mission. The ignoring of the subjectively unique (i.e. what makes me, me) helps sustain a world of manufactured alignment and common purpose – where diversity of life experience and perspective is driven out by a desire to ‘move on’ and, even better, ‘move on at pace.’

From humanity to human resource

This is the world where our appreciation of humanity has been supplanted by a technical obsession with human resources. After all, a “human resource” can be unthinkingly processed to be made into the shape and style that is the preferred corporate model; meanwhile, a human being will have reactions, feelings, and – sometimes – resistances to the imposition of the will of another. They might see surviving as optimal, through the prism of their day to day life and their friends and family, and set aside thriving as altogether different.

The demand to thrive in this setting is a sharp intrusion into the psyche of a person – and reflects that developing trend, accelerated by the health and wellbeing agenda that exploded during the crisis, to psychologise the business of management. It would be petty to denigrate the earnest efforts of many to attend to the health and wellbeing of the workforce at a time like this. Mark heard the other day of the warm glow of positivity that derived from a simple act of kindness between people in an organisation.

But it is also opening the opportunity for managers, without any real background or detailed understanding of the mind, to start sticking their hands unbidden into people’s heads. There are constant surveys about wellbeing, each serving to render human experience as crude data for manipulation and presentation. It seems impossible to join any meeting these days without being asked to check-in, with peoples’ mental health on occasion reduced to a supposedly amusing choice of which piece of toast – graduating from lightly done to utterly burnt and each with an emoji pressed into it, from a cheery face to a miserable one – best represents their present state.

The ultimate ambition for command-and-control leadership is surely to be able to manage the minds of the employees as well as their bodies. Meanwhile, as we’re on record for saying before, the best – perhaps the only – way of improving health and wellbeing in the workplace is to look to reducing hostility in that environment and, as a manager, taking your foot of the pedal, in terms of intense and increasing expectations around how much work people do and the pace at which you ask them to do it.

Bearing witness

Meanwhile the respect for key workers shown in the public applause of the late Spring of 2020 has faded away. Staff are invited to work harder, or at least smarter – as seen through the eyes of the executive suite – and the implications of 1% pay rises at a time of accelerating inflation (as seen in health) are disappeared, seen as unimportant when it comes to making sense of workforce discontent.

What we encounter as dealers in workplace education and development is a growing refusal by those who come to the events that we host to play the learning game. People cannot ‘move on’ because they haven’t had the chance to make sense of what they’ve been through. Their living, personal history cannot be processed by a quick check-in, where everyone ‘performers’ the check-in game according to whatever the local rules are.

In most of our work the most useful thing we could do is to offer people the chance to say their piece and experience being witnessed by others – where we come together collectively to bear witness to what is otherwise pretended away. That is what human beings seem to need – and what we all need to work together to offer them.

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