Dig the hole your way

by Mark Cole and John Higgins

The passing of the actor and entertainer Bernard Cribbins last July led me to revisit his back catalogue of musical ditties so beloved of my late parents.

I downloaded a copy of his greatest hits and shared the various songs with my nine-year-old son Thomas, who was particularly enamoured of both Right Said Fred and The Hole in the Ground.

I find myself particularly drawn to the latter, as in less than two minutes it encapsulates an amusing but telling insight into class and managerialism, skewering the nonsense that passes as common sense in the workplace.

The question of who has responsibility for the hole

We open with the scene of an employee going about their business. They are digging a hole, presumably because somebody in the hierarchy above them has told them to do it. They patently have some limited discretion to get on with the work at hand…until such time as a figure of authority appears and then immediately starts to interfere.

We know that this is a figure of authority because they are wearing a bowler hat, a key signifier of class at that time. They also speak using a middle/upper class accent (Received Pronunciation), in contrast to the working-class tones of the person digging the hole. The man in the bowler hat is possibly a civil servant, a politician, a local authority apparatchik, or perhaps most likely a manager….

For no obvious reason, they begin to question why the worker has chosen to dig the seemingly pointless hole in the place of the worker’s choosing and offer direct instructions as to how and where it should have been dug. This represents an assault on the capacity of the worker to do their work…and to enjoy autonomy and recognition of skill through practice.

The worker digs the hole…but it “belongs” to the manager

The worker, previously empowered to dig the hole as they wished, is suddenly confronted by their powerlessness. Such an experience, it is argued, generates four primary reactions – namely, sadness; fear; acceptance–acquiescence; and anticipation–expectation – as well as a raft of secondary reactions, specifically, fatalism; pessimism; resignation; anxiety; submissiveness; and shame.

It is not just idiots in bowler hats with posh accents who generate these reactions through their interference. A superb article describes how the “pit sense” of miners – an understanding of and practical reaction to risk faced in collieries and transmitted across the workforce through situated learning – was clumsily overwritten by a complex managerialist overlay of formalised health and safety.

Elsewhere, there is an anecdotal story from our practice where a piece of delegated work shuttled back and forth between a staff member and their manager around eight times. Each time, the draft came back riven with tracked changes…and eventually the manager seized the work from their direct report with a dismissive “I knew from the start I should have just done this work myself”.

Similarly, I heard of someone producing a paper for the monthly Board meetings. They collated the material and drafted the commentary to accompany the data. They were expected to attend every meeting – and did so, sitting next to their manager.

Interestingly, the author was not allowed to speak in this context. That entitlement resided exclusively with their manager, even though it was the work of the member of staff that the manager was called upon to introduce and comment on.

The vitality of autonomy

Managerialism creates a rationale for itself by its intrusion into the work of others, its unhelpful interference in the day-to-day practice of subaltern subjects in the ever-present workplace hierarchy. It is a product of power as opposed to purpose and is negatively impactful on the workforce, as one research study concludes:

‘Employees who perceive comparatively high levels of control at work are more satisfied, committed, involved, and motivated. They perform better and hold greater expectancies. They experience fewer physical and emotional symptoms, less role ambiguity and […] conflict, are absent less, have fewer intentions of quitting, and are less likely to quit.’

In the literature, autonomy in the form of a significant control of the pace and practice of work is a key feature of job design, offering employees the discretion to shape and manage their role in the workplace. In an exploration of the leader-member exchange (LMX) concept, which foregrounds the quality of connections between manager and employee, one study makes the case that:

 ‘…LMX – as a leadership construct that focuses on interpersonal relationships – was positively related with creative work involvement. Furthermore, and most importantly, our results yielded support for our postulated effect of the moderating role of job autonomy. A closer inspection of the interaction effect indicated that LMX was positively related with creative work involvement under high levels of job autonomy but unrelated with creative work involvement under minimum levels of job autonomy.’

When constraints are lifted

People in health care have indicated that the Covid crisis led to formal leadership disappearing. A vacuum was left in organisation life – and those without a formal leadership position stepped into that space, taking up the reins.

Alongside this, formalities fell away – fetishized governance went from foreground to background – and the boundaries between elements of organisations, those that kept practice areas siloed, as well as the barriers between different agencies began to fall away.

Outside of organisations at this time, some writers detected the emergence of self-organising mutual aid, as fleet-of-foot relatively informal groups of people came together quickly to do what needed to be done. Dean Spade in his book on the topic provides this definition of what mutual aid is:

‘Mutual aid is collective coordination to meet each other’s needs, usually from an awareness that the systems we have in place are not going to meet them. Those systems, in fact, have often created the crisis, or are making things worse’

Insofar as the ideas of Mutual Aid arise out of the anarchist thinking of Peter Kropotkin, it is important to recall the argument that proffering assistance to one another unprompted other than by circumstances is an instinct that has been distorted by the development of the state as a political instrument. Through its absorptions of social functions, it individualises us and causes our obligations to one another as human beings to fray. Rhiannon Firth explains this more elegantly when she states that:

‘Anarchists argue that there is something fundamental about the nature of the state that means it always tends towards alienation and objectification. They argue that if you concentrate power in the hands of people who are disconnected from the communities who will be affected by their decisions, the result will be larger-scale socio-technical projects which produce a more fragile system prone to crisis.’

The persistence of constraint

A very similar critique can be applied to managerialism. We find ourselves submitting to it even as we privately wonder what value it adds in practice. We dance to its tune, rather than seeking out those around us so as to immerse ourselves in an improvised collective routine. We succumb to the idea that individual rationalism can solve any problem – thereby acquiescing to the mythical notion that we explore in Leadership Unravelled that “All is fixable” – while neglecting that the problems we face at both a global and a local level require the application of collective intelligence, something that managerialism smothers in the workplace by denying meaningful dialogue in that context.

From autonomy to autogestion

In the modern workplace, there is endless managerial talk of engagement, involvement and empowerment. It is obvious that this power that the powerful in corporate contexts are seemingly keen to give us is patently theirs to give. They can only give it because they have it.

In fact, we are not actually given it, we are momentarily lent it. And the power that they give us does not actually diminish or meaningfully impact the power that resides with them. It is not a zero-sum, where power is viewed as a finite resource.

Lastly, at any stage, due to their position in the hierarchy, they are able to snatch back the power that we momentarily might have seemed to have to use.

The same might be said of the autonomy that we are granted in our working lives. It’s all fine until such time as a manager gets twitchy about what we are doing and how we are doing it. The worker digging their hole seemed to be enjoying boundless autonomy and a high level of empowerment…until the man with the bowler hat, lacking anything useful or productive to do, appears on the scene and begins to interfere.

This restores the miserable balance so familiar in our organisational lives, notwithstanding the blandishments of the managerial caste: the worker understands and digs the hole, the manager merely has opinions and stipulations about the work being done. The oversight here is artificial and wholly unnecessary.

In their study of what they describe as organisational learning in flute factories in Boston, Scott and Yanow observed the way in which the craftspeople worked – and worked together – to produce what were said to be the best flutes in the world. Each person had a particular technical expertise to contribute to the overall process, so it required a collective and communicative effort. If some issue was detected with a particular flute, it was returned to the relevant person to be reworked.

Interestingly, the identification that something needed attention was accompanied by descriptive vagaries: it might be suggested that something didn’t seem right or didn’t look right. It is suggested by the authors that this imprecision in terms of articulating what is wrong can be seen to derive from the simple fact that:

 ‘…many of the actual physical dimensions and tolerances of the flutes have never been made explicit; and many that have been are not commonly referred to in explicit terms by the flutemakers in daily practice. Yet the extremely precise standards of the instruments, on which the flute’s ultimate style and quality depend, have been maintained through just these sorts of individual and mutual judgements of hand and eye.’

There is no place for managerialism in such a scene of embodied knowledge and rich understanding. The man in the bowler hat has nothing to add to this process…and does little more than interfere unnecessarily in the digging of a hole.

Instead, it nudges toward what the theorist Henri Lefebvre christened autogestion. By way of explanation of the term, Vieta suggests that ‘The term self-management is arguably the inadequate but well-accepted English translation of the French and Spanish word autogestión, which has a Greek and Latin etymology…More evocatively and literally, one can conceptualize autogestión as “self-gestation” – to self-create, self-control, and self-provision; in other words, to be self-reliant and self-determining.’

Taking control of the hole

The challenge, then, is two-fold: to create the opportunity in work for people to manage themselves and through that self-management to develop in them a greater sense of agency. And for those who carry the notion that they lead and/or manage, they need to actively step away from the traditional notions that attach to these practices in corporate life and to find a new way of adding value in that context.

They need to throw away the bowler hat and find a way of speaking with people in the workplace that invites dialogue rather than direction. Like the man in the bowler hat in the song, it’s time the arcane notions of management and leadership are buried once and for all.

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