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Monday, 12 August 2019

Are institutions good for us or bad for us?

I thought for a long time about writing this and eventually decided to go ahead. I am going to omit names of organisations in what follows, and the names of people will also be left out. Some people who have worked with me in the past who read this will know what I’m talking about, but I am going to take a risk and talk about these things because few do.

The title of this post is somewhat inflammatory. This was done for rhetorical reasons. But this post will be deliberate and careful in its conclusions. This is more like a piece of memoir than a piece of journalism, so care should be taken to generalise for the whole of society on the basis of observations made and conclusions drawn here. This account is based on what happened to me and to people I have known. Other people might have different experiences, I wouldn’t know. The lack of information about this kind of thing is, itself, disturbing. I imagine personnel managers attending convocations where such issues are discussed in a collegial setting, but news of such conversations never seems to gain a place in the broader public sphere.

Since the majority of people work, or have worked, in an institution at some point in their lives, and many still do so, this absence of material on such a central part of our lives seems to me to be scandalous. People often talk about suicide and how it is hard to talk about it in public. But work? Surely we are able to have meaningful conversations about something that is so central to our lives. Something that occupies such a large proportion of our lives, in fact. Eight hours a day, five days a week for 40 years. Day after day after day of labour, of restlessness, of thwarted ambition, of disappointments and satisfactions. Month after month. Year after year. And not a peep about any of it in the media unless there is a scandal such as an employer underpaying staff or someone who breaks the law and embezzles funds. We only talk about work if it gets into the court system.

To get back to the title and start off: institutions have been around for as long as society has existed. Some of them, like the parts of national armed forces, are very old indeed. The role of institutions is to organise people so that they can achieve better results than might be achieved if they operated alone.

It is often said that in the West we have such good polities because of the maturity of our institutions. But if you work in one you often find that things are not quite so rosy. The place of the individual in an institution is usually difficult because it is fraught with danger, as well as with opportunity. Like a game of snakes and ladders, you can find yourself on a ladder one year and the next you are on a snake. Twists of fate, things over which you have little control, can affect your mental health and your domestic life. If you are sidelined or if you lose your job this can have a big impact on you in many ways. Marriages can fail, children can lose a parent, financial ruin can follow from events that can operate completely independently of the individual.

Conversations that I have followed about institutions often point to their failings, but these seem to be linked to precisely the same things that go to form their merits. In my experience, institutions can shelter the individual against such things as economic downturns but at the same time they ask for loyalty. Loyalty, for its part, can operate to stymie innovation because people are unwilling to speak out when they see that a policy pursued by a superior is having a deleterious effect on the health of the larger organisation of which his or her work unit forms a part. Often, feuds over territory that an organisation cannot properly modulate into meaningful action can result in people being unfairly criticised, and they may even, as a result of the outflow from a disagreement, lose their job for no reason other than to make sure that another manager, whose work unit had been threatened by the actions of the first one, keeps his or her budget and privileges intact.

In this kind of situation, line workers are often asked to say or do things that are not in the best interests of the larger organisation. Their managers might encourage them to continue to voice opposition to a change suggested to work processes that would result in a diminution of the importance of their work unit, but they will do what they are told even though they can see that making the change suggested would benefit a large number of people. Turf is protected and front-line workers are forced to deal with the majority of the friction it creates.

One problem with institutions is that there is often a knowledge imbalance that characterises the work unit. Line workers know more about the problems that exist but they are not empowered to make decisions that might solve them. Instead, often, a manager has a policy he or she is following in order to achieve a result that consones with her own ideas about how the organisation should operate, or to conform to industry best-practice, or to further their own ambition or the ambition of someone further up the hierarchy from them. Front-line staff may have to do things, in such cases, in order to benefit someone other than themselves. That person might be right and the policy they are following might in the end benefit the broader organisation. But, on the other hand, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. So whatever policy it is that is being pursued, there will be conflict resulting from interactions with people in other work units.

What to do? If you are caught up in a feud you are probably best advised to keep your head down and get on with the job. But this can have costs to your and to your family. You might suffer stress or even, in a worse scenario, a mental breakdown. If the latter outcome eventuates, will your organisation let you keep your job or will they sideline you or even fire you? All of these things happen all the time everywhere in the world.

The paradox of organisations is that they both help people to earn enough money to live decent lives and operate to make people conform. Just to survive you have to do what you are told. Failure to do this will often result in your being sidelined into a useless role with low status and no prospects for advancement, or even to you losing your job. For my part, I not very good at working in organisations, although as an arts graduate, at a time when getting an arts degree was considered to be a waste of effort, I didn’t have the most auspicious start.

In my career have learned more than just the rudiments of writing an application report. I have learned more than just that I am good with words. I also learned that the knowledge gaps that exist in organisations lie at the core of the problems they evince. People up the tree know more about the direction your work unit is heading in, but people on the front line know how those decisions are influencing relations with other work units. Caught in the middle are these front-line staff, men and women who risk everything sometimes for no other reason than to feed the ambition or vanity of a person with more power than them.

Is this what we want? Is this the best we can do? Personally, I think not. We can’t live without organisations but if we want them to be better places we need to have intelligent conversations about them. This can be difficult for obvious reasons. People are usually unwilling to jeopardise their livelihood by talking in public about a current employer even if that employer is causing them to experience levels of stress that might, given the right circumstances, lead to a breakdown or worse. People are afraid of organisations and therefore organisations continue to treat people as commodities. A new person can easily be brought in to replace someone who breaks. The whole survives even if an individual is hurt.

But how are people chosen for the fast track to the top? Is it enough to have good ideas? I think not. Is it enough to be good at your job? Again, no.

I haven’t worked for an organisation for a decade but I think that the old rules are still in place. What I found in my time working in them is that in order to survive and thrive you have to obey the ethos they embody and you have to have what are usually referred to euphemistically as “superior communication skills”. To be able to parley your way to achieving personal goals can send a message to people higher up in the hierarchy that you might also be useful for them. So, to get ahead in an organisation you have to believe in its virtue and you have to be skilful at lying without being caught doing it. A strange amalgam of duplicity and conformity is what will help you to progress in your career. Sort of like being in a royal court: every step you take is watched and displays of obedience carry weight.

For every Steve Jobs there are tens of thousands of dead-weight executives who live fat in expensive suburbs in big houses and who send their children to private schools. For executives an innovative mind is relatively low on the list of desirable qualities, so an organisation usually continues to follow a well-trod path until the whole thing is taken over by a more profitable organisation, until it fails completely and its assets are sold off, or until things get so bad that there is a major shake-up and heads roll.

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