Ways in Which the Workplace Harms Us

Ways in Which the Workplace Harms Us

Guest post by one of the USA based students in The Centre for Leadership and Learning in Risk (CLLR) online program https://cllr.com.au/online-courses-overseas-students/



There is an old phrase, “No man is an island”, that expresses the idea that human beings do better in a community than they do when separated from others. It is true that humans feel more secure and complete when we are interdependent and in community. From the first moments we enter this world we are rely on others to care for us. In return, those we call friends and family receive this same dynamic from us as we grow and mature.

It has been conceived by philosopher Martin Buber that we are only fully human when we are in the state of “I-Thou”. This is a state of being in the presence of another human with no agenda other than see and hear them for who they are. In I-Thou, a person knows themselves in relation to others. According to Buber, there is no such thing as a single human person.

The other state of being is when we interact with objects. This is called living in a state of “I-it”. “I-it” is not necessarily bad; we live most of the time in this state. An “it” can be an inanimate object, animal or person. For example, in a courtroom, the judge is “I” and the person on trial is the “it”. When painting a house, working on an essay or organizing a closet, the person is “I” and the objects are “it”. Living in this state is a reality to be functional in society. Living entirely in one state or the other is just not sustainable.

The problem comes if we are only in a state of “I-it” relationships. If we do that, we become alienated from others and ourselves. Alienation is one of the primary activators that fuels harm in the workplace.

The geniuses for alienation in the workplace can be found in the foundations of the industrial revolution. In 1911, a US industrial engineer named Frederick Taylor wrote a book called ‘Principles Of Scientific Management’. In it, he laid down the fundamental principles of large-scale manufacturing through assembly-line factories. This approach to production proved to increase production and profits like never before. This system came to be known as “Taylorism”.

On the surface, it may be hard to imagine why a system so influential in re-defining an era that saw huge increases in production and profit is harmful to people. However one only need to understand that central to the success of Taylorism is a reductionist world view. Reductionism in itself is not the cause for harm. It is a material world view that breaks down complex tasks into smaller portions to be understood, measured, and (the aim is) controlled. The harm begins to creep in because Western culture uses this reductionist way of thinking to analyse not only material things and processes but people.

One of the by-products of that is people’s “effectiveness”, choices and behaviours get broken down into smaller parts to find “root causes”. This way of thinking views humans as a collection of parts (I-It) vs as a whole (I-Thou). When the essence of a person is divided and sub-divided into smaller parts like a mechanistic device, it deprives people of being fully human.

On a macro level, humans have intellectual, emotional, social, cultural and spiritual sides that make them much more than the sum of their parts. A lens of reductionism fails to see the whole person and alienates who they are in an effort to control them. Reductionism may be of value if you are taking apart an engine, but humans are not meant to be “taken apart’; it ends up harming people.

The language of Taylorism has a discourse of standardization, efficiency and perfection. The trajectory of that is dehumanization and punishment. The by-product of pursuing perfection and efficiency is a loss of personhood, fallibility, and freedom.

As an example of how work based on Taylorism can lead to alienation, imagine a man who makes custom motorcycles. He fabricates the metal, designs the paint job, assembles and tightens the engine, then puts it all together with the proper fluids in place. He puts the bike in neutral, flips on the starter, pushes the “Start” button and hears and feels that beautifully tuned V-twin engine rumble just right. This bike maker has ownership in this bike, he feels connected to it because he made it from start to finish. If he chooses to sell the bike he will do so with love for the machine and an authentic relationship with a buyer because talking about this bike he created gives him genuine pleasure; it represents part of him. It is a joy for him to show and talk about his bike.

By contrast the exact same motorcycle could be designed on an assembly line with hundreds of different people doing one or two small tasks over and over. The motorcycle will look the same, perform the same, but the people that make it do not have the same sense of connection to it. Why? Because they have only done one small, low skilled task repeatedly to assemble hundreds of bikes. These assembly line workers are alienated from the experience of craftsmanship and connectedness that the single bike maker had. They are drones doing meaningless work for nothing more than a paycheck. This builds contempt for the company because they feel like prisoners doing the monotonous task all day purely to make a paycheck.

Once the bike is shipped to the warehouse it is off off to the dealer. Those selling the bike on the showroom floor have less of a connection to it than those on the assembly line did. Those salesmen on the showroom floor view the bike as strictly a commodity to be sold quickly. When that does not happen, they develop contempt for the customers who make them beg to make a deal or just waste their time by not buying the bike. They want to sell the bike fast so they can get on to the next sale.

The sales manager has no time or patience for anyone not selling. If the bike was crafted with care or made in an assembly line is irrelevant to him; his concern is to employ salesmen that move product as soon as possible or push them to find other employment. The manager gets stressed by his competitors selling more bike for more profit and impatient with his salesman not moving the bikes quickly enough.

When the bike is sold, the shareholders of the motorcycle company’s stock are the most alienated from the process of production; their main concern is that the profit from the sale was maximized and costs minimized so the stock continues to go up. They have no concern for the makers of the bike, those who stored it or sold it. If their stock is not rising, they would just as soon see the company “clean house” and fire everyone. All this contempt and unease from every level of production are a direct relation to the culture created by Taylorism.

Taylorism and society uses atomistic thinking and is disconnected from being human. With Taylorism, nobody ever feels like they have done or created anything, they are just another piece of the production line. So not only are people isolated socially, they are isolated creatively.

We need money to function in modern society, so money itself it not inherently harmful. It is the process of quantification and abstractification that has gone beyond being economically viable to help society function and people live. It has spread to the way people view things, other people and themselves (Fromm 1991). Furthermore, the workers on the assembly line, the salesman or the office manager all operate under the false belief that they are acting according to their own interests. Their actions and anonymous economic law of the market are actually working behind their back to determine their fate. Additionally, those who own and run the business are forced by these economic laws to grow the business more because they have to, not because they want to. This gives the market its own life and rules over man. (Fromm 1991).

Man has now become a cog in the machine and a thing. Look at the language used to describe a man who has done well economically. When we say a man is worth “a million dollars”, we are no longer talking about him as a man. He is an abstraction and a thing (I-it). Since he is now a thing and not a man, it is easier to alienate him. “We can harm anyone whom we alienate through language, symbols and grammar.” (Long 2018)

Evidence of the scope of harm caused by alienation can be seen by looking closely at the experiment carried out by Elton Mayo at the Chicago Hawthorne Works of the Western Electric Company. According to Eric Fromm that experiment showed “…that sickness, fatigue and a resulting low output are NOT caused primarily by the monotonous technical aspect of the work but by the alienation of the worker from the total work situation in its social aspects. As soon as this alienation was decreased to a certain extent by having the worker participate in something that was meaningful to him, and in which he had a voice, his whole psychological reaction to the work changed, although technically he was still doing the same kind of work. (Fromm 1991).

Alienation in the work place cannot ever be totally eliminated. Especially in light of the fact that much of western civilization still functions under a reductionist, positivism type of thinking. But just because it can’t be “fixed” does not mean there are not things we can do to tackle the issue and promote less alienation and more engagement in the workplace.

One idea is to ask employees what topics they would like to discuss in safety meetings. The typical, monthly topics can still be discussed, but reserve just as much time (if not more) in addressing issues they are seeing in the field. Having an open, honest conversation about the layers of risk that are seen (workspace) and unseen (headspace, groupspace) will generate more creative thought and engage employees to put more into learning from one another vs. sitting quietly while they watch a video over a pre-selected topic they have seen more than twice in a calendar year. Doing this will decrease the alienation they feel to a degree because they are now an active participant in something meaningful to them. One important element for this to work is absolute trust; employees must know they can say what they think without fear of being disciplined or this will be a waste of time.

Another idea is to give Safety committees a limited agenda and instead discuss what went well or did not go well for them since the last meeting. Invite them to share any kind of learning to the group or recognize anyone from their teams that did something positive. Promotion of higher order goals like trust, collaboration and caring vs talking about lagging indicators can help promote more discussion around what it means to be human vs. trying to reduce safety performance to a number. Again without absolute trust and freedom to speak, this will not be effective.

The following ideas are more radical but it would help reduce alienation; Change the artifacts in an office or work place to promote higher order goals vs lagging metrics. Correct the massive difference in design of office spaces based on hierarchy. Probably the most unrealistic but maybe most effective ways to reduce alienation is a correction in the exorbitant salaries paid to high level CEOs while jobs and benefits are cut for field employees. Few things are more offensive and alienating than seeing those who do the work in the field have their jobs or benefits cut while a CEO who is so disconnected from the process of production enjoys a heated pool and maid service at his home.

Do you have any thoughts? Please share them below