We easily forget that the way we run modern organisations was invented by people to deal with the challenges of the manufacturing age. ‘How,’ the inventors asked, ‘can we arrange for large numbers of people to perform routine and repetitive tasks efficiently, effectively, and with minimal risk of error?’
Organisation charts. Layers of management. Design and control the work carried out by the people below you.
Systems and procedures to make sure everyone fits the shape required by the task. Behaviour frameworks. Policies to address every eventuality. Whatever it takes to produce what’s needed with maximum predictability and minimum surprise.
All of these make perfect sense if you’re organising thousands of workers to perform routine tasks repetitively, accurately, and without variance. They might just work as long as you’re trying to have people be completely predictable.
But we have forgotten that this is only one of many choices available to us. And when we forget that the machine metaphor for work is not a given, we blind ourselves to its limits.
What was a massive and very effective project to manufacture products on an enormous scale has become, in many workplaces, an equally effective project to eliminate anxiety. The anxiety we experience when we encounter human freedom.
For one example of how this is the case, just look at how often we insist on dry, detached business language that leaves out everything that’s personal and most of what’s meaningful. Or see how often we try to manipulate people with rewards or threats, generating the insecurity that will keep them in line rather than supporting them in acting with integrity, exercising good judgement, or cultivating their wholeheartedness about the work they do.
In order to eliminate the anxiety that we’d feel if people could take up even a small measure of their true creativity and freedom, we’ve had to treat ourselves and others as if we were objects. We’ve had to make ourselves part of the machine.
You might say that in uncertain times what we need is more control, not less. More predictability, less humanness. But can you say that the way most organisations are run is working out well for the people who work in them or for the world in which we live?
If we were to face our anxiety and allow for more human creativity and dignity, integrity and freedom, who knows what possibilities we might bring to the world?
[For an example of a contemporary attempt to address these questions, see HubSpot’s Culture Code here]