Many years ago, at the tail end of the Thatcher era, I did a CIPD qualification. On the syllabus was Harry Braverman’s Labor and Monopoly Capital. It was considered, at the time, to be the seminal Marxist work on the labour process and the roots of industrial unrest.
It seemed a bit out of time even then. After more than ten years of Thatcherism, no-one was really talking much about industrial relations any more. The term ‘empowerment’ had recently been invented and various strategies for persuading workers to identify with the company rather than with labour movements were starting to appear. I reasoned that Braverman must have made it onto the CIPD syllabus during the 1970s, when the institute was, perhaps, more influenced by left-wing lecturers and local government officers. Someone had clearly forgotten to remove this old fashioned class warrior from the reading list. Surely, I thought, his days must be numbered.
Apparently not though. Old Harry is still hanging in there on the syllabus of management courses. Perhaps this is no bad thing.
Detailed reviews of Braverman’s work can be found here and here, but, briefly, his thesis was that people are alienated from their work because they are divorced from the ownership and control of the means of production. Being dependent on the capitalists for their employment and with only their labour to sell, workers have limited control over how that labour is used and no control over how the products of it are distributed. They are regimented by mechanisation and systematic management until their scope for discretion is minimised. All this, says Braverman, is de-humanising and soul destroying, leading to depression, boredom, disease and a sense of just being fed up at work.
Not very fashionable is it? Now we’re all talking about employee engagement, flat structures and non-hierarchical organisations, Braverman sounds like a ghost from the past. Until you look at some of the evidence, that is.
Pay consultants Towers Perrin have just published some research which found that 38% of employees around the world feel partly to fully disengaged from their companies – engagement being defined as ‘willing to go the extra mile’. In plain English, then, that means that 38% go to work to do their jobs and nothing much more.
It gets worse. A couple of years ago, Watson Wyatt found that only 12 per cent of British workers could be described as fully engaged with their businesses. In 2003 a survey from Gallup came up with a similar result.
Could lack of engagement be due to alienation? Given that a person’s lack of control over his or her work is one of the major causes of stress, there’s a pretty good chance that alienation and disengagement are linked.
What I find interesting, though, is that so many managers are surprised by this general level of disengagement among their workforces. A few months ago, when I gave a presentation on managing change in organisations, I put up a graph which indicated that, when you announce a change, the reactions of most of your workforce will be somewhere between lukewarm and actively hostile. Only a few will be up for the change from the start. I was accused of painting a negative picture but I responded by pointing out that if at least a third of your workforce is already disengaged, getting support for change will be an uphill struggle.
Bosses tend to assume that everyone in the company has, or should have, the same levels of motivation and commitment as the management. They forget that, without the position power and the share options, most workers are, as Braverman would have put it, alienated from the means of production. This lack of awareness explains why managers can impose a minor cost-cutting exercise, such as taking away free coffee and newspapers in the staff canteen, then be completely surprised that this causes uproar. However, if those managers had understood that employees lack a sense of control over their working environment, they could have predicted that stopping free newspapers would simply emphasise that lack of control and cause an inevitable backlash.
The number of times that executives are caught out by the negative reaction to their crass initiatives never ceases to amaze me. If they stopped to think about it,though, it should not come as a great surprise that people with less of a financial stake in the company might just be that bit less willing to go along with every company initiative.
You don’t have to be a Marxist to find Braverman’s concept of alienation useful. If you start from the assumption that alienation is a prevailing force, driving employees towards ever greater disengagement, you realise that management is, in part, an exercise in damage limitation. If you did nothing, your workforce would become more and more disengaged. You need to work hard to counteract this force.
I once worked in a team of highly skilled people, managed by someone who regularly walked the floor talking to the team members and helping them out. He engaged with the employees so well that nobody realised he was doing it. Consequently, when he moved on and someone else took over, they left the team to its own devices. The result was a gradual degradation of morale. Within two years many key people had resigned, not because of anything the new managers had done but because of what they hadn’t done.
This is not a call for a return to Theory X management. People can be disengaged from their employers and yet still do their jobs reasonably well. Professional pride and loyalty to colleagues can mitigate some of the affects of alienation. In any case, command and control is no longer an option for managing today’s complex organisations.
Treating disengagement as something pathalogical is an all too common mistake. The Towers Perrin study referenced above found that disengagement is not an innate trait. Most employees don’t become disengaged because they are just shirkers and whingers but because their employers don’t work hard at keeping them engaged.
The trend away from Taylorism and towards employee empowerment hasn’t made things any better. Company initiatives to foster greater empowerment, creativity, initiative, followership, personal responsibility or whatever the latest fad is, are often seized upon by lazy executives as an excuse to withdraw from active management of their teams. The trouble is, even in an ‘empowered’ organisation, the team members are still governed by the company systems, still have very little say in the key decisions and still have no financial stake in the business. Alienation is still doing its work but the lazy manager has withdrawn, assuming that the workers will, somehow, just motivate themselves.
The way to mitigate the effects of alienation and disengagement is not to launch some rah-rah employee engagement programme, or to withdraw, or to micro-manage people. Towers Perrin found that organisations where managers were visible and accessible, actively helping people in their teams to learn and develop, had higher levels of engagement. It’s simple really. A workforce is a bit like a garden. Ignore it and the weeds of alienation will take over. Look after it and it will grow.
Leaders who understand the concept of alienation will realise that they need to work hard to keep their employees engaged. To get people to do that little bit more, managers need to do that little bit more too. They will also be less likely to make crass decisions and impose petty changes without consultation. Rubbing a worker’s nose in his own feelings of powerlessness will inevitably lead to trouble.
Even in the post-industrial world, Harry Braverman’s work can still give us some useful insights, which is why it still keeps popping up on management courses. He may look a bit outdated now, but he’s not ready for the dustbin of history just yet.