An alternative approach to increasing work productivity, particularly for work that requires skill and discretion and therefore the willing effort of employees has been to encourage a new work ethic and elicit loyalty through management techniques. The business management literature of the 1990s tells a story of a completely redesigned work place “where hierarchy is dead and partners engage in meaningful but often fast-paced and stressful work in a collaborative environment of mutual commitment and trust.”
These texts are sometimes idealistic rhetoric about how things are, sometimes exhortations and predictions about how things should be or will be. However, what is being described is an extension of earlier human relations and human resources approaches and the goal is clearly to get greater productivity from workers.
In these new management structures many of the middle levels of management have been removed as a result of downsizing. For example when Xerox restructured in 1993 it eliminated 9,500 jobs and reduced the 18 pay levels to only 3. The flatter structures that remain are no longer described in authoritarian terms. Instead of bosses there are ‘coaches’ and ‘leaders’ and the remaining middle managers have become ‘team leaders’, ‘facilitators’, ‘mediators’ etc. Workers have become ‘partners’ and ‘associates’.
The idea is that traditional workers were treated as mindless bodies who had to be told exactly what to do and closely supervised to ensure they worked hard. The new worker is part of a team of people committed to company goals, contributing ideas and suggestions about how they can improve productivity and solve problems, coaxing each other to work hard and supported and aided by the leaders and coaches. Leadership is now supposed to be inspirational rather than autocratic.
The aim is to ensure workers work harder and longer, supervised by each other, utilising group pressure to ensure performance, and undertaking some of the information processing tasks that were once undertaken by the missing layers of middle management. The commitment and loyalty that is necessary for this to work is supposed to come from visionary and inspirational company leadership and/or a company culture that promotes certain well-defined core values, “a sense of purpose beyond just making money”.
Such core values are felt to be necessary to elicit loyalty and commitment in the absence of the traditional workplace contract of secure employment in return for loyalty. Team loyalties are another way of substituting for lost company loyalty and keeping temporary workers in line through group pressure. One way to accomplish this is to replace individual bonuses with team bonuses, shared equally between team members, for team performance and to get teams to compete with each other. This engenders a team spirit but also the coercive team pressures that discipline individual team members.
Team discipline is also necessary to make up for the eradication of layers of middle management and supervisory staff. The new system, rather than assuming that workers have no interest in their work and need to be closely supervised, hopes to improve motivation by enriching jobs through making teams of workers responsible for their own performance and quality control.
The rhetoric of lessened managerial control in the modern workplace is belied by the fact that the new monitoring technologies are often utilised in the same workplaces as the new management strategies. The only difference is that the monitoring data is sent both to the bosses/leaders and to the workers themselves.
The rhetoric of worker participation and democracy is another way, in the new circumstances, to engender commitment to the task and to the firm in the absence of employer commitment to the worker. The new “participative management” claims to empower and involve workers using “quality circles, project teams, task forces, and work groups”. During the 1990s worker democracy was being promoted globally “in the popular mass media, the popular management books which can be found in airport bookstores and in universities among business school academics and organisational theorists.”
But the participation is token rather than real. It is not the workers who decide the company core values and goals, nor are they supposed to question them. Rather they are supposed to suggest better ways of achieving them. “As a result, the necessity of allegiance to a set of ends over which one has little control can become a recipe for a dangerous corporate intrusiveness that produces not autonomy and freedom, but enforced conformity, not genuine participation, but a kind of high-touch coercion.”
In their book The New Work Order, Gee, Hull and Lankshear studied an award-winning firm in Silicon Valley, with a good reputation for high quality work, that was pioneering the new type of management which is supposed to empower workers and create an ‘enchanted’ workplace of the future, giving the worker a sense of “ownership, responsibility, and pride”.
The company was progressively training and establishing some 200 “self-directed work teams” to improve productivity and quality control. The aim was to create a new culture in the work place. The training sought to help workers understand why they were in teams and how they could solve problems and improve productivity.
Gee and his colleagues sat in on some of the training sessions and found the classes were extremely patronising and involved little participation. The teacher stood at the front and the workers sat in rows, in a traditional school classroom setup. The interaction often involved inviting students to offer the ‘right’ answers to questions posed by the teacher, or getting people to read aloud from the course manual. Writing activities involved filling in blank spaces with the ‘correct’ words or summarising what they had learned in a ‘pearls of wisdom’ section of their workbooks. The researchers noted:
Not once in all the classes that we observed were participants ever invited to respond critically to reading material—by contrasting their own experiences with examples provided, by revealing what seemed particularly apropos and what wrongheaded, by offering additional topics to be discussed or covered....
We would argue that the message sent here is ‘don’t question’, ‘listen carefully’, and ‘follow directions’.
Indeed in practice the teams accepted directions from engineers and others above them in the hierarchy unquestioningly, even when they knew they were wrong. They had enough sense to see that, despite the rhetoric, nothing had really changed in terms of power differentials in the areas they worked in. What had changed was that they now had extra things to do, such as attending team meetings and filling out more forms, whilst they were also expected to increase production.
There is nothing special about the training programme described by Gee and his colleagues. The curriculum materials used were standard materials produced by outside specialists who produce them for a range of companies. Worker empowerment is little more than rhetoric and manipulation and the last thing that employers want is critical thinking or questioning from employees. Therefore the training that accompanies the new work arrangements has to be closer to indoctrination or propaganda than real education that requires a deeper understanding and questioning of grounds and reasoning.
Laurie Graham, a sociologist who worked on the assembly line at a Subaru-Isuzu plant in the US, found that the facade of teamwork could be even more oppressive than an openly autocratic model because peer pressure replaced discipline from the boss, and was continually present. The rhetoric of teamwork was used to keep unions out and to prevent individuals from complaining about being worked too hard. Such complaints indicated that a person was not being a good team player.