I was recently non-consensually offered the non-negotiable opportunity to increase my equitable market value and improve my tradable worth in the volatile employment marketplace, which is to say, I was made to do mandatory training last week. Ostensibly for the benefit of all employees in our team, and in no way related to the inspections taking place in my offices (who operating companies, for the sake of confidentiality, will all remain anonymous), the day-long course was, to the trainer’s credit, well-conceived, pedagogically sound, and well-executed, to my mind. In spite of this, the content of the course largely fell on deaf ears, doomed to fail from the outset, partly because of the failure to tailor the material to the attendees’ specific needs, and also partly because of the generally anaesthetised attitude inevitable to those in attendance at mandatory training not either already well-versed in the subject, or stricken by the condition of being insufferable suck-ups. Even still, there was one instant during the afternoon session of ‘practical’ training which ejected almost everyone in the room from their stupor, a moment which, if intentionally constructed by the training programme, constitutes a stroke of tragicomic genius, at least by the standards of professional skills enrichment.
The moment came during an exercise in which the trainees were required, in silence, to listen to a recording of a conversation and take down notes by hand, as if recording minutes for a meeting. The recorded conversation, a peppy performance by three voice-actors just barely outstripping the standards of believability necessary for a secondary school level foreign language exam, was the cause of this remarkable occurrence. For, before our very ears, the strident and clear voice capable of belonging to who we all imagined to be our own senior manager, a female voice conceived, at least in my head, as a thirty-something career woman with a bob, loudly proclaimed that, for the month of August, an annual leave rota was to be imposed upon all staff below managerial level. Heads already rising from the artificiality of the exercise and struggling with barely suppressed laughter/outrage, the voice went on to defend the thesis that it was the responsibility of the managers to organise and lay out the terms for what constituted minimum cover in the office and that in no uncertain terms were the lower payscale staff capable of organising such a system themselves. The mood in the room by now veering wildly between rankling and guffawing, the voice concluded with a rebuttal to the suggestion that the same system would have to apply to the managers for the sake of fairness: ‘that would be a complete non-starter.’
Incredibly, this otherwise banal recording had managed to cause sustained and even interested engagement from a room of tired journeymen (and journeywomen) office workers without any strong impressions of contrivance or crassness. I would, in fact, be willing to wager that our transcripts of the mock meeting likely increased in accuracy across the board as a result of our unexpected interest in its contents and further suggest that the use of a sudden reframing of an exercise or re-sceneing of a scene in the same vein would produce repeatable results, though that’s not the focus of what I’m writing about here. What I do want to focus on is, in fact, the contents of the mock meeting recording; the very cause of this aesthetic moment of awakening among us that day. Specifically, I want to pursue with a degree of seriousness the idea that workers should be able to impose administrative and organisational systems upon managers asymmetrically.
What would such an idea mean? The history of management is disputed, but, to my mind, it would be relatively uncontroversial to claim that management in its current workplace form first emerged in the early 1900s, with the gradual separation between the managers and the managed maturing across the century. Broadly, it is possible to assume that two main kinds of system exist which instantiate the structure which maintains the separation between the manager and the managed.
The first appears as a system in which a worker is promoted out of his job. This system sticks to a hierarchised model of leadership in which it is, perhaps reasonably, assumed that increased experience correlates with increased skills and therefore merits increased responsibility. This might make complete sense in a small-scale workplaces, almost regardless of the industry: a ten year blacksmith is far better placed to take on high level tasks and supervise a couple of new apprentices just as a ten year coding expert is far better placed to manage and mentor one or two novices at C++. However, for a number of reasons this hierarchised model fails in the current style of management. Firstly, workplaces are simply too big. An employee of any serious managerial clout is unlikely to spend a great deal of time with any one team member and will certainly be largely non-functional in the capacity of teaching, training, or in any meaningful way supervising their work. More significantly, and as already noted, the tasks belonging to management and to the employee tend toward divorce. It is commonly the case that there is little in the day-to-day work of a manager that is in common with the underlings who are managed by them. This is why it is possible, in this system, to be promoted out of your job. Since this model retains a direct hierarchy in which experience leads to rising in the hierarchy, it is natural that experienced and capable workers should be expected to move to higher positions. However, since the day-to-day tasks of managerial staff and their working counterparts are entirely divorced, not much of the experience accrued as an underling serves the worker well when she is moves up to manager. It is as if she is starting a new job over again from scratch.
The second system doubles down on the separation between managed and managee such that there is no transference between the two bodies at all, despite the maintenance of the systemic hierarchy. The exemplary figure of this structure is politics – whether today’s or the kinds from days gone by. In the liberal capitalist democracies of Europe and the USA, despite being ostensibly chosen from amongst the electorate as their representative, most of those who are in governance simply never experience the lives of their governed bodies in any meaningful way. It is simply not a requirement for being in charge that one should also have a seasoned understanding of what it is one presides over. In kingdoms and dictatorships this structure is identical, but with less pretense of empathy and sympathy between the rulers and the ruled over. And of course, in the workplace this is common in the form of management consultancies – entirely separate companies whose expertise is ‘management’, who have precisely zero experience [here, I exaggerate for effect] of the grunt work done at the ground level, yet who still perform the function of management, holding a superior hierarchised position over those who work below.
The long and short of this point is that there exist positions which are designated as specialised in management – management is their field and the brunt of their work. These positions are typically hierarchically situated above positions which carry out the majority of the actual work upon which the given industry is based: The policeman answers to the commissioner (who does not go out on the beat); the doctor answers to the hospital manager (who does not treat any patients); the builder answers to the contractor (who shifts no bricks on site); the shop teller answers to the shop manager, who answers to the boardroom bureaucrat, who answers to the shareholder, none of whom regularly perform the functions belonging to one another, yet all of whom remain fixed in a stratified hierarchical structure, one neatly on top of the other.
It may seem like I am against this (which I am) or that I am advocating a kind of primitivist idealisation of the localised workplace where everyone works with their hands on rustic tasks without bureaucracy (we should all be blacksmiths and farmers and have to earn our right to stand above someone else in merit). This is not what I am pursuing here. Retro-fitting the massively networked modern workplace with person-to-person accountability is untenable, and furthermore, undesirable. It is right to see the separation of labours of different kinds in one workplace. Management is indeed a skill in itself, just as is smithing, and administrating, and cooking, and public representation. None of these are derivative qualities which can be simply degraded in favour of more tangible ‘hands on‘ kinds of skills. But if each kind of labour is to be seen as properly its own discipline and each retain its separation, then what must be dispensed with is not specialisation, but hierarchisation.
If we are to accept that directorship, leadership, management, innovation, vision, and organisation are qualities and skills independent enough to hold disciplines of their own, separated from whatever other task the work may require, then it is no great leap to argue also that a director, manager, leader, or consultant should hold no hierarchical superiority over someone not within that discipline.
In terms of corporate structure, or the structure of organisations of all kinds, this would be necessarily transformative. Firstly, it should be possible to be an entry-level manager, or an entry-level director. If the disciplines are separate entirely, then it should not be any great problem to hire a specialist in management who possess particular training in management, and no other specialism in a particular working environment. This separation also necessitates that, if management is a separate skill to any other, then an entry-level manager should be no more valuable than an entry-level anything else. Hierarchy can only exist internally to each discipline, since each discipline maintains its separation and measures the merit of each worker based on its own criteria alone. This also flattens tacit dead-end immobility of certain kinds of work. If each discipline is taken as independent, then there cannot be some which are less essential to the workplace, since each contributes an entirely independent and non-derivative resource to the office environment. An office cleaner, for example, could, in principle, never be justifiably paid less than a typist or manager of comparable quality. An entry-level cleaner should fundamentally be no different in terms of their valuation than an entry-level manager since each fulfils a task which cannot be made derivative of another.
One might object here that the skills necessary to become a manager (or a teacher, pilot, or automotive engineer, for that matter) are simply more valuable than those deployed by a cleaner because they take more time, effort, and diligence to acquire and execute. This might make the skills more valuable in-themselves, or more valuable on the level of the individual in the purview of personal growth, but not more valuable in light of a workplace which maintains the separation and equality of the disciplines integral to its functioning. As far as an organisation adopting this stance is concerned, it would simply cease to function should there be no cleaners, just as well as it would cease to function should there be no typists, call-centre operators, or managing partners (some might even say the absence of cleaners is more likely to cause failure than the absence of managing partners). From this very basic stance, the value of different roles cannot be hierarchised. Beyond this, it is easy to contend that cleaning is a skill that takes some acquiring anyway (since more or less anyone can bring to mind an occasion where he or she thought someone else’s idea of clean was thoroughly inadequate), and that there are certainly entry-level cleaners, cleaning executives, senior cleaners, and emeritus professors of cleaning out there, each deserving of their hierarchical status internal to the discipline of cleaning (since most people can scrub a surface and mop a floor, some can graduate to washing dishes and clearing a kitchen, those of a certain skill can really leave a bathroom spotless of limescale, mould, and skid-marks, and only those with superior skills and experience will be able to adequately maintain, clean, distinfect, and keep dust-free sensitive equipment such as that used in robotics manufacturing or technologically augmented surgery).
So much for office roles necessarily being valued with full equality if they are to maintain their separation. But if hierarchy is to be removed between roles, this also suggests that accountability cannot be hierarchised either. If there is no vertical structure, a worker can no longer be accountable to his manager and the manager accountable to her senior manager, and she to the general manager, and he to the director and she to the shareholders and he to etc. Instead, accountability must be reciprocal, which is to say that the managees must be accountable to the managers, but then so must the managers be to the managees. Initially, it seems impossible that this should be workable – how can the various roles maintain separation (with therefore little knowledge of each others’ skill sets) and still assess the adequacy of each others’ performance? Well, here it must again be remembered that all these bodies are held equal in their fulfilling of a function for the organisation and as such, their performance may be assessed in terms of how well they promote the other bodies in fulfilling their functions.
For instance: an administrative team and a managing team work in an office. The administrative team use a system requiring all outgoing correspondence to be hand-signed by the document’s owner and paper copies to be kept in filing cabinets in the hall. The management team call the administrative team to account for the inefficiency of this system on the grounds that its cumbersomeness hinders the proper function of the management team. Conversely, an administrative team operate under a system split across three databases which do not share any compatibility features, necessitating manual input of the same data separately into each database. These databases were outsourced at the recommendation of the management team. Here the administrative team calls the management team to account for the imposition of this system because its unwieldiness hinders the proper function of the administrative team. Here we can see how each body may hold another to account with the only necessary criterion being that this is in the interest of their functions promoting the functions of other bodies. It may be that this initial example appears somewhat trite, but this becomes significant when, for example, a management team imposes a working-hours requirement upon medical staff which might jeopardise patient care, or site management places a deadline for a finished build which necessitates either unsafe working conditions or shortcuts on the building work itself, or an accounting team fail to adequately file their work such that management is required to put together a paper-trail piecemeal. All these are cases where, if roles are really held to be independent and therefore valued equally, it would be not only right and proper, but also beneficial to all parties involved to have them call each other to account for failing to promote the function of their counterpart disciplines.
It is my feeling that the division between disciplines in workplaces and organisations will only grow as globalised economy, the gig economy, and networked theories of business continue to proliferate. It makes sense, therefore, for this separation to be properly attended to as I have proposed. I only ask the reader to consider the potential of being able to formally supervise and provide feedback on the performance of who today is your own supervisor and imagine how such a transformation of the flow of responsibility would alter your working relationships and the character of the workplace in general and I think the essence of the idea will be communicated.
Please forgive how badly this piece has been written: I’ve wanted to get an idea like this off for a while, but my concentration has been poor and it shows in the structural confusedness here.