Have Management Gurus Made Us Slaves or Superheroes?
Excerpts from The Witch Doctors: Making Sense of the Management Gurus
The best place to begin any discussion about the future of work is a large, elegant flat in Putney, a prosperous suburb in West London and the home of Britain's best-known guru, Charles Handy. His forecast a decade ago that fewer than half the workforce would be in "proper" full-time jobs by the turn of the century has just about come true in Western Europe; in America, the proportion of people who are unemployed, self-employed, or on short-term contracts is currently about 35%.
Anybody who accepts the notion that work is changing is immediately plunged into two fierce debates. The first revolves around the question of whether the new work culture liberates or enslaves the working man or woman. The second debate, which tends to be greatly colored by the diagnosis of the first, turns to prescription. What should be done to make jobs more liberating experiences? What should a manager demand from his or her employer?
Managers, Tom Peters suggests, are on the verge of a new, empowered age. "Forget loyalty. Or at least loyalty to one's corporation. Try loyalty to your Rolodex -- your network -- instead." Everybody should become an independent contractor or think of themselves as one. "Powerlessness is a state of mind," declares Peters.
Many other gurus reckon that "powerless" is exactly what most managers are. The most downbeat are the "end-of-work" crowd. A gloomy prognosis of the future of work has become a staple of left-wing politics everywhere. Both America's former labor secretary, Robert Reich, and Tony Blair, the leader of Britain's Labour Party, have talked about the rise of "the anxious class," most of whom hold jobs but are justifiably uneasy about their lack of security.
A third group of people, including Charles Handy, seem to hop from one side of the fence to the other, sometimes celebrating those who have the necessary skills and knowledge to flourish in the new economy, sometimes sympathizing with those who will be left behind.
Everyone seems to agree that there is a growing division. The mistake the pessimists make is to assume that most people in the Western world fit into the losing camp. There is a big and growing, group of workers who should gain from the technology that is making it easier for people to set up on their own. Wander around a Denver suburb or even a Cotswold village, and you will find any number of moderately qualified people working for themselves -- and usually being paid more for it.
That said, there is also a class of people who are doomed to lose out. This group certainly includes some managers. However, there does not appear to be a shortage of managerial jobs. Most people read Executive Blues: Down and Out in Corporate America (1995), an autobiography of a manager named G.J. Meyer coming to terms with unemployment, as a primary example of a new sort of "work-horror" genre: "In Edvard Munch's The Scream, a solitary empty-eyed figure stands in a roadway clutching its head, mouth open wide," proclaims the self-pitying author. "I hope that's not what I look like as I walk the streets of Manhattan." At the end of Executive Blues, however, the author has to admit that he has found "a job that I like very much with a company that I like very much on the outskirts of Cleveland." The real losers are the unskilled poor, who are now more likely to spend their lives drifting between short-term jobs, or perhaps dropping out of formal work entirely.
That suggests that managers should be worried about the poor and not themselves. However, the winners and losers in this new world of work should be judged in psychological as well as material terms. Here managers fare less well. For all the talk of empowerment, most are scared and anxious creatures. The main contribution to this psychological unease is probably overwork. One of the developing world's biggest problems (and one for which management theory should take part of the blame) is that modern economies seem to combine rising unemployment with longer working hours for those in jobs. On balance, Handy's rule (about half the number of people being paid twice as much to do three times as much work) looks like an exaggeration; but even if they are working only one-and-a-half times as hard as they used to, most workers feel shattered.
Managers are nearly always the hardest working of the lot. Once again, management fashion is partly responsible. Delayering reduces the number of managers available to do jobs. Reengineering forces managers to take charge of an entire process.
To add to these psychological strains, the fashion for long hours has gone hand in hand with the fashion for flexibility. Workers often devote themselves to their companies almost to the exclusion of their social lives. Poring over reports takes the place of hobbies; networking on the telephone takes over from normal socializing. People disrupt their family lives in order to take foreign postings. They also make many of their strongest friendships at work. Suddenly the firm is reengineered, and they become surplus. The thing that has filled their days and given their life purpose is taken away from them. The overworked company man suddenly becomes just another anomic citizen.
One day, this may change. Companies may employ more people and make them work less. Workers will agree to work at strange shifts in exchange for working fewer hours and getting paid the same. A few companies have experimented along these lines. But most would rather work their existing workforce to the bone and reward them accordingly.
The new work order is producing not "the unemployed manager," but the paranoid manager. The probabilities remain firmly in his favor (it is still predominantly "his"): he will keep his job; even if he loses it, he will be reemployed fairly quickly. What have unhinged him are possibilities: the possibility that he could be one of the minority of managers who get sacked and are not employed again; that technology will replace his job rather than just make it easier. As he commutes to his home in Pasadena, the paranoid manager does not find the idea that his new neighbor is a consultant who works from home and earns more money than he does encouraging, but frightening. And his own company plays on this insecurity by telling him that he will only be paid more if he works harder.
John Micklethwait, the New York bureau chief of The Economist, has written for the Los Angeles Times, and has appeared on National Public Radio. Winner of the Winscott Award for financial journalism, he lives in New York City.
Adrian Woolridge, the West Coast bureau chief of The Economist, has written for The Wall Street Journal and The New Republic. He lives in Los Angeles.
Reprinted and excerpted with permission from The Witch Doctors, Making Sense of the Management Gurus
Copyright 1996, 1997 by John Micklethwait and Adrian Woolridge
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Convention
Published in the U.S. by Times Books, a division of Random House, Inc. in New York
Adapted with permission of Random House, Inc.
Available at the McGraw-Hill bookstore, local and online bookstores or see Random House's website www.atrandom.com.