CounterEconomics/1 – A new series of articles on business, its organization and some of its infections.
By Luigino Bruni
Published in Avvenire 05/03/2023
"Along the way, I have acquired the conviction that our education suffers from an enormous deficiency regarding a primary need of life: to deceive ourselves and fall into illusion as little as possible."
Edgar Morin, Teach how to live
The tendency to outsource the management of relationships and emotions has taken root. A model that is also being exported to other sectors of society.
We are in the midst of a great transformation of business culture, which began in the last part of the 20th century and is now experiencing a season of broad consensus and great development. However, as so often happens in all great social processes, it is precisely at the moment of its maximum success that the signs of decline begin to emerge in this new corporate humanism, the first cracks that threaten and prefigure the possible collapse of the entire edifice. Without really realizing it, in the space of about half a century big businesses have gone from being seen as the paradigm of exploitation and alienation to becoming icons of excellence, merit, well-being and even human flourishing, and as such imitated and imported into all social spheres, up to and including, recently, the non-profit world and even spiritual communities.
Let us start with a word that seems rather distant from the business world: frailty. Previous generations were able to pass the ability to face the difficulties of existence onto us and, despite many contradictions, they did manage to create an inner capital made up of religion, wisdom and popular piety and then the values of the great mass ideologies which were also collective narratives on the meaning of life, pain and death, in people. This was because the cultures of yesterday were humanisms of imperfection and hence they placed the limits, the effort, the incompleteness and sacrifice at the centre, while happiness was experienced as a short interval between two long periods of unhappiness. Life was hard, poor and brief, and the art of character formation essentially consisted in turning that hard life into a possible and sustainable one, perhaps a bit better for the children without deluding oneself that it would turn out to be too much so. In the world of our grandparents, no one would ever have thought of educating young people in the culture of success, encouraging them to become "winners", because everyone knew that it would have been the perfect way to lead a life a frustrated and angry life. The game of life ended well if you brought home a good draw, in an eternal game of football.
With the passing of the millennium, we have quickly moved from the humanism of imperfection to that of the pursuit of happiness and success. “Away with the vanquished and the unhappy!” has become our new motto. We gradually and quickly forgot the ancient craft of living and the fatigue of democracy; instead, we fell in love with easy meritocracy, easy because it is imaginary. The end of the great ideologies and (in the West) the weakening of religion has brought about great anthropological changes. The moral world has ended and its vacancy has not yet been filled by anything new or equally robust.
Moreover, when true reality, even today, continues to make us face limits, lack of success and failure, which in fact have not disappeared merely because we have decided not to see them anymore, young people and now adults as well, find themselves deprived of the ancient virtues. Ancient virtues by now placed among the odds and ends of the company and then moved to the dusty old wardrobe, together with granddad's old hat and the coffee bean grinder.
This lack of ethical equipment manifests itself in every sphere of social life - family, politics, school - but it is not yet perceived in all its gravity. It will be, soon, when this relational and emotional unsustainability will become evident. However, when this frailty arrived in the sphere of big business, reaching and exceeding a critical threshold, something new started. Because in our liquid world a company is still something solid that lives thanks to collective action. It therefore needs employees capable of cooperative virtues that allow them to carry out complex operations that take place in the midst of conflicts, difficulties, frustrations and failures, where all emotions come into play and require specific education and maintenance to make a good life together possible and sustainable. For decades, for centuries, companies had never concerned themselves with the formation of the workers' character or their cooperative virtues; instead, they limited themselves to their professional and technical training. People entered the factory gates already equipped with a relational capital, which allowed them to cooperate with others, an art they had learned and re-learned day in and day out in their family, in their village, in the harvests, in the grape harvest, in slaughtering the pig, in processions, in funerals, in weddings and patronal feasts.
In fact, businesses in the 20th century grew thanks to the spiritual and ethical capital of their people and the crisis of that moral universe immediately became a crisis of the productive universe. Enterprises, businesses, anticipate the future; they know how to see beyond – this is also what speculation is all about. Thus, when the moral climate changed, the first place that experienced the subsequent crisis were the companies, especially the large and global ones, and they immediately tried to respond.
Their first response was the evolution of the old concept of management, which transformed the factory from a community into an artificial and rational place, where human relationships were tamed, "reduced" and operationalized so that they could be easily managed by the new managers, now conceived as leaders and no longer executives, transformed into the new protagonists of large companies. Human relations were simplified, but still managed within the company in a co-management divided between entrepreneurs and managers.
This new culture of corporate relations worked for two to three decades, while companies lived on by consuming the revenue of what was still left of the ethical capital that their workers had accumulated in the communities outside the company, without reproducing it within their walls anymore. Until, at the beginning of the new millennium, the last generations who were children of twentieth-century ethics left the stage, by which this capital of civil virtues was (almost) exhausted.
At this point, companies had to innovate again, and they looked for a new solution: to recreate the human resources they needed themselves. It is the third turning point: management understands that the necessary new ethical capital can still be found outside the company and that the managers themselves are part of the same frailty as their employees, although they would hardly declare it openly. Hence, they seek outside, but not in the old, traditional places of life and community – family, the Church, political houses and groups - which in the meantime were slowly but surely being abandoned or had begun emigrating to social networks. They understand that the resources in question are still out there, but now they are being offered by the market, a for-profit market that was already gearing up to produce and sell new professional figures who are fast becoming the real new protagonists of companies.
In fact, a highly bio-diversified forest is growing up around managers, made up above all of consultants churned out by large consultancy firms, together with occupational psychologists, managers of occupational happiness and well-being, practical philosophers of meaning, mission and purpose. Together with priests, nuns and transcendental meditation experts for accompaniment and training in corporate spirituality, not to mention the new figures of coaches and counsellors who present themselves as the profession of the future. Half a century ago, businesses were helmed by entrepreneurs; then came the managers and finally the consultants. Thus, a company of fifty employees finds itself populated by at least ten, fifteen or twenty of these various figures of assistance. The new ruling class is being assisted and supported and increasingly replaced by ancillary figures who are becoming the new kings and queens.
A sort of outsourcing of emotions is taking place, a contract with external agencies for the management of the maintenance, care and nurturing of human relations within companies. Managers are no longer able to manage the emotions and relationships of their employees, who are less and less endowed with essential virtues, with the traditional tools of old (hierarchy, coordination, incentives, unions), so a series of new external suppliers manage them on their behalf. The management of emotions is becoming something akin to managing the company canteen or cleaning. Furthermore, the more fragile the employees are, the more the demand for these relational and emotional services grows, as does the GDP. Partly because the presence of relationship professionals also performs the function of externally certifying and validating this new form of quality. A certification of the quality of the relationships within the company is now added to the certification regarding its financial statements, which serves to greatly reassure insecure managers.
Why – some might ask – would this be a problem? Everything evolves; everything changes. Why is it possible to outsource the maintenance of systems and not the maintenance of emotions? Actually, there are several problems in fact, and some are quite serious.
One important problem concerns the growing extension of these phenomena outside the corporate world. If, in fact, external contracts for the management of many aspects of human relations concerned only the world of large businesses or capitalist finance, it would still be something important but in any case limited to a sphere of life with a set of necessary typical features - such as sport or the army. However, this outsourcing of relationship maintenance is starting to extend, reaching non-profit organizations, communities and churches, in part because consulting firms are perceived as the "doctors" of every form of human organization, the technicians required to solve new problems. However, what would relationships within a spiritual movement or a religious community turn into, if those in charge delegated the management of many aspects of human relationships (crisis, fatigue, criticism...) to professionals outside the company? What would become of those relationships whose quality is the heart and root of the future? So, what aspects can be delegated outside the organization and which ones should necessarily remain within it, managed by our imperfections and efforts?
While necessary in certain specific cases, external figures can easily become a perfect form of immunity, a screen that those in charge use to protect themselves from the contagion of relationships and from the "wounds from others". Furthermore, while the world of large global business is already feeling the insufficiency of these external contracts (as we will see), non-economic organizations are only discovering these tools now, late in the game, and tend to see them as a great novelty of salvation. The phenomena of dumping towards the "poor" can be found in these cases too: let us be careful that the world of social affairs and churches does not soon become a new refuge market for consultancy companies looking for new markets because the old ones are running out...
Hence, in the next few weeks, we will ask ourselves further questions: where is the line between coaching and substitution in the relationship between managers and consultants? Are the external models and theories subsidiary enough, in other words, do they arise from listening and from the life that already exists within a given company before trying to improve it? What if an imperfect but internal relationship turned out to be more generative and human than a less imperfect but external one? Are we sure that the most important virtues can be created and cared for by the market or are they, perhaps, still to this day in need of that essential ingredient called gratuity?