The Great Transition/4 - Workers not seen any more, managers reduced to technicians
by Luigino Bruni
published in Avvenire on 25/01/2015
“We should get used to reflecting deeply on the fact that my own self is communion. If we can define communities like the regular meeting of a few individuals in a given time and space but also in their power of being a person each, then we should feel the radical insufficiency of the communities, and strive constantly to dissolve them, by exceeding them in communion.”
Giuseppe Maria Zanghì, A Few Reflections on the Person
In all the great eras of passage the first shortcoming is that of words.
In this fast age of transition, the world of work also suffers from the lack of poets, artists and masters of spirituality that could donate new words to better understand our joys, sufferings and hopes. We lack the language to say how we are living, to tell and, through telling about them, to treat them.
In the past decades we learned to understand and tell the pains and joys of the factories and the fields. Throughout the past century we have generated literature, poetry, cinema, songs, spirituality of the field and the factory, of the work of freelancers, of employers and employees, who gave us the words to understand and process the wounds and the blessings of that great humanism of work. Through singing it and narrating it we understood it, we experienced its feasts and processed its grief, and so we were saved, almost always. We would not have survived without the poets, artists and charismas of work that loved us first of all by giving us the words – poetry, art and spirituality are above all the gift of different and greater words to give names to our experiences, since without these gifts they would remain mute, ill-spoken, ill-lived.
If there is a place where there is a particularly strong and obvious famine of new words, it is life inside organizations. In particular, managers are crushed into a real relational stranglehold, one they have failed to give a name to. On the one hand they are subjected to an infinite demand for appreciation that comes from their workers. On the other hand, these managers do not find recognition for their own work.
All we hear, if and when we really work is that in our daily work there is much more than required by contract. No company is satisfied by mere contract enforcement, and no worker's salary is enough for them to do their best. The company needs exactly what it cannot buy from its workers: their enthusiasm, passions, joy and love of life, their creativity. Their soul and heart. But these human dimensions are derived only and completely from freedom, and therefore the company is only able to have them if they are donated by the workers, because no incentive is a good replacement of the free gift at work – what's more, it usually destroys it. In other words: the company really needs something that the employment contract, with all its typical instruments – incentives and controls – cannot buy, because it can only be given freely as a gift. And there is no gift sustainable without reciprocity. This is the root of the immense, steady and growing demand for appreciation, recognition and attention by workers that remains in most part unfulfilled. This reality that is obvious to all remains mostly silent for lack of words and categories to express it.
The gap between supply and demand of respect and recognition in business, however, is created and powered by the same culture of large companies and organizations (see my article from last Sunday), the ones that ask so much from the workers to make them gradually abandon other areas of non-working life. So that sick and symbolic, infinite being which is the person, closes all windows of their soul except that of work, and it is promised them that it is the only window through which one can see landscapes and horizons that could in fact only be seen from the perspectives of other windows. And in the weaving of these lives into a single dimension, the manager becomes the first victim of the same relational illness he himself is contributing to, sometimes unknowingly.
What to do? Studies on work welfare are beginning to tell us that the first and essential form of reciprocity invoked by the workers is to be “seen” by their leaders, so they could be more present in the places where the work is done. Then, seeing the work and the worker who works, you would also see all the gifts contained in that work. This type of look is the first reciprocity required by workers, a look of attention that would make the essential dimensions of the work visible. They remain invisible because no one looks at them, or because they are not looked at by the right people to see them and recognize them, or because they are looked at with suspicion and an intention to control them. Of course, even the gazes of our colleagues and our own are important, but they are not enough. In communities, including community work, gazes are not all equal, functions and responsibilities count, and one’s work must be seen especially by those who have responsibility over one’s work. But as it is now revealed by French scholars like Norbert Alter or Anouk Grevin, in modern large organizations the theory and practice of management makes more and more managers unable to see the work because they are “forced” to spend their time in the midst of paperwork and computers, to produce charts, indicators, controls; or to do “institutional” evaluation interviews, in which they have half an hour to consider work that is not seen in the daily routine of the twelve months of the year. You can see the traces of work, the operations, but these sophisticated tools do not allow to you see the whole human-spiritual experience of the worker.
And so you end up not assessing the most important aspects of work; these would need the sense of sight above all. The good life that used to be experienced in the efforts and in contradictions and is still there in many small businesses, also depends on the fact that the entrepreneur is working together with their employees, in their company – and that creates solidarity and a virtuous circle of recognition. The best way to recognize the gift that is in every work is to see and acknowledge work in its everyday ordinariness.
But there's more. Even managers are workers, and they too have a vital need for reciprocity, recognition, and being “seen”. In large anonymous companies, however, where the owners are away, fragmented, sometimes non-existent, there is no one “above” the manager to see his work, to recognize it, to thank them. They are flooded with requests for attention and reciprocity, but they don't have anyone in turn who should be able to recognize their work and thank for it, which then remains un-recognized, and the organization becomes a major producer of ingratitude, thereby becoming increasingly unsustainable (even when they try to compensate for it by high salaries).
So we should learn again to look at work and see it, all the work and the work of all.
But before that, and more radically, we must collectively have the courage to do two things that would be revolutionary.
First, companies must help their workers, all workers, to re-open those existential windows that have been darkened partly through their own contribution in the past decades. In order for workers' lives to flourish they need the light of the whole house, or else the room dedicated to work loses brightness, too. We cannot ask our career and our leaders to satisfy our need for recognition, esteem, love and heaven on their own, because if they attempt it they transform our enterprises into churches without God and worship, like it happens in every case of idolatry. At the same time, if the frustrations and disappointments make us stop asking much (not all) from work, then life, the whole of life may sadden and vanish. We will restore the air and light for work by letting the sun shine into all areas of life.
But you also need a second move that is even more radical, difficult and decisive. There were entire eras when we learnt and knew how to work and manage complex operations in homes and monasteries. The first organizations were the deliveries of babies, the cooperation of women for life, for the management of the end of pregnancy, the work of the hands of women who accompanied the pains of birth. Women, hands, life: these are all ingredients that are just too absent from our organizational culture that is entirely based on the male register and lacks the culture of hands and its typical wisdom. Work culture in complex organizations flourished and matured in the abbeys, by centuries of ora et labora: the spirit in the service of the hands, allied hands of the spirit that, together, fed work. The top managers of large organizations were trained by reading and copying the codes of Cicero and Augustine. We will cure the relationships in our businesses only if we put them in the hands of new, humanistic managers, people who are experts in humanity, capable of listening, of caring, of interiority, of looking after the many travails of organizations. But business schools are exclusively focused on the tools and techniques, although they should be teaching their students poetry, art, philosophy, spirituality, having some classes inside factories, and so training them to look at work, feel its smell and true scent instead of the synthetic one of the conference rooms in hotels.
The market of tomorrow will have a vital need for people who are complete, in and outside companies, who can cultivate and activate the fundamental human dimensions we have called gift, reciprocity and interiority for millennia, and that make life worth living, be it at work or at home.
Further commentaries by Luigino Bruni in Avvenire are available through the Avvenire Editorial