unexpected phone call

An unexpected telephone call

In Washington, exactly one hundred years ago, a committee of Congress was convened to consider the then relatively new practice of ‘scientific management’. After hearing from dozens of witnesses representing employers, scientists and labour organisations, the committee came to the conclusion scientific management was ‘un-American and dehumanising’.

It relied, they said, on the unfair assumption that workers held less goodwill towards an enterprise than its owners and managers. It implied that workers could not, indeed must not, be trusted to work at a rate natural to them – they should be watched, measured and pressed.

‘No tyrant or slave driver’, they quoted, ‘in the ecstasy of his most delirious dream ever sought to place upon abject slaves a condition more repugnant’. Those assumptions, they concluded, were offensively undemocratic and had no place in American working life.

That was then. This is now, or, more exactly, yesterday. The phone rang. I found myself speaking to a nice chap who said that he was from the office of Tax and Customs, or whatever the Inland Revenue calls itself now. After a brief exchange of pleasant chat, my new friend asked if I would mind answering a few questions about what I thought of the Department of Tax Affairs, or whatever. Who could refuse! Go ahead, I said, flattered to learn that my opinions were of interest to so august a department of state. ‘But before I do’, he went on, ‘I am obliged to inform you that this call is being monitored for quality control and security purposes’. Monitored? I asked him why. It was, he explained, to make sure that he asked all the questions correctly. Did he not have them written down? He did. Was it a big deal if he missed one out? He thought that perhaps it was.

Of course, I have been told this before, and I am sure you have too. It is one of the familiar tropes of C21st telephony, along with ‘your call is important to us’ and ‘all our lines are exceptionally busy at the moment’. I told him that I resented such monitoring, not on my own account, but on his. Was he so delinquent, or so badly trained, or illiterate that he could not be trusted to do his job? Were his managers so responsible, so capable, so well-versed that they could be trusted never to get it wrong? Why was it always assumed, I continued, that the managerial class are naturally engaged, committed, competent but that ‘our people’ are not – so that the HR industry is perpetually agitating itself about the best way to engage them? ‘I don’t know’, he replied, but I’m sure it is very interesting, do you mind if I ask you the questions now?’

When I Google the phrase ‘engage staff’ the first thing I find is this: ‘Engaged staff deliver better for you. People will want to work for you, they will buy into what you stand for’. Followed by equally familiar, innocuous, routine suggestions about listening to your people, recognising their achievements and being open to their ideas. These sentences and a million like them shape and legitimate the tyranny that is panoptical, infantilising instrumentalism.

The small harm that is a call-centre rule broken or a moment of discourtesy is nothing when set against the gross social evils that are institutionalised distrust, casual surveillance and small-minded managerialism.

Those Congressional hearings identified the point at which the value of science in finding organisational efficiencies becomes cover for an extension of unwarranted management control. Technologies of surveillance, from Taylor’s stop-watch to Narus Insight, tempt managers to think that they can replace human capability, goodwill and energy with regimes of microscopic analysis and control – the exact opposite of leadership.

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For a contemporary account of the arguments rehearsed in Congress, see Whiting Williams, (1923) A Theory of Industrial Conduct and Leadership, Harvard Business Review.