People are objectified in terms of the job they perform, and they are diminished and misrepresented by that. Within organizations there is an assumption that the job category occupied by an individual is a representation of that person’s character and personality, and individuals are treated differently according to their place on the organization chart. There is an assumption that individuals choose a job as a way of expressing personal identity. However, people do not base personal identity on being fitted into a box such as a job category or organization. Instead, we construct a sense of identity with the whole range of Plato’s “three-part soul” (from the Republic): appetites that inspire us, impulses to make a distinctive mark on the world, and innocent curiosities. Of course we should add considerations such as loving attachments also. Happiness is related to the flow and fate of these and other personal creative impulses. An individual’s participation with an organization may have connections with some of these but will not completely engage any of them. That is how an individual’s “fit” with his or her job is a kind of being squeezed into a box which is too small.
People cannot be happy if they have to become smaller than they really are to “perform” jobs, and they always do. There are the fragile egos of supervisors to contend with and often those persons do not like to see the people they supervise as anything but smaller than themselves. The pretense required is profound and generally pushed to a level of semi-consciousness because it is just the way the world is.
Incumbents of higher office like to understand themselves as part of a meritocracy instead of, say, a ‘greed-ocracy’, an ‘ego-ocracy’, or a ‘bully-ocracy’. Everyone must collude in the myth that the supervisory system is a meritocracy. The result is that workers must act toward those incumbents as if their merit were greater in some general unspecified way. Every worker must be careful not to give holders of higher power anything that might give offense which could be a motive for retribution or disfavour. The higher you go on the organization chart the more calculated is everything presented to you. That might make day to day life pleasant for higher levels but is a stress for everyone else and can result in disaster.
Everything management communicates is calculated to uphold the meritocracy myth and present supervisors as “on the ball”, decisive, and smart. Much is hidden so employees do not have opportunity to assess and find fault with decisions and practices. People are unhappy at work because of false inequalities which are normalized there, indignities of hierarchical inequality. There are special indignities of inequality for women and visible minorities. Whole categories of people have the experience of being diminished by the culture of their employment, and by the general culture of objective market-values. In addition there are distortions of world-view imposed by corporate culture.
Below grand narratives of general contentment, there are complaints and dissatisfactions. There are ways in which working a job is similar to being on the rack: compulsion, insult, indignity, fatigue, sweat, and tedious repetition. People make the best they can of these conditions because they need money to survive. Even Stoics admitted that it is not possible to be happy on the rack. The counter-examples, martyrs and saints, fit a religious-style appeal to higher inspirational powers. Nobody could defend the claim that the only employees who perform well are those who accept their employer organization as a quasi-divine inspirational power. Yet within organizations there is a culture of denial that doing a job is often intrinsically repulsive. That is a reality distorting force.
It is still possible to have episodes of fun at work. Unpleasant aspects can be “bracketed” psychologically and so placed at some emotional distance from the present moment, much as people normally know that there is a great deal of misery in the world but insulate that knowledge from day to day routine and so avoid being crushed emotionally by grief in the world at large. Everyone needs a lot of this every day. Indeed there are always positives to employment that are good reasons to be happy: evading the great indignities of unemployment and poverty, and having access to things bought with earned money.
If bracketing off negative experience becomes important in an organization’s culture, then that culture has much in common with a collective delusion in which people agree to support one another in focusing on a strictly edited misrepresentation of reality. The whole culture of organizational hierarchy says, “Be very careful what you do or say, because it is not safe to be spontaneous!” That must be quite common, since the challenge of “speaking truth to power” is proverbial. Power is a feature of organizational hierarchy.
The organization of work is an oddly private domain, like an authoritarian family. “A man’s home is his castle” is still interpreted to mean that ‘the boss’ can do what he chooses to do within his organizational domain, and no one may question it. All values are trivialized by the overriding value of stardom itself in that star-system hierarchy.
It is remarkable how little difference has been made in employment organizations, in the organization of production, by scientific research in social sciences and psychology. It has made work more mechanical and formulaic.
These are remarkable realities which co-exist with the now ever-decreasing benefit-packages, pension plans, and decent pay-scales provided with the best modern employment. These abusive and injurious realities form a pattern of corporate value-culture undermining each individual’s interpretation of his or her own experience.
Copyright © 2011 Sandy MacDonald. The moral right of the author is asserted.