Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Meet the new boss

The subject of this post has been percolating in the back of my head for a while—it relates to a workshop we had last spring, about managing difficult employees. I was invited to go in my role as department chair, though the people I "manage" are my three colleagues in economics, and the secretary who assists the academic departments in our building, and none of those people is the least bit difficult to deal with. So in a sense I was there as an amateur anthropologist, observing the customs of some foreign tribe.

In general, it was an interesting and valuable workshop, even for someone in my position of having no difficult management issues on the horizon. The emphasis was on responding to workplace problems by listening, finding out if there's some underlying issue, and looking for win-win solutions. I can get behind all that.

But the facilitator had an example late in the day that, uncharacteristically, got under my skin, and I found myself getting a little bit indignantly testy at her. She had a scenario where the employee wants, say, a 4% raise. Her advice was to ask if there might be something else you could provide to the employee, something that would leave them satisfied, but something that wasn't money—or at least, not a 4% raise. In other words, a win-win solution.

And it just crossed a line for me.

Of course context is crucial. If there are 2% raises across the organization and I'm the employee, the burden of proof is obviously on me to make the case that I'm worth 4%. And note that I'm probably not going to get very far explaining why the money is important to me; I have to explain why it's in the organization's best interest to pay me more.

What if my manager is giving himself 4% and asking me to take just 2%? It's possible that his performance has improved more than mine, and he's earned it. It's possible that he's doing the raises that way because he can. That second case would be bad for morale, but sometimes that's how life is. If it really bothers me, I can try to find a job elsewhere. Or I could resolve to do what I have to do in order to become management myself. (Though if everyone followed that advice, we'd have an army of colonels with no foot-soldiers.)

I objected to the example, and the facilitator pressed her point: "If I say 4% and you say 2%, and we end up compromising on 3%, that's just 3%." Sure, which is one percentage point more than 2%. If you think that one percentage point is so unimportant, how about we agree that the next percentage point is equally unimportant, and you just give me the 4% I asked for?

I assume her point was that we could potentially find a win-win. Maybe if the options were 4% and continuation of current job structure vs. 2% and some meaningful increase in my flexibility, I would choose the lower pay and increased flexibility. Great. But did the organization ask the manager to consider what he might accept in lieu of 4%? If not, why not? Is this process of finding non-monetary compensation only applicable for people further down the pay scale? It's not on the same scale as raiding workers' pension funds, perhaps under the justification of tight economic times or in order to "save the company," while giving bonuses to executives who are managing the firm into bankruptcy (Hostess, I'm looking at you), but it is very much in the same spirit.

If the manager were to give himself a 4% raise and then try to manage me into being happy with something less than that for myself, that wouldn't just be about morale. I would lose a lot of respect for him. If my manager and I are going to have a conversation about what it is that I really want and what the organization can meaningfully do for me short of money, then we need to have the same conversation about the manager. After all, his salary is presumably higher than mine, so 4% to him costs the organization more than 4% to me. If the goal is to preserve the organization's financial means for important ends, then it would make sense to start with him rather than me to see if there isn't some way we can make him happy with only 2%.

If the conversation is all about me and about how I can be happy with less money, then that's just patronizing. "You may think you want increased money, but you actually want something else instead." No, actually, I'd love to have increased money and increased flexibility (or whatever "other" compensation we're talking about). I'm not stupid, so I realize that such an outcome may not be feasible, but don't presume that I don't know what's best for me. Don't try to jolly me out of a raise that you yourself are getting.

Years ago, maybe in my first year at Hartwick, I came across a news story about an airline going through bankruptcy. The unions for the pilots, flight attendants, and ground crews were being told they needed to accept cuts to salary and benefits, or else the company would fold and they'd lose their jobs. Meanwhile, the executives were getting bonuses.

I mentioned the story in class that day. To my astonishment, many students thought it was perfectly natural. After all, the executives need strong incentives to do their jobs well and save the company. After I picked my jaw up off the floor, I asked if it mattered whether the pilots, flight attendants, and ground crews did their jobs well. The students agreed that it did matter. So I asked whether they might not need the same sort of incentives as the executives. Well, nothe employees need to take their cuts for the good of the company; the executives need their bonuses as an incentive to do their jobs well.

The Czech economist Ilona Švihlíková makes a similar point in her book Globalizace a krize [Globalization and crises]:
Especially in relation to explanations of the current crisis, we need to notice the emphasis that the IMF places on sacrifice and suffering in the concept of neoliberalism that it advances. Both are understood as some kind of higher virtue, the necessary price of future economic growth (which, of course, often fails to show up at all). Of course it’s intreresting that suffering is only a virtue for those lower orders, while oligarchs or speculators can’t be allowed to suffer—quite the opposite, they must receive compensation for their poor economic decisions. (p. 26)
How is this not the ethos of the ancien régime, where a key privilege of being a nobleman was that you didn't have to pay taxes, while the ordinary people did? How is this different from the feudal age, where the "nation" consisted of the aristocracy, and there were different rules for the lords and the commoners, to the extent there were rules for the commoners at all?

There are political philosophers who trace our ills to the Enlightenment. They see Stalin and Hitler as natural consequences of Voltaire and Diderot. But they needn't worry—enough people in our society have already internalized the pre-Enlightenment idea that there are superiors and there are inferiors, and that these are different kinds of people.

And we're being trained how to "manage" our inferiors into accepting the new dispensation, which is the same as the old dispensation.

1 comment:

  1. "And we're being trained how to "manage" our inferiors into accepting the new dispensation, which is the same as the old dispensation." <------ THIS. I could not agree more.