Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Blaming the Boss.

Labour unrest is as much about relationships as it is about pay and working conditions.

When someone behaves badly one of the first questions asked is whether he or she comes from a dysfunctional family, or was abused or beaten as a child. It sparks the seemingly endless debate about nature or nurture and psychologists and criminal apologists are quick to portion a large part of the blame on parenting.

It’s an exasperating debate for living ancestors like me. You have this constant and vague threat that you are somehow accountable if your child or grandchild does something unspeakable or becomes a serial killer.

There is a link, albeit a rather obscure one, between this and the blame game around the worker conflict we have been experiencing. Blaming bosses is of course, the obvious one, and it’s a mood that will continue for a long time after the Lonmin miner’s return to work. The bosses, on the other hand will claim innocence under the veil of “market conditions”, “affordability”, “union rivalry” and many more.

What is ignored and totally understated is that employee discontent is as much about a relationship between boss and worker, as it is about pay disputes and working conditions. That relationship is one of power and while this may sound patronising and paternalistic, there is a valid link to parenting in understanding that relationship and the norms that validate it. Parenting is, after all, the first experience of power we go through.

One submits voluntarily to power on a simple condition: that one believes the person wielding it has one’s interest at heart. There are very few instances other than the workplace where one experiences power more frequently and to a greater extent. Like the parent to the offspring, the elements that legitimise that relationship are the care and development of the subordinate. Legitimacy depends on much more than an employment contract.

To unpack these criteria you simply have to ask yourself what you expect of a boss as opposed to what you expect of “the company”. Your expectations will most likely cover “having a sympathetic ear”; “understanding my circumstances”, “demonstrating care”; and “honesty”, “fairness”, “opportunities to develop”, etc. They fall into two broad categories of “care and growth”. Power is not a “soft” quality. It is never earned by being a “pal” or sanctioning mediocrity.

Another important finding is that rarely will “pay me more” feature in that relationship. It is as if it is vaguely accepted that pay is not within its ambit, and is subject to outside forces. It is only when those forces and their legitimacy are not fully transparent and understood that it becomes a trust and worker contentment issue.

These perspectives are not only my own. They were developed from an extensive research project by my brother Etsko Schuitema in the mining industry in the tumultuous 1980’s and further developed by our own consultancy. They have been known for a very long time and one of the most important perspectives discovered at the time was that trust and the legitimacy of power in the workplace were mostly forged by the relationship between the subordinate and the immediate boss.

Yet, it is this relationship that is often neglected, disrupted, interfered with and neutered. It has been a costly neglect and an important missing element in containing employee frustrations and labour unrest. Regaining legitimate power in the workplace is a huge task. Despite all the useful aids of modern organisational theory, adversarial lines are still firmly entrenched in out-dated ideological paradigms, overwhelming pay/profit obsession and vested interest power structures.

A promising opportunity lies in information sharing and employee reporting – a task that should be the remit of first line leadership. We are witnessing how volatile false expectations can be. But it is also fragile as a power base as the National Union of Mineworkers has discovered. The only legitimate information source is the company itself, but then it has to be transparent, credible, regular, understandable and developmental.

Part of the problem is a lack of leadership qualities in supervisors themselves – qualities that very seldom constitute an important criterion for appointments. The absence of empowering leadership and then holding them specifically accountable for the care and growth of subordinates is also an important oversight. Empowerment and accountability can to some extent compensate for a lack of inherent leadership talent.

More important factors that frustrate sound leadership in the workplace are external.

A power vacuum such as that experienced at Lonmin’s Marikana mine has been created by the false assumption that the care of workers is the job of the Union and the shop steward, and the supervisor’s job is to extract production and effort. You simply cannot divide power in this way. There is also no need to.

Equally dangerous is to hand the care and growth of employees over to another surrogate in the form of a “human resource department”. This again divides power in the same way as assigning them over to a shop-steward does. Contract labour likewise introduces a surrogate in the form of the contract principal and divides the power earning care and growth functions from the control or command functions. Contract labour itself tends to inhibit the longer term development of employees.

Many of my routine detractors will fume at the idea that the care and development of employees are remotely the responsibilities of business. They assume that company responsibility towards employees ends with meeting labour law prescriptions, creating acceptable working conditions and a pay cheque. This is a commodity expression of labour and one feature of the way business has been dehumanised. The understanding and structure of companies on the principle that capital is some kind of Pied Piper whose flute attracts labour and customers as it merrily prances along the path of self-enrichment simply has no place for such human frills.

Yet modern pragmatic business understands that it makes sense because conflict threatens profits, increases risk and increases the cost of capital. It’s an expedient view lacking authenticity and, as all counterfeit things are, will be exposed in the end: especially when the raw self-interest tune of the Piper rings hollow with his followers.

It is of course, a tune far better played by a Piper that is the customer. That’s a melody that creates harmony in a common purpose.

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