Oct 5, 2011

Forbes: Happiest vs. Most Hated Jobs: Is Bureaucracy a Bad Thing?

Teach an Ethics class, and ask students early on what they consider to be major goods in their present or anticipated future life — what will make them happy, what they deeply desire and value —and in addition to family and friends, money, and occasionally education, they will often tell you: career, work, the job for which they are training.  And yet, what makes for the likelihood that one’s profession will realistically render one happy? Jobs are incredibly diverse, and in our present environment, culture, and economy, subject to change.

Steve Denning, author of The Leader’s Guide to Radical Management, recently published and discussed lists — emerging from a recent surveys by CarreerBliss and the National Oganization for Research — of the Ten Happiest Jobs and the Ten Most Hated Jobs, pointing out important features common in each list.  First, the jobs perceived as worst:

Starting At The Bottom

First, the jobs perceived as worst:
For all the talk about teachers and nurses and the long hours, low pay and thankless tasks that they put up with, it may be surprising that they didn’t even make the list of the ten worst jobs.
What’s also striking is that these jobs are not low level jobs. The pain is psychological. We are in the world of Dilbert. It’s  the pointlessness and lack of meaning in what they doing that is the problem. These people know that they are capable of contributing more but the hierarchical bureaucracy prevents from doing it.
In Denning’s view — and on this, I think he’s dead-on — the most fundamental issue is not remuneration, nor physically demanding work conditions, nor lack of resources and support while fulfilling socially necessary work, but a lack of meaningfulness, possibility for growth, initiative, making decisions, finding solutions.

It’s not that low pay, long hours, grueling worksites, or lack of support don’t matter — they do.  But one can find meaning — not just static meaning but dynamic meaning — in fairly poorly compensated professions where one is expected to do something traditionally recognized as valuable with inadequate resources.  Teachers, Clergy, Artists and Authors — who one might expect to rank lower — are actually in the top ten.

What Makes For Better Jobs?

Denning cites a relevant passage from Todd May’s blog post The Meaningfulness of Lives:
A meaningful life must, in some sense then, feel worthwhile.  The person living the life must be engaged by it.  A life of commitment to causes that are generally defined as worthy — like feeding and clothing the poor or ministering to the ill — but that do not move the person participating in them will lack meaningfulness in this sense. However, for a life to be meaningful, it must also be worthwhile. Engagement in a life of tiddlywinks does not rise to the level of a meaningful life, no matter how gripped one might be by the game.
Denning’s own sum-up?
This is what underlies the difference between the happiest jobs and the most hated jobs. One set of jobs feels worthwhile, while in the other jobs, people can’t see the point.
He proposes a solution, and not surprisingly, it echoes talking points from his book, his approach.  No problem with that in my view — we look at things from a Virtue Ethics perspective here, which inevitably colors our picture, even lends us the language by which we make sense of the matters blogged about here.  He looks at and writes about these matters from a management- and innovation-focused perspective.  The key issue is what light, what useful illumination, what accurate insight gets provided.

Why, in Denning’s view, can’t people who are actually for the most part making good money, who have management or technically skilled positions — which you think would earn them some respect and provide them engaging problems to work upon — why aren’t they happy?  Why do they report being the most unhappy?

Management As The Key Factor

It’s an issue of an outdated, once useful, but now stifling style of management, quite literally from the top on down.
Are the people who lead these 20th Century bureaucracies incompetent? When it comes to C-suite teams who don’t perceive that the world has changed and who try to cope with the new demands of the marketplace by pressing the bureaucracy to run harder, the answer is yes… . And through their incompetence, pursuing bureaucratic management instead of radical management, these leaders are causing massive damage to the economy on a daily basis and to the lives of people who depend on them… . The sooner these leaders can acquire the requisite competence in radical management or be replaced by people who have it, the better. (The fact that these corporate leaders reward themselves so lavishly—despite their incompetence—is another bitter irony in this sad saga.)
I see the middle managers and first-line supervisors rather differently. These are people “imprisoned in hierarchical bureaucracies”. They are in a squeeze between the real requirements of the work and the inappropriate organizational arrangements to achieve those requirements… .These people are not for the most part incompetent. They are simply caught in an impossible situation which they usually lack the power to change.
The grounds on which Denning criticizes bureaucratic structuring, work environment, values, and management style — and contrasts it with his model of “radical management” (which like many purportedly “radical” things that have their goods sides turn out, at least in many of their components and their perspective, to reinvent what has been for the most part overlooked and lost) — are basically grounds of effectiveness.  A new business environment has developed, in which bureaucratically structured and run organizations are increasingly ill-equipped, even to identify their own causes for failure.  It requires a new approach.

What particularly requires this new approach is a change on the side of the consumer, the buyer, who desires along with, or as a constituent part of his or her purchase, to have a good experience of some sort, to be “delighted” by the company providing him or her with goods and services. In order to make this happen, consistently, a more fluid, flexible style of management is required.  There’s a whole system to this, as it turns out, with five interconnected principles, of which delighting the customer is one.  Without going into details of Denning’s radical management concept system, suffice it to say that it requires teams of workers allowed much greater initiative, communication as conversation across organizations and stakeholders, and casts managers in an enabling rather than controlling and enforcing position.

In Conclusion

Back to the best and worst jobs now, and then on to implications for and from Virtue Ethics.  If job satisfaction depends in part on perception of meaningfulness, what will allow this meaningfulness, what is cut off at the knees — and every other joint — within a bureaucratic organization, is the capacity to exercise some initiative, some scope of autonomy, to have a say in what counts as accomplishing the tasks well, to engage with the “clients,” the “customers” — all features of the radical management business model, as well as of pre- and other non-bureaucratic organizations and workplaces.

In order to develop virtues, human beings need to develop habits of doing the right things, feeling the right ways, making use of goods properly, assessing situations correctly.  To some degree, this can be accomplished by requiring them to act in certain manners — to some degree, for there are several other things required in order for genuine virtue to be fully cultivated.

A person has to have some degree of choice. On the path to becoming virtuous, it is enough at the start to do the right things because one is compelled, to receive a reward in compensation, to gain approval and praise, but this does not suffice for long.  At some point, a shift has to take place, a shift partly in object and partly in ownership.  The person has to come to recognize, to will, then to desire the good for its own sake, virtuous action and character for the sake of the goodnesses of virtue. The person also has to take on responsibility, to make this good of becoming virtuous no longer someone else’s but their own

Bureaucratic organization interferes with development of and enquiry into virtue, substituting prescriptive standardized procedures and performance measures, setting buzzword facsimiles which earn no lasting employee loyalty in place of actual virtues.  There is no or not enough opening for the development of, for conversations about, the moral virtues — and even more for phronesis, practical wisdom, which can only be exercised in clandestine, subversive manners in middle and low level positions

Delighting the customer consistently, as well as the other key components of Denning’s radical management approach, not only afford space where virtue and practical wisdom might again be cultivated in the workplace — so important in the meaningfulness of lives, the significance of work.  Even more, however, they will require the virtues and practical wisdom. And there, I think, nothing short of actually studying and practicing a real, explicit, coherent Virtue Ethics approach is going to do.

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