The modern workplace “cults”​

Here’s how this works: I’m Ted Bauer. The other author here is Tim Nash, who has a website here and a LinkedIn profile here. In the below, we discuss a new variation on an old theme: cults, and specifically various cults of workplace “best practices.”

Ted: So it occurs to me that like, for lack of better sentence structure, we have a lot of “cults” in how we approach modern day work. There’s a happiness cult, which may be misguided. (Who told us ever that the point of work was happiness?) There’s a productivity cult, which leads to a lot of KPI-chasing and burns out multiple employees. There are a couple of other cultish mentalities, including around social media, “influence,” “thought leadership,” etc. What have you seen, and what do you think is the most egregious of these?

Tim: Three particular cults have been on my radar of late – Happiness, Productivity and Positive Thinking. On Happiness, I think it’s great that companies are focused on the happiness or well-being of their people (despite their motives). However, it is often misdirected and counterproductive. In “Against Happiness,” The Economist goes so far as to call it an “unacceptable invasion of individual liberty”. Bottom line – it is impossible to measure and unethical to impose…not to mention futile.  “The floggings will continue until morale improves” – a classic joke that sums it up best. Which cult gets you going most?

Ted:  I agree with you about happiness. In short, I think it’s bullsh*t. A lot of the entire “happiness industry” is that way, because I think the concept of happiness is an ill-defined goal. People are better looking towards an idea of “contentment” if anything. But out of these specific workplace cults, I hate the productivity one. Lest people deem me a curmudgeon, which I probably am, I’ll say this: I think productivity is very important at work. In reality, what’s the point aside from people being productive? Unfortunately, though, how we think about work has moved so far towards productivity — in part because we use a 1911 handbook, The Principles of Scientific Management, to underscore how we train managers in 2017 — that no one can see above the water anymore. Managers breathlessly meow and bellow about KPIs, often unclear what those KPIs are themselves. Regular employees are judged on seemingly arbitrary “numbers” that matter to execs they never see, and can be fired — i.e. lose their source of income — over a digit they don’t even understand. I think this productivity cult is a big reason work isn’t working for a lot of people. Now that we’ve tackled productivity and happiness a bit, what would you add on the positive thinking side?

Tim: “You can’t expect people to change their mind-sets the way they change their underwear.” – I love this quote. Telling someone to think positive when they are in a bad place or don’t possess the skills or knowledge to do it, is like telling them to change the color of their skin. The origin of the quote, “The Unexpected Drawbacks To Positive Thinking” (Fast Company) shines a spotlight on this Cult. In addition to “can one become an optimist overnight?”, it raises the questions: “do unrealistic expectations tend to back-fire?” and “does realistic pessimism beat deluded optimism?”. 

As a coach and development consultant, I realize I’m going way against the grain here – take a look at most any high-profile coach and you’ll get the same message – “you can accomplish anything you set your mind to”. The problem I have with this approach is that doesn’t take into account the individual and their unique circumstances (strengths and potential in addition to weaknesses and limitations). I’m all for realizing potential and focusing on the positive, but no matter how many hours of basketball I practiced I was never going to play like Michael Jordon. Sorry, Oprah.

Ted: Ah, the problem of not recognizing individuals as unique creatures. Isn’t this why managers are supposedly terrified of millennials? Because millennials all want unique, individualized feedback or something? As opposed to just dumping info about their performance into some software portal? OH GOD!!!! THEY WANT ORGANIC FEEDBACK!!! NOOOOO!!!! 

I kind of think it’s a bit ironic that, as automation concerns continue to mount more and more, we’ve seemingly responded by ripping most human elements from work — i.e. the idea that people are people with a set of strengths that might benefit the company as a whole — and mostly operated work from a place of generalizations and one-size-fits-all square peg, round hole stuff. Wouldn’t it stand to reason that a more human approach might stave off our robot overlords for another few years?

Tim: Funny you should mention robots. I think the only thing AI won’t be able to replicate and/or do better than humans, is “The Human Touch” – that which is ironically missing most from most transactional boss-report/management-workforce relationships.

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