Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Corporate culture of compliance and conformity stifles democracy, innovation and human development

Along with many others, I have been sensing a dramatic shift in North American culture, from one dedicated to inclusion at the grass roots level, openness to new ideas regardless of their source, a kind of tolerance of generalists and the views of ordinary people, to one committed to the pursuit and retention of power by those currently holding it.
The word that crystalized these perceptions for me came from a corporate manager of a large Canadian corporation, a very highly profitable one. And the word that described his organization's operation from the inside, is "verticalized". His corporation has been verticalized, meaning that only those who have been vetted are permitted to hire anyone to work with the corporation. And there are approximately several hundred of people, a kind of inner sanctum 'think tank" whose job it is to vet and then to hire "experts" suitable for entry into the corporate culture.
The corporation deploys several levels of managers to supervise those "below" in the organization chart, all of them dedicated to the fulfilment of corporate values, a statement that reads not unlike the values statement of the Department of National Defence. Those managers are then shaped, through conversations, worrkshops, seminars and newsletters, not to mention all of the latest cyber technology, to enhance their performance by implementing various skills, most of them dug from the books of "gurus" in leadership, time management, conflict resolution, relationship building, or whatever the corporate leadership thinks and believes will enhance the profit margins, as well as the individual well-being of the workers.
There is no union in this corporation, if there ever was one. There is no employee association representing workers, in the design of how the corporation operates. Managers at the same level frequently communicate with each other through the latest technology, in order to ascertain the degree to which they are implementing the latest "leadership" advice, from the last book for which budgets were provided so that they can purchase, read and digest, and then implement the prescriptions that have been selected by someone "up top"....
Since the corporation is in the service business, in the financial sector, the building of relationships and their healthy sustainability is among the prime goals of the organization. Friendly, is the most basic moniker to use to describe the goals of the current upper administration.
Affable, approachable, available, punctual, congenial, and fully engaged in one's own health and wellbeing are clearly among the operative adjectives. Whether or not there is yet a measuring instrument to determine the level of achievement reached by corporate managers on each of these words, I do not know.
However, what strikes me as quite troubling is the notion that human traits are analogous to mathematical or spelling and grammar rules, primarily cognitive in nature, and both conveyed and implemented through a process of classical conditioning. And that a "vertical" organization is the most effective instrument to achieve this goal. Of course, the universe the corporation operates in is, from their perspective, an "extrinsic universe" in which all operations are measureable, right down to the cost per minute of each worker's labour, and the profit generated by that minute, and the relationship of those two figures will determine the viability of that position and the person filling that position. Another way to characterize the universe in which the corporation operates is to say it is exclusively "transactional"....meaning that it performs a service for its clients, who in turn pay a fee to acquire and use that service. So long as the clients continue to demand and pay for the service, and so long as the corporation continues to provide that service while making a substantial profit, both in terms of cash flow and also in investor dividends, the stock of the corporation will continue to climb in value on the various indices, and investors will continue to purchase shares in that corporation.
And since there are others competing for the same clients and the same dollars, by providing similar services, these is considerable data, undoubtedly now "big data" available to characterize the nature of the typical client for that corporation, and the culture in which that typical client wishes or prefers to do business, in that market sector.
Notions of honesty, trust, integrity and credibility, of course, are so removed from the various encounters between clients and workers in the corporation that every transaction has both a digital and a paper trail, so that every move is traceable not only to the specific office of the corporation but also to the specific worker who performed the transaction and the very precise second, hour and day in which it was performed. Occasionally, there are likely to be a few "keying" errors, merely resulting from a loss of concentration or an unscheduled interruption or a slip of a finger onto the wrong key on a keypad, all of which are likely noted within seconds of their commission or omission, and corrected very quickly, eliminating more room for error from the inordinate level of control of the operating variables in any transaction.
Consequently the exchange between client and worker, at all levels, is reduced to a kind of predictable script, based on the rules of the corporation and the procedures it has established to conduct the transaction requested by the client. Ironically, remember the word that is used to best describe the public presentation of the culture the corporation seeks to incarnate: friendly.
Programmed answers to predictable questions from clients, offered in the most "spirited" and
"friendly" manner, including voice projection, smiling face, attentive attitude, even the occasional but "trimmed" compliment on a piece of wardrobe if it seems appropriate, do not, in fact cannot make the encounter "personal" and authentic, both of which adjectives, we speculate, the CEO of this corporation any many others of similar size and scope, would die to have used by objective evaluators of the relationship between the clients of this corporation, especially when compared with the words used to describe the "transactions" or the "exchanges" or the "encounters" between clients and workers in competitive corporations, in the same sector.
The corporate agenda is attempting to blend into what one might call a neighbourly agenda, the kind of conversation one might have over the back fence with a neighbour, after spending years living  beside and getting to know that neighbour, and being able intuit the kinds of things that will make the neighbour smile, frown, engage in retort or repartee, or turn him off completely. And the attempt, no matter how herculean the efforts to achieve that model is doomed to failure. Whatever occurs will be a meagre and shallow imitation of the kind of conversation that occurs between two people who have become friends. And any representation of that conversation as more than a pale imitation of friendship will be little more than an analogy of the exchange of tweets between strangers, commenting on the same headline, sports score or weather event.
Extended length, the trained skill of active listening, the enjoyment of exploration of mutual interests, the stories that both excite and dismay the parties from their lives...all of these aspects of friendship are missing. And any attempt to integrate them into the "business" of the corporation will be resisted by those responsible for the accounting side of the enterprise.
In our casual analysis too, we must add that corporations will inevitably spend more time with those whose resources make them the "better" and the "best" customers, and less time with those with fewer resources, and these resources are measured by dollars spent, invested and earned.
So, the way the system operates is based on a replication of the pyramidal structure of organizations formed in the 18th and 19th centuries, fell off considerably following the Second War, when peace and plenty replaced war and scarcity, and people were more open to the contribution that could and did come from ordinary people, not only from those vested with power and status.
Power and status, these are the weapons of political "hard power" and they are being deployed by those in executive positions without having the caution of critical examination from worker unions or worker associations, and those who deploy them most vigorously and most transparently are too often considered "fit for advancement" because they have the balls and the spine and the temperament both to withstand the pressures from the top of the organization that is engaged in a process analogous to social engineering, and the pressures from dealing with the public clients. They will have demonstrated their compliance with both corporate rules and regulations, with corporate philosophy and culture, and their "fit" among their peers, never disturbing the smooth flowing river of the corporate culture by rebelling, or by calling out a colleague or a policy that merits serious public criticism....and the way in which the corporation will talk about a person is "we are grooming him or her for more responsibility" and "s/he will be one of our leaders of tomorrow."
Military hierarchies, like military hardware, are not amenable to adjustment, compromise, or serious public debate, because the corporation believes it cannot afford the embarrassment of public criticism, even within its own board rooms.
We can look in almost any direction to find these neurotic corporate structures, including a very heavy hand from the CEO, a silencing of the "troops" below into such full compliance that they become almost redundant to the decision-making of the corporation, a very thinly sketched roadmap for the short-term future of the corporation, just long enough for the executives to secure a large exiting parachute of stock options, shares and percs, from their "tour of duty" and the consequences are already plaguing our state democracies, our schools, our institutions and our futures and the futures of our children and grandchildren.
We have built row up row of corporate "vaticans" each with their own pope, their own College of  Cardinals, their own "Congregation of the Faith" (implementing compliance among the organization, through  both carrots and sticks, in the refinement of the worst of classical conditioning) and we are rendering mute the imaginations of our best and our brightest who know that, in order to make a living, especially a substantial income, they will have to leave their enthusiasm, their imaginations, their rebellious and contentious challenging of authority that lies at the heart of all improvements and progress in all of history, at the front doors of the rest of their lives, unless they can and do find an occasional corporate culture that thrives on friendly innovation, authentic conversation and human encounters.
We just read today of psychiatrists learning from their patients, a dynamic entirely appropriate and applicable to many other professions. Unfortunately, too few professions are engaged in seeking the extensive views of their patients/clients.
We know that leaders who inspire too often run afoul of the corporate "suits" because they do not colour inside the lines and do not uphold the corporate "buttondownedness" of their perception of the politically correct way to operate. One recent example is the short-term of Tim  Liewicke at Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, falling on the swords of the executives from Bell and Rogers, models and archetypes of the "suit" mentality that plagues the corporate world.
A personal anecdote: I was interviewing for a position with a consulting firm which was using personnel assessment testing instruments from Waco Texas, as their key to assisting organizations in their hiring processes. I was specifically told, when requested to take the test, that the results would have no bearing on the decision to hire. Naively, I answered the questions honestly and openly, in a spirit that I hoped would prevail in the small group of people already on board. Following the second interview, before some dozen employees, the head of the organization had two observations:
First, "Whenever you are asked a question, you answer with a story and not a list! We want people who think in lists, not people who tell stories."
Second, "Your test scores indicate that you would be a very difficult person for me to supervise, because you seem to question authority too much. We wish you well in your future endeavours.
It is not incidental that this group is responsible for the hiring of several federal government departments, where compliance with authority is mandatory, and where innovation and imagination are feared.
It is also relevant to observe that our education establishment depends far to heavily on political correctness and compliance with the edicts of those in power, if one is going to succeed in the organization. And this level of compliance, of course, is extended to the various levels of students, all of them seeking opportunities to "try their wings" both in experiments of a formal nature and in those of a less formal nature. Clipping wings can hardly be defined as an honourable purpose of the education enterprise. Enforcing compliance on all workers, in the spirit that the "top" knows best what the corporation needs, too, is 'no way to run a railroad' or any other form of human enterprise.
We have surrendered the human side of the enterprise to the power and authority of the many popes, generals, commanders and autocrats who have wormed their way up the corporate ladders in too many organizations and we will pay a price far too high for the surrender, not only in the immediate future, but for decades, if not centuries.
And our democracies will atrophy, along with our capacity to innovate, to experiment and to distribute power through circles throughout the organizations. And we will look in the mirror one day and say, "We have done this to ourselves and to our society and we have no one to blame but ourselves and our ostrich-like avoidance and denial, while those most ambitious and most determined have wrested the levers of power out of the hands of ordinary people, in spite of the charade of the voting booth.
We are suffering not only from an income disparity, leaving the 99% literally in the "dust" of the 1%; we are also suffering from a power disparity, leaving all workers quite literally and tragically at the mercy of their overlord employers who prefer infantilized and dependable robots as workers to questioning and even debating human beings.
 

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