Dead zones or killing fields?

It’s been apparent for a while now that the structure of many organisations is one of the causes of the disfunctionality and toxicity that seems to characterise the workplace today.

These structures are essentially the same as the ones created during the industrial revolution, designed to meet the needs of the machine age. It doesn’t take much thought to see that we are in a very different world today and conclude that perhaps these structure no longer meet the needs.

It’s easy to identify things like technology and globalisation as areas that have transformed and put strain upon these structures but I had not recognised there is a social and psychological issue that is perhaps the biggest of the lot.

These organisations are essentially layered bureaucracies that are intended to drive performance and one of the ways that they do this by neutralising or removing emotions from the workplace. When organisations made things, this was not so much of a problem. People on the production line are not emotionally engaged with what they are doing, they are really just cogs, doing automated and repetitive processes.

This model was continued as they moved away from the factory floor to the office, the production line being replaced with paper flows and processes, and then by computers. Essentially, people were expected to turn up and do what the process demanded, move the form from their in-tray to their out-tray and, later, from one work stream on their screen to another.

Today, however, this is not enough. Companies need and demand more from their employees. Knowledge work is intrinsically more engaging but also more demanding. Companies also want employees to bring their creativity and their emotions to the workplace, to build relationships, collaborate and connect, to innovate and to engage fully. To bring the essence of their humanity to the job. 

We have moved from physical labour to emotional labour.

However, the organisation’s structure is itself hostile to the very qualities that are now demanded, hostile to emotions that they require. 

It’s actually worse than that, though. If someone gets really engaged in their work and brings their best self to it, they cannot but help to bring their emotions to the workplace too. The very act of doing that, however, puts them at danger because the organisation will try to suppress those emotions or even to attack and reject them. There are ‘organisational antibodies’ that will respond to the emotion by massing together to kill it off, just like your body rejects germs and external organisms.

This puts the organisation in a permanent bind. It desires outcomes that require the presence of the very thing it is designed to prevent – emotion. There’s no creativity without emotion. Yet our organisations are set up to be ‘dead zones’, emotionless machines that grind on without feeling.

By asking people to be creative without changing their structure to one that not only accommodates emotions but celebrates them, organisations are actually inviting them to put their hand in the machinery. And then they get surprised when people get hurt.

This is what causes the levels of burn-out that we see and why they are increasing. This is what drives the high levels of disengagement and the slump in productivity.

Maybe they’re not dead zones. Perhaps they’re killing fields instead.

It’s time we broke down the bureaucracies and built workplaces around the people once again.

Photo by Parsing Eye on Unsplash

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