The furore around the workplace style of the former Deputy Prime Minister and Justice Secretary is both fascinating and scary. Politically it seems terrifying to me that the party of the establishment, in power for 13 years, might use this episode as an excuse to try to politicise Civil Service roles because of a vaguely-defined perceived conspiracy that the reason they keep fucking things up is because of an elite group of shadowy figures pulling all the strings. Occam’s Razor should apply in most cases, and incompetence paired with unimplementable policies is undoubtedly a far more straightforward explanation for what’s going on?
But I think that these ideas of whether workplace styles of management are bullying, or merely what’s necessary to “get the hard stuff done” is something that goes way beyond the soap opera that is Whitehall.
There is a strong trope in business that to be a leader you need to be able to make “the hard decisions”. Hard decisions in this context are things that have the possibility to make people’s lives worse, whether through pay cuts (and a below-inflation pay award is a real-terms cut), redundancies or even issues of life or death. And they’re not really decisions… what the phrase means is you are willing to dump on your fellow humans to give preference to inanimate objects like “the markets” or “the electorate”, whilst being handsomely rewarded for your brutality along the way.
In the last few weeks, we’ve seen the CEO of furniture manufacturer Miller Knoll humiliated when a sub-David Brent motivational video emploring employees to not stay in “pity city” when told of their zero bonus this year was leaked. Some people find this infuriating, others have sympathy for her being the victim of a leak. My conclusion, though, is that it’s just more evidence that the people we put at the top of our institutions are merely flawed humans, and they should be rewarded as such – but not having the multiples of average wages that having been lucky and Machiavellian enough to make it to the top currently commands.
All of this for me now reflects the lack of humanity that seems to be so prevalent in so many of our public and private institutions. That being inhumane, inconsiderate of others, tough, bullying and verging on disturbed is what you need to be to be made of the right stuff. Unfortunately, because most of us aren’t psychopaths, psychopaths (and those acting with psychopathic tendencies) are able to traverse our processes for reward and recognition surprisingly easily.
It doesn’t have to be like this. We can be both nice to our fellow humans and be successful leaders. You don’t have to shit on people to be a good business person.