Thursday, July 30, 2009

Managers and Their Tools

Part 4 of Prisoners of the Real

The implements used by humans once made the objects of our world more manageable. Tools increased the capacity of The Creative (see Part 1) to push and pull, squeeze and twist, grasp, cut, tear and gouge. In the early stages, natural objects were used to apply force: the stone became a hammer, the stick served as a lever. But beginning with the screw-cutting lathe in the 18th century, the building of machinery produced new types of tools, and soon required a new type of human being to assemble and adjust the machines.

Standardization of fastening devices and interchangeable parts mandated extension handles for the hands and feet, as well as a class of mechanics whose understanding of machine processes extended the power to control the environment. Human beings were equipping themselves to act as "lords and possessors" of nature.

In the second half of the 20th century, however, our faith in instruments – both our mechanical and institutional tools – was transformed into frustration. Vehicles of progress, we noticed, were creating obstacles and consuming vast quantities of energy rather than enhancing our individual power. Ignoring the dangers, society's managers reacted by further escalating bureaucracy and technology. An addiction to tools had infected us with "growth mania," the blind belief that poor application of knowledge could be corrected by more knowledge, the further classification and refining of facts.

It was widely assumed that errors of scientific experiment and implementation could be handled by new inquiries and more efficient control. The faith that crises could be resolved through escalation was related to a belief that, as Ivan Illich put it, "the cure for bad management is more management" – more scientific, objective and systematic. But technological escalation, he noted, had also led humanity and its institutions through two phases, or watersheds, during the century:

"At first, new knowledge is applied to the solution of a clearly stated problem and scientific measuring sticks are applied to account for the new efficiency. But at a second point, the progress demonstrated in a previous achievement is used as a rational for the exploitation of society as a whole in the service of a value which is determined and constantly revised by an element of society, by one of its self-certifying professional elites."

Medicine, to take one example, passed through its first watershed in the second decade of the 20th century; at this point the odds tipped in favor of effective disease prevention and treatment. But by the 1940s the tools of medicine, which had, among other accomplishments, reduced infant mortality, were also starting to cause genetic damage. Doctors began to create new kinds of illnesses, and research was increasingly directed at medically created problems. Life was extended, but at exorbitant cost.

Advanced medical technology, widely equated with increases in life expectancy, actually did little to improve the general level of health. Rather, high-tech medicine increased patients' dependence on machines, drugs, and the experts who controlled them. As new illnesses were defined, specialization of services increased. Although benchmarks set by the medical establishment continued to be reached, the negative costs skyrocketed – social control, illusion, prolonged suffering, loneliness, genetic deterioration, and frustration. By 1999, the Institute of Medicine estimated that medical errors were killing almost 100,000 people in the US every year.

The medical crisis is in many ways analogous to those affecting other institutions. All are consequences of the evolution of professional industries and a society which demands that they provide "better" services – health, transportation, education, and so on. In order to improve the standard of service, however, people voluntarily offer themselves as guinea pigs. In the case of health care, we have surrendered the right to declare ourselves sick or well; our claims are accepted by society only when a member of the medical bureaucracy certifies them.

Since the second watershed, society's managers have exercised almost unlimited power through manipulative tools, expanding their control over our activities in the interest of efficiency and order. In Illich's words, "they hold and manage power no matter who lives in the illusion that he owns the tools." The issue is no longer ownership of the means of production, but rather the characteristics of leaders and their tools.

Managers of most organizations are selected on the basis of specific characteristics, competencies and interests, all geared to maximizing production – that is, providing more of everything as they move ever higher, and meanwhile promote the conditioning of their employees and clients. Their favored tools are those that increase regimentation, dependence, and impotence. A few of the most dangerous of these have been highways, systems of mass communication and resource exploitation, and compulsory schools.

For "modern" managers the central criterion is the ability to achieve. As competitors in their specific fields, they steadily narrow their interest and motivation. In fact, success rests on their ability to become machines, engines without limits, dedicated to the pursuit of victory and the satisfaction of ego. How predictable, then, that our political leaders so often instruct us to "win" some economic or social war. In the last 40 years, inhabitants of the United States in particular have been rallied to wage war on poverty, unemployment, inflation, terrorism and drugs, to name but a few, urged at each turn to think of themselves as "number one."

According to Philip Slater, leaders ultimately must choose between two forms of power – negative and positive. One is the ability to control, force, imprison, invade and kill; the other is the ability to influence, arouse love and respect, and get one's needs met. The latter is "personal power," described by Carlos Castaneda and other students of this primal force. But competing institutions, states and nations usually choose the static, negative form, creating a deadly balancing act. Negative power relations are like two people with guns at each other's heads – or two opposing nations with weapons of mass destruction aimed at each other's territory.

Concentrated negative power, one of the most destructive legacies of scientific rationalism, grows from fear and mistrust, an acceptance of the notion that the natural state of humanity is war. The necessity of coercion flows naturally from this assumption, and leads in turn to the threat of destruction. Thus, even the most benign of power centers can't promote spontaneity, change or independent creative action. Their very natures require control, a reliance on defensive structures and regulations, and a preference for conditioning.

Unfortunately for the rest of us, when a person acquires the habit of negative power he (or sometimes she) is unlikely to tolerate restraints. "The worst horrors in history," Slater notes, "have been perpetuated by 'sensible,' practical males 'taking the necessary steps' to beat some symbolic opponent to a symbolic goal." In a society that has internalized such an ethic of control, achievement and inhibition, the "great evil" of our time – authoritarianism – becomes a life style. The Great Dictator is each of us.

The process that has led us to this pass began with absolute monarchs, extreme individualists who nevertheless often provided their subjects with a facsimile of wholeness and belonging. The basic social contract, however, had an unstated amendment: the ruler will create order in return for total deference. Eventually, however, the sense of isolation, uniqueness and separateness that haunted rulers was diffused to the masses. Society's leaders were no longer the lone individualists. Everyone was a potential individualist and manager, to the extent that he or she learned to act logically and rationally. As the global process of democratization began, technology extended this revolutionary prospect to the millions.

But there is one more step – the inhibition of impulse and feeling at the mass level in societies overwhelmed by their narcissistic goals. Responsibilities require that managers become adept at postponing gratification; and this quality too has been effectively diffused, with entire cultures exhibiting the ethic of control. Today individualism is mainly an illusion, since "free" citizens are largely unable to function spontaneously, either alone or in groups. With most people acting as their own dictators, managers find it easy to "facilitate" democracy within organizations. In such rational collectives, achievement is usually the accepted standard against which most activities are measured. Responsiveness to self or others, on the other hand, is too often a casualty.

Next: The Corporate Way of Life


The Creative Also Destroys

Deconstructing Leadership

Anatomy of Insecurity

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