I've been thinking lately about our focus on "managing" people. I spend a lot of time with front-line supervisors in various capacities and they are obssessed with how to control people's behavior.
The discussions are of two basic types--How do you get staff to do the things you want them to do? How do you STOP staff from doing things you DON'T want them to do? There are variations, of course, but only in the details. Mostly we are talking about carrots and sticks and, for me at least, the conversations devolve into a sort of "how do we herd the cats?" kind of thing. It's animal husbandry, not working with people.
There's a lot of frustration in these conversations--on both sides. The supervisors are frustrated that they can't control people's actions. And I'm frustrated that they are so focused on control.
Here's the thing. Anytime we are focused on "managing" something, we are really talking about controlling it. We want to control the outcome AND how people get there. We often want to control people's reactions, too. Not only should they do what we want them to do, they should like it, no matter how ridiculous the expectation.
But no one likes to feel controlled. I think it's something innately human. The reason we talk about "the Terrible Twos" is because even children resist our attempts to control their behavior. Children resist by kicking and screaming. Adults tend to resist in less obvious, more passive/aggressive ways. But they are still resisting.
This is why. Control is about power. When we "manage" people, we are exerting our power over them, but pretending we are not. People know this. They are not stupid. They know they are being manipulated and they don't like it.
There was a time when employees were more willing to accept this kind of arrangement, when they felt like they got something from the deal--"If I submit to your "management" of me, in return I will receive a paycheck and some meaningful guarantee of ongoing employment." But that contract is broken now. It becomes harder to submit to control when you know that it's really a form of servitude, not a choice you've made to exchange your independence for a paycheck.
I think that people are becoming harder to "manage," not because they are spoiled or entitled (as I've heard many managers say), but because on some fundamental level, they know that they are getting the raw end of this deal and they aren't happy about it. Employees are afraid to resist in more overt ways (they still, at least, want that paycheck), but deep down they know that the contract has been irrevocably altered and they are not interested in such one-sided exchanges.
How to get out of this impasse?
I think that we must first understand and accept that "management" is another word for "control." While I can control inanimate objects--financial and physical resources--I can't control people. I can try, but in the end I won't get what I want. And I'll exhaust myself in the process.
We have to give up the notion of control and accept that we live in a world where many things are uncontrollable--especially those things that have to do with other people. We can become resilient and able to deal with what life throws at us, but we cannot control how and when the ball comes over the plate. To believe otherwise is to live in a world of illusion.
To work effectively with people, we need to take a different approach. We cannot manage them, but we can create space for them to do their own work. We can help them tap into their own innate motivation by helping them find autonomy, mastery and purpose in the work that they do.
I also think that we have to bring humanity back to work, understanding and accepting that we are working with PEOPLE, not machines and that people have feelings and baggage that they can't just check at the door.
We don't want emotions at work, because they are messy and sticky and, well, uncontrollable. So we tell people to be "professional," which really means, "Keep your emotions to yourself, please, because I already feel like the world is uncontrollable so the last thing I need is you adding to that burden." But what we create, then, is a culture of repression and when we repress our emotions, they are going to come out somewhere, usually where we least want that to happen.
Ultimately, I think that this post is a plea for us to remember that we are working with people, that our institutions (including our workplaces) should exist to serve us, not the other way around. We want work to be this antiseptic, controllable place, devoid of human messiness. But it is not. It is a reflection of our very human selves that we should embrace, not resist.
What bothers me most about these issues of control is that they divide us from one another, creating an "us vs. them" culture. It's sad. And also unnecessary.
What I think is this: If we worked harder to understand and embrace our humanity at work, we might find that our concerns about control evaporated. If we worked harder at understanding and working with each other as human beings, not machines, we might find that we're all in this together.