Why should work not be fun?

Sep 18, 2017, 13:01 IST | Snigdha hasan

A new book questions conventional managerial practices to lay bare real reasons behind work-related stress and employee alienation. Plus, there is a novel action plan to make the workplace happier

On your dreary trudge to office on a Monday morning, a quick scan of your social media feed is enough to tell you, you are not alone. It's a Monday morning after all, and the world is feeling the blues. Pick up a health magazine, and everything from weight gain, neck pain, to insomnia is attributed to work-related stress. But does it have to be this way? Why are we so inured to unhappy workplaces that we have come to accept them as the norm? Or, as Samuel A Culbert asks in Good People, Bad Managers: How Work Culture Corrupts Good Intentions (Oxford University Press), 'How many jobs do you know of that you'd wish on someone you love?'

Award-winning author, researcher and professor at UCLA's Anderson School of Management, Culbert sets the record straight in the first chapter of his new book that ventures into a territory few tomes on work culture have managed to. 'There's far more bad management behaviour taking place today than the well-intentioned doling it out realise. But the biggest mystery is why people are calling this bad behaviour good enough,' he questions. Through well-researched arguments that steer clear of putting the blame on a specific position, the book attributes unhealthy workplace practices to 'a system that permits it, and causes managers to behave badly without realising the negatives their behaviour inflicts on others.'

We spoke to Culbert over an email interview, and took the help of two experts to situate the book in an Indian context.

The problem
In the first section, the book lays bare all that's wrong with the existing managerial practices. In an ideal world, good managers would be available to their team with their wealth of experience, stepping back from the limelight and helping each individual flourish. 'Rather, they announce the direction in which they are headed and just assume the team will follow them… The direction they have chosen has something in it for them.'

This, the book explains, is the reason behind needless meetings, which are nothing but interruptions to a productive employee. Why should an employee have to spend energy on getting his boss to value his contribution, when he has already given it his all in making that contribution?

Another facet that Culbert puts the spotlight on is the one-way feedback system, where the manager informs the employee, who is at an obvious disadvantage in the power dynamic, about his imperfections, but the reverse is almost never true. And this seems to be a bigger problem in India.

"Indian employees, in general, function with a sense of fear, and being outspoken is not part of the work culture," says Karthikeyan RK, a city-based senior HR executive with an IT firm. Adds Sarabjeet Sachar, founder and CEO of holistic recruitment agency, Aspiration Jobs, "Thanks to this skewed feedback system, managers develop ego problems that further affect their team."

The biggest problem, however, says Culbert is that modern-day work culture functions contrary to basic human nature, and prevents managers from developing genuine concern for their direct reports, all in the garb of objectivity.

The reason
Work culture, as it exists, is about accomplishing, credit-taking, individual recognition, and getting ahead. And managers, argues Culbert, are not immune from this cut-throat environment. In fact, it makes them all the more vulnerable and insecure. With their own families to support, the system leaves little room, if at all, for managers to look out for employees.

Sachar feels the situation is no different in India. "Organisations holding managers responsible for their team's performance is rare. Everything is number-driven," he says.

Managers, however, understand that the textbook definition of their role entails providing guidance to their direct reports. To be seen as doing the right things rather than doing them, they resort to what Culbert calls self-protection routines, which include being seen as hard-working and overloaded, using processes to feign fair play, etc. Dealing with this facade adds further to employee woes.

Sarabjeet Sachar
Sarabjeet Sachar

The solution
The solutions the book offers, which it argues would lead to a fulfilling work experience, demand a serious re-think of what's accepted as the norm. For starters, 'remove any reason people might have to not cooperate with someone needing their assistance,' explains Culbert, adding he eschews discretionary bonuses that pick one employee over the rest of his team members. In fact, incentives for genuine teamwork should be put into place.

A key focus area of the book is two-sided accountability — holding the employee accountable for the result, and his manager for creating the support system required to deliver the result. "Third-party driven evaluation processes can bring transparency. But holding managers accountable is key," Sachar agrees. "Meetings, where employees can give feedback about their immediate boss to his boss, help," adds Karthikeyan.

To do away with the power game of evaluation, the book makes a strong case for eliminating performance reviews. 'Widespread use of performance reviews assumes that everyone can become excellent on any metric,' Culbert reasons. The practice denies that imperfect people, as humans are, can succeed differently, using their strong points and avoiding the skills they lack.

An office that celebrates humanity, warts and all. That seems like a happy place.

Author speak

Samuel Culbert
Samuel Culbert. Pic/Michael Mccaskey

Has bad management always been a reality or is it the result of a recent development?
Bad behaviour from well-intentioned managers has taken place from the beginning of time, and it continues today. And no one — neither the employees on the receiving end nor the well-intentioned managers doling it out — want things left that way...

Sensing no practical options, managers become inured to what they're doing and employees make the best of what they receive. It's human nature's positivism compelling everyone to go along playing organisationally choreographed charades. Managers pretend to be what they are not and employees fear the consequences of telling them their actual views. In the process, everyone loses track of who they are and what is required to assert their authentic beliefs. Everyone, the company included, loses out.

Given the globalised world we live in, are Indian companies that often look up to American MNCs any different?
You're probably right if you're talking about the self-defeating ways managers conduct their work. What's happening is based more on pretentious thinking about how good managers should behave than on what the people they're overseeing and mandated to guide actually need to perform and be their best.

Your book recommends a massive systemic overhaul to make happier, more productive workplaces a reality. What is a common argument of resistance you come across?
While I wouldn't say what's needed is a "massive systemic overhaul," I can see why some people would. I'm talking about leaders recognising the force field in which managers actually operate and facing up to how, left unchanged, it causes performance-hampering insecurity and competition within, and between, the ranks. The dangers faced are too much for most to engage in the other-directed behaviour that good management actually entails.

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