Alternative Creationism (2)

Don’t spend your energy on something you can’t change anyway. That was the good advice of Ignaas Devisch in the previous installment of this blog. The question is who decides what can’t be changed – and on what grounds. TINA (There Is No Alternative) is often an authoritative argument determined to squash the alternatives – that are therefore implicitly very extant indeed. This to be sure is not what Devisch is up to: because of his unusual argument on restlessness, it’s perfectly understandable that his focus is the modern individual. Yet the question remains what happens when one considers the collective level, the origins and effects of restlessness on society. There are, of course, many effects but let’s restrict them for now to the sphere of work.

We know what the effects are: lots of negative stress, growing number of burnouts, many unhappily working people, struggling businesses. There is a lot of debate about this. But there seem to be two standard answers: individual responsibility and collective resignation. It very much feels as if we, as a society, have resigned ourselves to the fact that working conditions are tough. Alas, there’s little we can do about this: there is no alternative – apart from continuously intensifying the burden of individual responsibility. In the current Belgian debate there’s little hesitation to point to people who ‘dare’ to use time credit to travel or to use training money to follow a course on flower arranging or learning Spanish. Both options are no longer available. Or to make it more personal: it’s all very well to advocate alternative creationism as an individual choice but there is only so much crafting an individual can do. If “the infrastructure of society” is geared towards “bad work”, the individual effort often feels meaningless.

I borrow the quoted phrases from a study on Why We Work. Its author is the American psychologist Barry Schwartz (whom Devisch mentions with another interesting book on The Paradox of Choice). Schwartz focuses on the negative effects of modern freedom on the work floor – and what we, collectively, can do about them. Schwartz challenges the deep-seated belief that people work only to get paid. He argues that this stark view of human nature has turned into the dominant ideology which not only realizes a self-fulfilling prophecy but also organizes “the infrastructure of society” in such a way that turning things round may become very difficult indeed.

To understand this complex argument it’s important to stress the difference between the exact and the social sciences. To put it simply, the cosmos doesn’t change when some scientist makes wrong assumptions or executes his experiment wrongly. Ideas about individuals and society do have the power to affect their subjects in the sense we encountered earlier: man is an unfinished project. Far more than Devisch, Schwartz emphasizes the fact that we are to a large extent what society expects from us. Applied to work: if one expects us to be unengaged, then we may start to behave that way. And before long become disengaged. 

A negative view on human nature cannot lead to positive work 

Schwartz identifies the negative view on humans, intrinsically lazy and disinterested, as the ultimate culprit of work misery. And he argues it’s wrong. His own positive argument is in a sense the collective translation of Devisch’s immoderation: in the same way that individuals enjoy action and engagement, society as a whole cherishes the idea of progress. Yet the work related mistrust has become ideological – a TINA assumption that is never questioned. Schwartz cites an intriguing study which established that people recognize in themselves intrinsic motivations to work – but not in others: they’re in it for the money. You may want to check this with yourself: probably you yourself search for and expect meaningfulness in your own job – but you’ve accepted the sad viewpoint that most people can’t? Because we must be realistic? Because ‘menial’ jobs also need to be done? And there’s no way they can be meaningful?

How work becomes meaningful

Schwartz names (among others) Luke, a Yale University Hospital cleaner who finds fulfillment in his supposedly menial job because he’s internalized the mission of his workplace, namely caring for people. There are many people like Luke, who have intrinsic motivations for wanting to do a good job. In other words: the job is not (only) instrumental (to get a paycheck), it’s considered important and worthwhile for reasons that lie within the job itself. And of course this makes sense considering the amount of time we spend working (and thinking about work).

The good news is that virtually any job can provide meaning when there is a measure of autonomy, flexibility, variety and skill development, when there is space to learn and grow and, especially, when there is a sense that one contributes to the well-being of others, however small. Schwartz refers to caretakers, workers on a factory floor, phone solicitors and hairdressers to drive down the point that there is no need to think that only the happy few could hope for meaningful work. To my delight I discovered that what Luke and others are doing has been called job crafting. The American organizational behaviorist Amy Wrzesniewski saw that people often redesign jobs so that they foster purpose and thus work satisfaction. She also defines ways in which organizations can actively take on this role. The important conclusion is that virtually all jobs can be organized in a way that affects positively both the workers and, obviously not unimportant, the performance of the organization. In other words, there are alternative ways to work.

The vicious circle of bad work

The bad news is that the “infrastructure of society”, that is, the collective structures mostly go the other way – and there is no reason to believe that they will correct themselves “naturally”. More concretely, Schwartz points to the two standard methods for managing supposedly disinterested workers: material incentives and close monitoring of work that has been routinized. The striking conclusion is that both tools have negative effects on work engagement and satisfaction.

Intuitively we think that material incentives, such as wages, bonuses, extralegal advantages, contribute to work positivity. Research has shown the opposite. The main reason is that money is an external motivation, one which lies outside the actual job at hand. And when people are encouraged to attach great importance to external factors, whatever intrinsic motivation they may have had is undermined. In short, the money always wins. And the people involved, the workers but also the employers, the clients, the patients, the customers, loose.

Close job monitoring on the other hand requires an extra layer of managers whose own job mainly consists of controlling others. And they do so in relation to jobs that are increasingly routinized on the basis of detailed scripts that leave no room for variety or individual initiative. Again, it’s not difficult to imagine how all involved draw very little satisfaction from their work.

Yet both methods, material incentives and increasing control, continue to gain importance – and thus strengthen the infrastructure of society, the structures that are difficult to change anyway. They also create a vicious circle of increasingly lower engagement and a dwindling sense of purpose and meaningfulness. Illustrating the rising application of these methods with examples in education, law and medicine, Schwartz argues that good work thus turns into bad work. And all this largely as a result of the mistaken assumption that workers don’t want to do a good job! 

We see the results of bad work all around us. We all know people who experience their job as monotonous and meaningless. Perhaps we experience it so ourselves. Much in Devisch’s way Schwartz points to individual responsibility but he forcefully emphasizes the limits of that approach. If the environment is inhospitable to meaningful work, as Schwartz demonstrates it often is, a collective effort is needed to combat the dominant ideology and replace it with an alternative view both on human nature and our notion of efficiency. 

Economic democracy

The amazing thing is: the alternatives already exist – successfully. Recently I heard an interview on the Flemish radio with the Dutch entrepreneur Allard Droste whose building company functions “without leaders”. There are no meetings, the salaries are good but not excessive. The 50 workers can each make decisions and place orders, for large sums of money. The interviewer couldn’t contain his incredulity and posed what was meant to be the ultimate question to destroy the naivety: “But what if the wrong decision is taken?” The reply was swift – and so very much to the point: “Well, it goes wrong in other companies, doesn’t it?” Indeed, it does. Frequently. And we all know it. So why is there so little effort to try the alternatives? 

In The Seven-Day Weekend Brazilian Semco’s CEO Richardo Semler shows how the Way Work Works can be Changed. He summarizes his innovative management method with reference to its fundamentally decentralized and participatory style. The starting point is the current economic disruption, no naivety here!, and “the need – the absolute necessity – to give up control”. The only alternative according to Semler, his own TINA, is trust. The principle is very simple: everyone makes difficult and complex decisions every day in their daily, personal lives. So why would the professional sphere be the only one in which people cannot be trusted? Notice how the foundational viewpoint is positive – and how different that is from what we’re used to.

The “Seven-Day Weekend” refers to the goal of creating the circumstances in which “workers [can] be men and women in full”: “No-one […] can endure leaving half a life in the parking lot when she or he goes to work.”  In other words, consider workers as human beings and aim to contribute to their living a more integrated life. By avoiding conventional business practices including formal structures, Semco encourages workers to explore their own talents and interests and seek personal challenges before trying to meet the company’s goals. Yet because these goals are so explicitly and repeatedly communicated and debated, the match happens almost organically and translates “naturally into profit and growth.” Semler insists that: 

“On-the-job democracy isn’t just a lofty concept but a better, more profitable way to do things.”

Semco is a very profitable, expanding business. Its principles have been adapted at schools, hospitals, police departments, companies large and small around the world. The emphasis on trust is the foundation of the fundamentally different view on human nature Schwartz insists on. And it seems so simple: trust in people at work creates a “virtuous circle” that includes individual autonomy, skill development, profitability and above all purposefulness and meaning. Good work in short.

Meanwhile in Belgium

I’m sad to say little of the above can be heard in the current Belgian debate. The Bill on Flexible, Workable Work of Federal minister Kris Peeters, has just been voted. And it’s pretty obvious that the implicit founding assumption is a very negative view on human nature – that needs to be controlled and externally incentivized. It reinforces in other words the infrastructure of society in a way that puts even more obstacles to changing work for the better. Unwittingly the ideology is given free rein to continue its negative self-fulfilling prophecy.

The Bill refers time and again to more flexibility and ‘external’ measures such as the ability to “save up” working hours. There’s not a single measure that refers to intrinsic motivation – or how to insert that concept into the work practice. One of the union representatives in the debate rejects more autonomy on the grounds that people will work simply harder and longer. His solution to work less is presented as TINA: only 34% of employees of 40 or older can imagine “coping” with their job until retirement age. Note the resignation towards ‘bad work’. In reply the CEO’s of the most important employers’ organizations present their own TINA: “The solution is not to work less but more” (sic). They remain entirely within a quantitative framework which has nothing to do with Schwartz’s suggestion of a collective turnaround. “And does it still need to be said”, the responsibility for stress and burn-outs lays “only in part” in the work sphere, it’s (also) “overloaded personal activity calendars”. Note the negative view on human nature: the individual is not to be trusted with his personal choices, so how can you expect us to trust them in the professional sphere? The solution, so the CEO’s claim, is the employers’ current engagement towards a “competence driven employment strategy” – as if any employer in the past would consciously have employed someone who wasn’t competent.

But as Schwartz and Semler have taught us, that’s not the point. What we should be aiming for, is a work definition driven by individual satisfaction and meaningfulness. We need in other words a match between the values of the worker and the organization. For the latter one of the goals will be profit, obviously, but one may hope that it aims to do so with a contribution, however small, to the well-being of those involved – and that it is capable and willing of communicating this contribution to its employees. People look for meaningfulness – and that can be found virtually anywhere, if we are prepared to make the effort, not only to see it but also to make it explicit. The purpose of work then should be at the centre: make it a shared subject of debate and responsibility between management and workers – and start from there. 

Perhaps it’s not too late. Belgium has a strong tradition of social consultation and much remains to be negotiated about the Bill. The so-called Social Partners must become aware of the negative foundation of all their debating and negotiating. If they can change that, if they can collectively decide to replace the resignation with a more positive notion of human nature, they can break the vicious circle. Let’s be optimistic and put it more positively:

Let’s all cultivate our garden.
The final sentence of ‘Candide’ carries the message of my box installation on hope.

The phrase is from Voltaire who used it to conclude his harsh critique on 18th-century French society. Some have suggested it’s an argument for withdrawal from the world: as the case is helpless, give up. With alternative creationism I argue differently: we collectively have the urgent responsibility to turn things around and create an alternative, flourishing “garden” – that is indeed our own, of all of us. In many cases and certainly in the case of work, alternative creationism must be collective. It will be alternative because it’s founded on a radically different, more optimistic and trusting viewpoint on human nature. And it will be creationist because this is a question of collectively creating an equally radically different, meaningful concept and practice of work. As mentioned before, the process of creating understood as craftsmanship refers to the basic human impulse to do a job well for its own sake. And the Enlightenment, of which Voltaire was one of the spokesmen, believed that everyone possesses the ability to do good work that will generate genuine satisfaction. There is in other words an intelligent crafts(wo)man in each of us. With Schwartz I argue that faith still makes sense – if we as a society choose to act upon it.

My installation visualizes new beginnings: new leaves on an old tree, lace to let the light through and glasses to see more clearly.  
This person (by the Flemish artist Michaël Borremans)  is turned away in contemplation. A serious effort is needed to change things.



The door handle and the watering can are very much in the foreground: the time to change is now.

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