The Surveilled Workplace

Posted by jlubans on July 26, 2019  •  Leave comment (0)

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Caption: The “Coffee Saves the World” team on task.

Apparently, worker surveillance is part and parcel of the so-called gig economy. Thusly claims a BBC report under a tabloid headline: 'We were constantly watched. It felt like we were in prison’
The story’s doubly interesting since it comes from London, the setting for the nightmarish Big-Brother-Is-Watching-You book, George Orwell’s “1984”.
This spring I taught a class at the University of Latvia, Leadership and Literature. That class included a team project to “create and act out your own fable”, along with providing thematic refreshments for the class!
One of the five teams (depicted above) produced a fable for these robotically driven and spied-upon times: “Coffee Saves the World”*
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Caption: World-saving coffee cookies

Here is their fable:
Once upon a time there was an office with several cubicle, as is common.
The office was managed by a mighty computer voice.
When the computer gave a task, everyone had to fulfill it.
This is what it would say:
“Take your places. Put your coffee mug down. Turn on the computer.
Take a daily task sheet. Put it in front of you.
Start the assignment.
Drink your coffee and put it down.
Continue the assignment.
End assignment.
Start the next assignment.”
From time to time it ordered (the workers) to drink coffee.
However, it happened that one of the clerks spilled her coffee on the terminal and the computer voice stopped.
The work stopped as well.
Suddenly, the clerk looked up and noticed the world beyond the cubicle. The birds were singing, the sun was shining.
The window was open; she took in deep breaths of the fresh air and smiled.
After this break away from the computer voice, the clerk returned to her cubicle. She started working on her own.
No voice was needed to succeed, as she managed to do every task faster and in higher quality.
The computer manager realized that happy and independent workers do their job better, so its voice began to fade.


The BBC report details research that spying on workers is de rigueur and on the rise. The list of what’s surveilled grows long: worker correspondence and phone calls, daily production targets met or unmet, key strokes made, tasks performed per minute, and even time spent in the toilet. No doubt someone is working on ways to assess worker mood and attitude and to analyze voice inflection!
What’s the rationale for this hypersurveillance? Managers will be able to more effectively reward or punish workers. Staff, we are assured “will benefit from performance-related pay, enhanced opportunities for progression and a “crackdown on their free-riding co-workers”.
Of course, increased profitability – while not mentioned - is implicit in all of this espionage.
So, McGregor’s Theory X (aka Scientific Management) is back! Apostles of Theory X claim:
“Without (the) active intervention by management, people would be passive – even resistant – to organizational needs. They must therefore be persuaded, rewarded, punished, controlled – their activities must be directed.”
Douglas Murray McGregor’s highly influential work on Theories X and Y was first published in 1960. Was he influenced by Orwell’s book from the previous decade?
His Theory Y posits that “The motivation, the potential for development, the capacity for assuming responsibility, the readiness to direct behavior toward organizational goals are all present in people.”
In any case, Y’s positive assumptions and productive benefits cannot endure under a robot regime.
So, what are these surveillance prone managers being taught or is all this a directive from the C-suite?
Why this dis-trustful embrace of ways to reduce the autonomy and dignity of workers, be they gig workers or full timers?
Why not the other way around? Find trusting ways to promote freedom and responsibility.
Surveillance is pure Theory X; it’s all about autocratic control.
But, the less freedom, the lower the quality and production.
And, we know – as exemplified in the Coffee fable and research - that more freedom at work results in higher and better quality production. Democratic leadership trumps the autocratic kind most every time.

*Coffee Saves the World Team: Antra Upeniece, Viktorija Moskina, and Gunita Eņģele. Used with permission.
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© Copyright John Lubans 2019

Aesop’s THE FIGHTING-COCKS AND THE EAGLE*

Posted by jlubans on July 23, 2019  •  Leave comment (0)

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Caption: Illustration by de Grandville, 1870.

Two young Cocks were fighting as fiercely as if they had been men.
At last the one that was beaten crept into a corner of the hen-house, covered with wounds.
But the conqueror, straightway flying up to the top of the house, began clapping his wings and crowing, to announce his victory.
At this moment an Eagle, sailing by, seized him in his talons and bore him away; while the defeated rival came out from his hiding-place, and took possession of the dunghill for which they had contended.
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This fable is reminiscent of my Two Roosters in which a tyrannical boss is deposed violently by a younger, more physical, not-so-bad boss.
Here Aesop illustrates the folly of claiming victory before it is certain.
In any case, it’s all a dunghill, mates, Aesop is saying, so lest you think owning a pile of s--t is a successful life, you might reconsider.
And so it can be at work.
We may prematurely celebrate the demise of a rival. That rival might, down the road, become our boss!
With too few soaring eagles in any enterprise, it’s unlikely any eagle will bear us away, more likely a rat in the dunghill will cause its collapse.

*Source: Aesop's Fables: A new version, chiefly from original sources, by the Rev. Thomas James, with more than one hundred illustrations designed by John Tenniel. 1848.

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© Copyright John Lubans 2019

Aesop’s THE ASS EATING THISTLES*

Posted by jlubans on July 15, 2019  •  Leave comment (0)

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Caption: A savvy-eyed Ass by Francis Barlow, 1687
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An ass was loaded with good provisions of several sorts, which, in time of harvest, he was carrying into the fields for his master and the reapers to dine upon.
By the way he met with a fine large thistle, and being very hungry, began to mumble it; which, while he was doing, he entered into this reflection: “How many greedy epicures would think themselves happy amidst such a variety of delicate viands as I now carry!
But to me this bitter prickly thistle is more savoury and relishing than the most exquisite and sumptuous banquet.”

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This Ass is no Donkey. He knows what he likes and goes out of his way to get and “mumble” it, happy to leave the “good provisions” to “greedy epicures” who certainly have no taste for thistles.
Several Italian towns offer a thistle soup (zuppa di cardo) often served at Christmas.
One appended moral sums it up: “People enjoy what they enjoy”; there’s no telling for taste.
An uncle-in-law favored honey on his French fries; he’d bring his own honey bear bottle to McDonalds.
Australians think pineapple slices are really good on a pizza – bizarre to me but not to those Down Under.
Pizza crusts are the best part of the pie. Not for those who cut off the crust, never to taste it.
You and I could go on and on.
It need not be limited to food. Our differences are useful, they enrich – if we can stand it – our perspective on life. As for the Never-Crusters, well I am not too sure what they bring to the table, but that just may be me.

*Source: Croxall's Aesop. An illustrated collection of Aesop's fables translated by Samuel Croxall, 1867.
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© Copyright John Lubans 2019

White Hat vs. Black Hat

Posted by jlubans on July 10, 2019  •  Leave comment (0)

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In the cowboy movies of my childhood, the good guys wore white hats and the bad guys wore black. Black hats beat their horses. White hats kissed theirs.
Since life’s more complicated than that, we now all wear gray hats, whether we want to or not; ambiguity, nuance, relativity - the experts bloviate - is our (human’s) default condition.
So from the utterly sinister and irredeemably evil “fiend in the coal bin” we now have serial killers who like small children and cats and only do their killing to spite their mothers.
My January essay, “How Jerks Happen”, was about the so-called dark triad: “Narcissism (an excessive focus on oneself), Machiavellianism (manipulating others for one’s own gain), and psychopathy (an overall disregard for others).”
Failing at omniscience, I did not know there was an actively researched alternative: the “light triad”.
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Humanism, is defined as (a person’s) believing in the inherent dignity and worth of other humans.
Kantianism, a la Immanuel Kant, sees a person as a person, not as a means to an end.
And, “Faith in humanity” is about believing that other humans are fundamentally good, and not out to get you.
Methinks, we could augment – indeed make operable - the Kantian aspect with Adam Smith’s insight:
“Every man, as long as he does not violate the laws of justice, is left perfectly free to pursue his own interest his own way…”
For Adam Smith - according to the economist Vernon Smith - “Justice… was … the infinite set of permissible actions remaining after a finite set of actions were ruled worthy of punishment out of common experience.”
It is this “common experience” that permits us to know and avoid jerk behavior or worse. A. Smith’s justice helps defines for the individual and society what is decent behavior.
Like the self-assessment test for the dark triad, there is one for the light triad.
Are humans more of the dark triad than the light? Does evil prevail?
“Over a thousand people took both tests to find out their balance of light and dark personality traits – and the average person skewed substantially towards the light side.”
So, unlike what cable news might be pushing, most of us are pretty decent and apart from the occasional jerk or two we should be able to get along since many of us share the general view of mankind’s basic goodness.
Interestingly, “everyday saints aren’t just benefitting the rest of the world with their kindness. (A researcher) found that those who rank highly for the traits … felt more satisfied with their relationships and life in general, and reported higher self-esteem and a stronger sense of self. A whole host of character strengths were also linked to high scores, including curiosity, perspective, zest, love, kindness, teamwork, forgiveness, and gratitude."
But, the research (even if it comes from the reputationally damaged field of psychology, e.g. the rigged findings that prisoners when they become guards immediately resort to abusing prisoners) suggests that we have some of both triads in our make up.
“This could be a good thing. Those with darker personalities tend to be more brave and assertive, for example – two traits that come in handy when trying to get things done. Darker personalities are also
correlated with creativity and leadership skills.”
And, “there is evidence that personality is somewhat malleable over our lifetimes. “…Personality is just a combination of habits, of states of thinking and acting and feeling in the world, and … we can change these habits.”
So, keep that in mind when dealing with jerks in the workplace; jerkism need not be irrevocable. Nor, if you are an “everyday saint” that you will never lapse into jerkiness. We all need guidance at times when we exceed what Adam Smith termed “permissible actions”.

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And, my book on democratic workplaces, Leading from the Middle, is available at Amazon.

© Copyright John Lubans 2019

An Hindu Fable: THE OTTERS AND THE JACKAL*

Posted by jlubans on July 04, 2019  •  Leave comment (0)

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Caption: Sculpture said to be from a Buddhist stupa in Bharhut, central India (ca. 100-200BC) The woman/deity in the forefront (with a cooking pot) is observing how the otters deal with their bounty.

ONCE upon a time two Otters whose names were Gambhiracari and Anutiracari, were standing on the bank of a river, on the lookout for fish. Presently Gambhiracari saw a large Rohita fish, and with one bound he dived into the water and caught it by the tail.
It happened that this Rohita fish was very strong, and when it felt something grasping its tail, it dashed headlong down the river, dragging the Otter with it.
He called out to the other Otter, "Friend Anutiracari, this great fish will be enough of a meal for us both, but it is so strong that it is dragging me away.
Come and help me!"
The other Otter plunged in to his aid, and the two friends between them soon dragged out the Rohita fish, laid it on the bank of the river and killed it.
But now they began to say to each other, "You divide the fish,"—"No, you divide it!"—"No, you!"— and soon they quarrelled and could not decide how the fish should be divided between them.
At that moment a Jackal, named Mayavi, happened to pass the spot. Upon seeing him, both the otters saluted him and said, "Oh, Lord of the grey grass-colour, this fish was caught by both of us together; but a dispute has arisen between us, because we cannot decide how to divide. Will you kindly make a fair division for us?"
After hearing their request, the Jackal replied, "I have decided many a difficult case and done it peacefully. I will settle yours with equal fairness."
So saying, he cut off the head and tail of the Rohita fish, gave the head to Gambhiracari and the tail to Anutiracari, and seizing the whole body of the fish, he ran away with it before their eyes, remarking as he went, "The best belongs to me, in payment for my trouble as umpire!"

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So, make your own decisions; deferring to another’s judgment may not work out the way you like and prove to be costly.
If you have time to deliberate, contemplate and meditate – as was often the case in my business - likely you will waste it and pay dearly for not deciding.
The otters fail to come to terms; the jackal runs off with the best cut.
We see this daily in legal settlements of class action suits. The lawyers (a small number) take a third to 40% and the balance is divided among thousands of clients. We are told that the jackal’s argument is a reasonable explanation for this seeming disparity: his sizable share is for his “trouble as umpire”.
Another fable - The bear, the Lion and the Fox - offers a similar outcome: The bear and lion’s disagreement devolves into a debilitating struggle and the fox runs off with the prize.
That fable’s moral applies to the otters and to all of us unwilling to decide: "’How much better it would have been to have shared in a friendly spirit.’"

*Source: Darbhapappha Jataka, No. 400.
Adapted from the translation by Sir Edwin Arnold included in Cooper, Frederic Taber, editor (1864-1937), “An argosy of fables; a representative selection from the fable literature of every age and land”. New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company. 1921.

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And, my book on democratic workplaces, Leading from the Middle, is available at Amazon.

© Copyright John Lubans 2019