On Management: That humdrum life

Working for large corporations does not make us happy and has led to disengagement and a loss of motivation.

by Corinne Maier, World Business
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2013

Happiness at work. How to motivate your team. Managing a team while getting the best out of everyone ... just a few examples of the myriad phrases attempting to ward off the prevailing uneasiness within large corporations.

Are they the right place to find self-fulfilment; do they provide the potential for exhilarating challenges? Or has the growing pressure for short-term efficiency measured by highly restrictive quantitative assessments put an end to dreams of personal autonomy? It seems that large corporations, squeezed between the evils of bureaucracy and the demon of profitability, may have much to worry about.

HR managers dread employee disengagement, health and safety professionals are concerned and managers on pep-talk alert. White-collar workers, office workers and middle-ranking executives are all full of misgivings. In Europe, the Italians and French are the least motivated at work; according to a 2003 IFOP poll, 17% of French executives say they are "actively disengaged" from their work and only 3% consider themselves "actively committed" to their work, an unbelievably low figure. Even the Americans, traditionally more optimistic, seem to be increasingly disillusioned. In a survey carried out by TNS, published in 2005 by the Conference Board, just half declared themselves satisfied with their jobs in 2005 compared with 60% in 1995, and a quarter said they worked just for the money.

In her book The Human Condition (1958), Hannah Arendt identifies three kinds of activities of which human beings are capable: first, 'labour', which is the world of subservience and routine reduced to the production-consumption cycle; second, 'work', which represents the manufacture of sustainable objects as part of an activity that involves thought and creativity; and, finally, 'action', the realm of the shared action thanks to democratic debate in the public arena (which may be a group or a community).

According to Arendt, it is because we no longer distinguish between these categories that we live in an age of mediocrity and subservience. Too many jobs fall into the first category - the repetitive or single-task labour that is performed mechanically and loses all meaning. Many sociologists have stressed the fact that although work is more flexible today, it also more fragmented. The two go together, the flexibility of numerous jobs being accompanied by the multiplication of specific tasks. These are often tedious, where workers do the same jobs day in, day out. For example, I worked for a large corporation, the electricity giant EDF, where my job was to fill in forms. It was a question of finding simple details on the internet and entering them in pre-formatted boxes for a database intended to form part of a strategic monitoring project. This is monotonous labour, which complies in every aspect with the subservient, humdrum life described by Arendt.

It is easy to understand why a number of white-collar workers have lost their motivation; some of them switch off, putting in as little work as possible. This is not necessarily obvious, since the semblance of work, in that vast circus of the corporate world, is sometimes more important than the work itself. 'Being' often takes precedence over 'doing'. After all, we are assessed on our 'behaviour', on our ability to handle the corporate jargon, our enthusiasm (real or feigned), our 'aptitude for change' and last but not least, the way we comply with the model.

The situation appears to be slightly different in smaller companies; a survey carried out by Cegos in 2003 in France showed that employees in companies with fewer than 50 people were more satisfied with the substance of their job than those working in larger firms. But, on average, they were paid less than the latter and more were dissatisfied with their level of pay.

What can we do to combat this lack of motivation? As the author of a book on the avoidance of work, I lobby for the expansion of laziness rather than the establishment of an efficient work organisation. I would suggest that motivation goes hand in hand with individual desire, the desire of each person to accomplish something remarkable.

Do large structures allow for such aspirations? I very much doubt it.

Rather than trying to motivate their workers, perhaps corporations should reconsider the spec they give employees. This is what Brazilian boss Ricardo Semler did, as he describes in his book Maverick (1993). He revolutionised his manufacturing company Semco at the end of the 1980s by relaxing controls, giving employees the freedom to organise their work as they saw fit, and abolishing fixed working hours and dress codes. Thanks to these innovations, his company is doing well.

Perhaps this is it, the future of business: let employees create something new for themselves.

Corinne Maier is the author of Bonjour Laziness: why hard work doesn't pay (2005) and a practising psychoanalyst

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