Charles Handy finds a message for today's managers ln the film Regeneration: they have to earn their workforce's loyalty, It is not theirs by right.
The film Regeneration should perhaps be seen by anyone who has responsibility for the lives and work of others. It is moving, thought-provoking and depressing in turn, and the dull grey Scottish sky that lights every scene only serves to accentuate the sense of despair. Yet the messages which lie there need to be heeded by us all. The film is about war and the horrors of war but, more than that, it is about loyalty and the tragedy that can take place when loyalty is abused.
It is the film version of Pat Barker's book of the same name, a novel in which she describes the true life situation of the poet, Siegfried Sassoon, towards the end of the first world war. Sassoon, already a holder of the Military Cross for gallantry in action, was so revolted by what he saw as the useless slaughter of human lives on both sides that he wrote an open letter to the War Office demanding that they find a way to end the war. The army saw this as disloyalty but could hardly accuse him of cowardice because of his record, so they sent him instead to a hospital for the regeneration of those mentally afflicted by the conflict, with instructions to the doctors to make him recant. He never recanted but he did, in the end, insist on returning to the front.
Arrived sane, departed mad
The psychiatrist in the hospital, finely played by Jonathan Pryce, comments ruefully that the authorities had sent him an eminently sane man and he had sent him away mad, mad enough to go back to the war in a senseless display of misplaced loyalty. The trench scenes at the front are portrayed in ruthless detail, so ruthless that one can well believe the story that when one of the staff officers visited the front line for the first time towards the end of the war he exclaimed, 'Good God, did we send human beings to fight in this?' Yet they did, and they went and people died in their millions, because it would have been disloyal not to. The viewer is properly appalled.
War is war and it's awful, we mutter to ourselves as we leave. But the questions which the film raises are not just to do with war and the sacrifices that war demands. Managing would be much easier if we could count on unthinking obedience from those we manage, if we could court-martial those who, for one reason or another, disobeyed, or if we could certify as temporarily insane anyone who expressed a dissenting view. Come to think of it, some organisations used to be like that.
When I first started work, decades ago now, my corporation's formal appraisal form graded us out of 10 on 10 criteria. Top of the list was 'loyalty'.
I scored low and earned a reprimand. The company expected better of me, I was informed. In return for giving me a livelihood they expected me to give them my life, to live for them if not to die for them. They would tell me where to go and what to do for the rest of my life. When I objected to one posting, they told me that I had no choice if I wanted to have a decent career with them. In no way, of course, were these postings anything like the trenches in that war, but the company's expectations of me were much the same - obedience that stemmed from complete loyalty to their cause. To question the cause was seditious. Looking back now, I am amazed at my willingness to hand over so much of my life to complete strangers for a cause which, if I am honest, was of a much lower order than the defence of my country.
Driven by fear of dismissal
It wouldn't happen now - or would it? I know many who fear that any questioning of orders or of the cause would lead to disbarment from the officer corps at best and dismissal at worst. I know a chief executive who says that he expects every single one of his senior managers to answer the phone when he rings, wherever they are, whatever time it may be. Does he have the right just because he is their commanding officer? On the other hand, I know many who willingly give all their waking time and many of their nights to their employer because they enjoy the challenge. But for every one of those enthusiasts there are another two who feel that they have no choice but to give as much although much less willingly. It may be economic war these days, not armed war, but many of the conditions and behaviours are just the same.
Bribery is a poor alternative
The truth is that loyalty is now more essential than it ever was, but it is loyalty with a twist. Without loyalty, trust is impossible. And without trust our modern organisations cannot work. Things happen too fast, and too distantly in time and space, for anyone to be able to control it all. The twist is that blind loyalty can no longer be demanded by the organisation. It has to be earned instead. These are volunteer armies who fight the economic war, not conscripts. To buy their loyalty is expensive because the best of them have a market price, while to lock them in by fear of dismissal is to live with a workforce who will do only the minimum necessary to survive: mercenaries and conscripts make unreliable troops.
Unfortunately, bribery and fear are easier to work with than the better alternative. Earned loyalty requires a commitment to a common cause and respect for those in charge. Shareholder value may be a good measuring stick but, as a cause, it excites only the shareholder. There has to be something more than a measuring stick unless all are shareholders, and even then it is not everyone who is happy that money should be the only measure of achievement. Respect requires that those who lead have at least the endorsement of those whom they lead. Such things are obvious perhaps, but Regeneration is a tough reminder of what can happen when we ignore the obvious and demand loyalty as a right.