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Vertical To Horizontal: A New Workplace Reality

Written by Rune Kvist Olsen Saturday, 08 April 2006

The myth of management development

Management development programs are presumed to create greater involvement and participation in the workplace. As we have talked about earlier in this paper these efforts are first of all modernized ways to disguise the need for more advanced and sophisticated forms of controlling people in their workplace. The difference between what management programs pretend and what they really intend are substantial. Take empowerment programs. They pretends as follows:

  1. Delegation of responsibility from management to employees.
  2. No-hierarchical forms of work organization.
  3. Sharing of information between and within different levels of organization.

The specific workplace-mechanism through which these pretensions shall be realized are:

  1. Autonomous work-groups (teams)
  2. Decentralized information systems

Different research studies have stated that these measures represent relatively minor and marginal modifications to dominant, pre-existing, organizational forms and practices. Cunningham et.al.12 found in British studies that "empowerment fails to give employees much in the way of increased power and influence." Warhurst and Thompson13 state from their workplace studies that: The hollow laugh received when mentioning the word 'empowerment' in most organizations is the true test that employees at many levels experience this great 'innovation' less as the opportunity to exercise extra discretion, and more as the necessity to undertake more tasks. Bill Harley14 states in his research that: Employees who work in workplaces with any of the empowerment mechanisms in place, do not report any difference in their level of autonomy from employees who work in workplaces without the mechanisms. This is a very significant finding. It is consistent with the claim that practices allegedly associated with empowerment do not contribute to employee autonomy. Harley14 continues in his survey: Being a member of a management group is positively associated with autonomy, while being a member of other groups tends to be negatively associated. Harley arrives at the following conclusion in his survey: The relative capacity of individuals or groups to exert control over production is determined primarily by virtue of their respective positions within organizational hierarchies. Positions within hierarchies are defined in terms of their relationship to other positions. Managers are managers by virtue of their positions within hierarchies, which affords them the capacity to exercise power over their subordinates. Unless hierarchy disappears, it is extraordinary unlikely that we will witness a generalised shift in control from managers to employee. It is this fact of organizational life that provides the most compelling explanation of why empowerment does not empower workers.

The use of work-groups as a method in developing the workplace in a more autonomous direction can back-fire on these effort in the sense that group pressure instead works as a contributing factor in creating another form of conformity and servility. Markus Reihlen1 states this paradox in his research: The group-think effect emerges in strong coherent groups where group members attempt to realize unanimity, consensus, and harmony of their efforts. At the same time, the ability for creative thought and rational judgement are negatively affected by the group pressure. Reihlen1 concluded with the following statement concerning the effects of cultural control in a group: Excessive cultural control leads to the elimination of the pluralistic character and deprives the organization of its innovative abilities. Moreover, the organization will degenerate into a belief system sacrificing its creative potential to a uniform dogma. The author Louis Zurcher15 notes that individuals easily define themselves in terms of an organizational group in which they are included. He says: The individual tends toward rigid adherence to conventional values; submissive, uncritical attitude toward idealized moral authorities in the group, tendency to look for and punish people who violate conventional values, opposition to the subjective, imaginative or tender minded, tendency to think in rigid categories, preoccupation with dominance/submission, strong/weak, leader/follower categories.

Wendell Krossa3 says in his papers: We are in need of new structures for human organizing that will support new cooperative forms of human relating - truly egalitarian forms of relating. Max Weber16 (the father of modern sociology), developed a contrary ideology in this respect. Weber's16 belief in an organizational system (bureaucratic) regulated by rules, led him to undoubtedly accept the authority of some people over others. He accepted domination as legitimate and necessary, as an administrative structure to execute command and control. Weber16 developed his thoughts about organizations over a century ago. Fredrik Taylor17 industrialized these thoughts through his theory of Scientific Management in the beginning of the 19th century. But the ideas and visions of these pioneers in the history of organizations are still living in the best of health after almost 100 years. And that is an immense paradox when we know that everything in working life has changed character during the last century, aside from the organizational structure in the workplace. Therefore we can say, using Krossa's words 3: We, as developing human beings, are becoming more conscious of the nature of humanity as free, inclusive and egalitarian, but we still exist within controlling organizations. We continue to exist within primitive structures that orient us to the drives of our animal past. Wanda Marie Pasz18 adds to this evolutionary perspective: When it comes to the tools, methods and processes we use to get work done, we're light years ahead of our predecessors but when it comes to the values, the principles that form the basis of our relationships to and at work, we're stuck in the past - the deep, dark past.

As for management decision-making processes, subordinated people are needed to take part in the implementation of decisions of their superiors because of their roles as operators in this phase of the process. However they are often excluded from the decision making it self because they are not entitled to the authority to participate in this phase of the process because of their role as subordinates. Therefore the first phase - when the decisions are made - can be defined as informing, and the second phase - when decisions are being put into action - can be defined as involving. But the employees can nevertheless be characterized as participators whether they are just informed about decisions that are made (as receivers), or as operators who are involved in the implementing of the decision (as executers). In any case the employees are commanded and instructed to do so. So the term participation relates to a management practice that deals with control over the decision making process, and the power to determinate whether or when subordinate people shall be excluded or included in the process. Used in this context, the term participation refers to a management method (grounded on a vertical structure from the superior to the inferior), and not to anything mutual and reciprocal (grounded on a horizontal structure between equal people). As Bernhard and Glanz7 stated, attempts at developing organizations often give the illusion of participation, but come down to a management trick to make people work harder.

Management development is mainly focused on developing skills for competition, to be best all time, to attain the best advantage in competing with others, to succeed as winners and not be losers, to encourage promotions at the expense of others. In others words beating opponents and struggling to win the match at any cost through competition is the mantra of management development. Competition consists of two contrary elements which are literally beating each other as conquering factors. The constructive one is that it can mobilize and unleash sealed and untapped resources inside the human being. But when these potential resources are released and unpacked in a management process, they cause severe damage and harm in the relationships between people involved. That is because the destructive one is functioning in a contradicting way and is working against the total human resources in the organization. The resources inside the winners are being stimulated and appreciated, while the resources inside the losers are being looked upon as uncompetitive and unworthy of appreciation. The destructiveness of competition arises as we earlier have mentioned from the fact that it is a primal animalistic drive focused on dominating others. In competition the winners emerge as superiors, and the losers are relegated to inferior and subordinate status. And this diversification in rank, position, status and prestige, naturally undermines relationships between people as equals, and it destroys their ability and capabilities to communicate and cooperate on a mutual and trustworthy basis. Our ability to communicate and cooperate is determined by our degree of equality. This is because people must be on the same and horizontal level to be able to grant each other equal rights of personal freedom and mutual trust, and in that sense to be capable of communicating and cooperating with each other. On the vertical and hierarchical level people will, instead, be competing and giving information to each other, rather than communicating with each other in a cooperative manner.

To develop contesting and competing skills (even if the official and pretended purpose is to develop communicative and cooperative skills) managers attend training seminars in an effort to become better leaders. The vain hope is that a management training program will result in improved employee relationship and improved organizational performance. This effort is as we have argued earlier, an exercise in futilty for the company. Lots of research throughout the world documents the reality of the lack of improved profitability for the organization as a consequence of management training programs. Such programs include a small minority of people in the organization because of their superior ranks and positions, and excludes a vast majority of people grounded by their status as inferiors and subordinates. It is therefore obvious that the organizational effect of management program must be marginal, when most employees are kept out of these programs. These types of training programs are, therefore, only token measure. Such tokenism insults the people who are left outside as just another form of manipulation and control. Such management tools are understood by inferior people as nothing more than a means to dominate and control the many. This type of management practice is therefore viewed as tactic for securing benefits for the few at the further expense of the many.

What then are the alternatives to management development in organizational life? If we look at descriptions of the known alternatives, we will find that they are focused around work methods and work organization, and that they normally stop with the ideas of how work can be better managed through improved working methods, such as for instance working in teams. These suggestions however, lack any consideration on the creation of alternatives in relation to the distribution of power. It is the case that work methods are the result of how we choose to organize the work-situation. The power-structure is at the root of the work methods that we create. When the power-structure is in place in the organization, it informs how we are going to get the job done. Either in a vertical and hierarchical way based on superiors and subordinates, or in a horizontal and egalitarian way based on equals. Rothschild9 refers in her paper to the researcher Kanter. Kanter states that it is the structural features of modern organizations that determine organizational behaviour, much more than individual attributes. Therefore we have to start by forming the structure in one way or another, before we can develop the appropriate work methods, working conditions and working forms.

Other experts in the field of work will still argue that we don't have to change the current structures in our organizations. All that is necessary is to change people's attitudes so that they will behave more humanly towards each other, even though they still work within vertically and hierarchically structured organizations. The author Robert W. Fuller19 uses this argument for the preservation of status quo in regard to the contemporary vertical and hierarchical structure in organizations. He says: The authority of rank is so commonly misused that some jump to the conclusion that rank itself is the problem and that the solution is to do away with it. This kind of egalitarianism ignores the fact that people are inherently unequal... and that differences of rank in a particular context may correctly reflect this. The trouble is not with rank per se but with the abuse of rank. We rightfully admire and love authorities... who use the power of their rank in an exemplary way. Accepting their leadership entails no loss of dignity or opportunity by subordinates. Wanda Marie Pasz has some comments to Fuller's assertion about "our love of authorities". She states: It is the myth of the benevolent ruler that beloved bosses use their power in exemplary ways. The benign dictator or monarch who is so beloved by his subjects that they don't care about freedom. They want to submit. Their allegiance to their ruler doesn't cost them any loss of opportunity or dignity either (as long they continue in their brainwashed state). ...Since terms like 'dictator' or 'ruler' don't sit well with people in a democratic society, the workplace rulers are called 'leaders'. Accepting subjugation to them is, as Fuller puts it, 'accepting their leadership'.

Fuller19 states further: Given the serious consequences of confusing rankism (abuse of rank) and rank, it bears repeating that many power differentials are legitimate and that inveighing against them or against the differences in rank that mirror them is misguided and futile. Proposing to do away with differences in ranks makes about as much sense as the notion of doing away with differences in race or gender. Without a system of ranking, complex institutions might slip into a state of disorganization, if not anarchy. To Fuller's statement about the risk of anarchy without a system of ranking, we will refer to our earlier arguments in this matter. Anarchy, disorganization and chaos will only appear when people are not empowered and not in charge of their own self-being, and therefore cannot take personal responsibility for their own situation in the workplace (simply because they are not allowed their personal responsibility and independence according to the system of rank). In an outside based power-structure (vertical and hierarchical) individuals are dependent of superiors and the system of control and command to prevent themselves from the risk of anarchy and chaos.

Fuller is concerned about the abuse of rank (rankism) but does not see that rankism depends on a corresponding power-structure in the organization which, if we follow his reasoning, should be able to remove the main causes of rankism. He states for example that individual differences and inequalities must be reflected in corresponding differences in ranks, but cannot at the same time see that the system of rank is the cause to rankism. Because the system of rank is based upon vertical and hierarchical structuring, the system is not able to remove inequality in human relationships. The system of rank maintains and even generates more inequality, and that is its main purpose: to sustain the ranking order and to strengthen resistance to changing the current organizational structures. Wanda Marie Pazs argues to Fuller's theories as follows: He frames the oppressive system as something that is good and natural and is only a problem to the extent that certain managers get carried away with their power and do not-very-nice-things with it. Rank is good. Rankism is bad. He fails to recognize (or even to explore) that there is a causal relationship between rank and rankism. Rank not only causes rankism - it demands rankism. If you don't treat your subordinates like subordinates, you're going to get into trouble as a manager sooner or later. She writes further: Superiority is bestowed on the rankist. The rankist must be superior as a condition of his employment. The concept of sorting humans into different ranks is presented as something innate - just like nature sorts humans into different racial groups. Therefore individual differences and diversity in the workplace will be suppressed and oppressed as long as power is connected to position and rank. Individual differences will be liberated and released when power is connected to the real diversity in the organization and to the individuals as sovereign human beings.

To Fuller's credit he is concerned with the value of "dignity" in the workplace for all employees. But he does not see that to create dignity it is absolutely necessary to make a change in the power-structure from vertical and hierarchical to horizontal and egalitarian. The human value "dignity" can only be achieved through an organizational structure that is based upon equality, personal freedom and mutual trust between human beings on the same level. As we have mentioned earlier in this paper, subordination, submission and subservience in the relationship between superiors and inferiors, inevitably deprives the inferiors of their dignity as trustworthy persons and imbues the superiors with a sense of pride because of their authority as commanders and controllers. Wanda Marie Pasz has made some reflections about Fuller's thoughts of dignity. She argues: Subordination of human beings to other human beings, for whatever reason, deprives them of their dignity. It's not possible to restore or bring about dignity in the workplace - not on any meaningful level. Perhaps you can make people more comfortable in their oppressed state by being more pleasant to them and avoiding overtly demeaning behaviour, but the indignity of being subject to control by others is not remedied by employing a kinder, gentler hand to the commanding and controlling. A manager might be expected to command and control in exemplary ways but that doesn't typically enhance the sense of dignity of their subordinates. Usually it causes the converse: Fear, insecurity, intimidation. Managing in exemplary ways is about managing efficiently, improving productivity and profitability - period.

The only way to remove rankism is then to replace the ranking order (vertical and hierarchical structure) based on positions, with an order of equality (horizontal and egalitarian) based on personal responsibility and individual independence from outer control and command.

The author William Bridges20 also deals with the preservation of the current structures in organizational life. He argues: Since the ability to manage transition is tied to the realities of an actual leader in an actual situation, mutual trust between advisor (external consultant) and leader is essential. Bridges focuses on the leader to facilitate change by getting people through periods of transition through control by the leader. The leader can get people to transition and in the next turn create change. Bridges20 does not see that a connection between the individual processes inside the person and the corresponding structure will be necessary and essential to absorb and transform these individual processes to individual responsibility and personal independence. In Bridges' mind it is the leader who prompts both transformation and change within the individuals, through a vertical and hierarchical structure, where transformation passes through the hands of the superior on to the subordinates. Bridges20 concludes in his paper: The best leadership programs implicitly address the challenge of understanding change, they are experiential, tailored to the needs of the leader, and based on delivering real-world results.

Developing working forms on the basis of the vertical and hierarchical structure, will consequently demand a development of working forms with superiors and subordinates as the main linkage. Developing working forms on the basis of the horizontal and egalitarian structure, will however create working forms based on true and real equality between human beings in the workplace. If we are working towards real participation and are in need of real participative methods, we have to create a corresponding structure that is horizontal and egalitarian. This development will be based on our knowledge that only equality amongst people with the absence of ranks and positions, can create sufficient real participation in the workplace. If we do believe in true personal freedom and mutual trust as the means to create individual responsibility and personal independence at work, we have to make a complete break with vertical forms of relating and start moving toward a horizontal way of structuring the power flow in the organization.

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