Sunday 7 April 2013

Meaning at work and why we lost it

It was Hilary Clinton who first coined the phrase 'the politics of meaning'.  I wrote about that in the collection of essays called Reinventing the State, which had rather a good picture of Chris Huhne on the front, and argued that Liberals should avoid positioning themselves as a wholly secular philosophy.

I must admit that the essay had nothing whatever to do with reinventing the state, so the editors were very generous in overlooking this and publishing it anyway.

What I wanted to say was that, although many people who are attracted to Liberal politics are not religious, many are also searching for some kind of spiritual understanding.  In the USA, it is widely argued that the Democrats made a mistake by aligning themselves wholly with secular modernity, and driving those who are sceptical about it into the arms of the so-called ‘theo-cons’.

The figures for those who still struggle with spirituality in the UK (about three quarters), rather than just those who go regularly to church, suggest that these ‘theo-cons’ are exploiting a real human need which progressives dismiss at their peril. It is a need that many, both rich and poor, face at some point in their lives, and described in the United States by Rabbi Michael Lerner as a ‘crisis of meaning’.

They want their lives to be about more than just money and material security. They search for a language in which to express this politically, finding it often in green campaigns or similar. Yet the more they search for that language in politics, the more the progressive forces concentrate on material security and suppress anything remotely spiritual, for fear that it is some kind of conservatism in disguise. 

It is imperative that liberal and progressive forces develop an understanding of this spiritual crisis, and a progressive politics of Meaning to counter the right-wing politics of Meaning,’ wrote Lerner. That is a North American interpretation, but it is relevant here too.

I thought of all this again during the 2011 riots.  Heavens, I even wrote about the riots and meaning.  And then again when I got a fascinating essay through from the management consultants McKinsey about increasing what they called the 'Meaning Quotient' at work.

The article is by Susie Cranston and Scott Keller and suggests we should think of MQ alongside IQ and EQ as a key factor in success, except of course that MQ is a kind of group measure.  They are absolutely right that MQ requires employees to be given responsibility and a sense of excitement and purpose, but hazy about how it can be achieved.

This is fascinating and ironic too, given that McKinsey has been so corrosive of MQ in so many public services, with their advocacy of iron control, spurious measurement and ever more controlling IT systems.  Their central maxim - 'everything can be measured and what can be measured can be managed' - is such a dangerous fallacy exactly because it corrodes meaning at work.

The descriptions of the latest equipment in Amazon's warehouses earlier this year reveal what are in effect Meaning Free Zones, where they measure everyone even in the toilet, and discourage conversation.  Whether McKinsey were the main instigators of this working style or not, this is the direction that management is going in the world and it is a recipe for ineffectiveness - for all the reasons that Cranston and Keller suggest.

Perhaps this means a major change of direction by McKinsey.  I hope so, but I suspect they remain as Taylorist as ever when it comes to dealing with minions - and we are going to have to wreak this revolution ourselves.  If we want our services to be effective and cost-effective.

1 comment:

William Cohen said...

One huge Behemoth that undermines meaning is the National Health Service.

My mother was a Christian Scientist. They believe that spiritual healing is the answer to most physical suffering. So if you've got an allergy or a pain in your foot, they would invite you to reflect on your relationship with God.

Are these ailments symbolic of any abuse of your foot or some unresolved conflict in your life?

The answer is to pray.

By contrast, the modern secular attitude to health is to ask the doctors to seek some cause based on the body or your metabolism.

This is likely to mean treatment with drugs or surgery.

Of course most people want the latter. They would see the former as superstition.

But the former can help us find meaning in our suffering. It forces us to reflect. Maybe we need to change our behaviour instead of taking a drug.

Having experienced many setbacks in my career as a self-employed person, I see myself as my own worst enemy. So I say prayers before I start work every morning.

Prayers give the mind a chance to settle. You can work out why you're doing what you're doing.

Whereas when you're incredibly busy, you're just acting to drive out the fear of failure.

They still say prayers in the House of Commons, how many other organisations still do it?