Thursday, April 20, 2006

Who moved my job?

You'll remember me saying in SHAM--I'm oversimplifying here, but it's the gist of things--that the great sin of Victimization was that it gave people a mechanism for evading responsibility for all they did, thus creating a generation of blame-shifters, while the great sin of Empowerment was that it made people feel overly responsible for all that happened to them, thus setting them up for a terrible descent into confusion and self-loathing when things don't go as planned. Though we see plenty of evidence of the Victimization Effect throughout society, the kind of mass-market Empowerment of which I wrote is a relatively new phenomenon (circa 1990 or so?), thus my argument about its ills was--I admit--largely theoretical.

There's a book out now, The Disposable American by New York Times business journalist Louis Uchitelle, that chronicles the rise of an ironic and disturbing new sense of fatalism among American workers. (That is not Uchitelle's primary theme, I hasten to add. He's basically arguing for corporate America and, yes, the government,* to be less Darwinistic and play more of a role in looking after its workers. But it's an important subtext.) Based partly on critical thinking and partly on personal interviews with a diverse cast of employees, Uchitelle makes the case that books like Who Moved My Cheese?,** far from equipping people to control their own destinies in the workplace (which of course is the supposed intent of such books and the cheery message of their ad copy), have just made Americans feel excessively bad about themselves in a world of downsizing and inevitable layoffs. In reality, says Uchitelle, workers do not have the power over their environment or even their own careers that the self-help movement makes them think they have, no matter how many books they read or seminars they attend. We probably know this instinctively, but we've pushed such knowledge aside amid the relentless onslaught of "be all you can be!" sloganeering.

In current market conditions (those conditions being one of Uchitelle's pet peeves), a company that's going to have a layoff is going to have a layoff. And it's going to do it based on factors that have little or nothing to do with your positive mental attitude. And it's going to do it without necessarily consulting you in the first place. Even when it comes to individual staffing decisions--"Should we fire Smith or Jones?" or merely "Does Smith deserve to work here anymore?"--people simply don't have the personal input or influence that they'd like to believe. There may be factors in such a decision that neither Smith nor Jones ever thought about. There may be deep-seated personality aspects of Smith or Jones that just rub bosses or other employees the wrong way. For all we know, there may be things that Smith and Jones are doing and saying--based on having read a book like Who Moved My Cheese?--that are actually causing them to be poorly regarded at work. That's not something Uchitelle says explicitly, but is it really so far-fetched? Have you ever been around someone who's just finished a course on "assertiveness"? I have, and such people, despite their best intentions in taking the course, can be obnoxious bordering on make-you-want-to-stab-them. (The joke about assertiveness training, which was very hot back at the peak of codependency fever, is that "You can tell when somebody's taking an assertiveness course: They're always sending back the food at restaurants, no matter how well or poorly it's prepared...")

Anyway, I think it's interesting reading.

* Uchitelle does write for the Times, after all.
** The link will take you to a fascinating little rumination on Johnson's famous book and related matters.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

Great post today! I also read Uchtelle's book, and it's a great book!

Anonymous said...

There's also the possibility that Smith may find himself laid off simply because Jones has seniority--or vice-versa, depending on the company's feelings towards accrued salary and benefits.

Steve Salerno said...

Exactly. Point being, this notion that a PMA combined with a good career plan inevitably affords you dominance over your environment-- regardless of all circumstances, variables beyond your control (or even your knowledge), and other random factors--is not just silly but actually counterproductive.

Anonymous said...

Incidentally, "Who moved my job?" is a great title. If you didn't steal it, you should use it somewhere...

Anonymous said...

Thanks for tipping me to this book. It's a good book, as far as I've gotten, and you make good points about it.-- Tasha

Anonymous said...

If stewardesses have college degrees when their job doesn't require it, maybe it is because our colleges don't teach anything other than useless leftist propaganda meant to keep the worthless faculty employed. We have plenty of engineers out there doing computer programming they could have done in high school because their grant hugging professors were out of touch with the needs of industry. And all the crazy schemes of corporate governance were learned by the praetorian soviet style of elections and governance of all the nonprofit board, and alumni and trade associations where the supposed intelligentsia goes to show off. If all the rigor of oversight in securities applied also to research and other nonprofit grants, a third of our professoriate would be behind bars. This book is jibberish. No wonder Stalin felt the effete affected intelligentsia of media and academia were his prize useful idiots. All he had to do was coddle their narcissism and they would do ANYTHING without the slightest pang of conscience! This is what we expect from the gunless, carless, houseless, soulless, botox-deadened urban vermin. The reason we have layoffs and need a lot more of them is because of all the people whose minds were polluted by such trash.

Mark said...

I used that title for my book! Look at www.whomovedmyjob.com