Friday, June 7, 2013

Law of the Concrete Jungle

Micheal J. Burt & Colby B. Jubenville, Zebras and Cheetahs: Look Different and Stay Agile to Survive the Business Jungle

Burt and Jubenville claim they devised this book after hearing the Guns’n’Roses classic “Welcome to the Jungle.” Any fan would wonder how closely they listened to the lyrics, which describe a city of moral degradation where one survives by constant hustling. Though cube farm life may seem hairy, it certainly doesn’t justify that comparison. But I suspect that’s retrospective reasoning. This book’s reality is much worse.

Rather than advocating Tarzan-like preparedness in facing the “concrete jungle,” these authors expect managers to corral workers into “collective passion.” This means exactly what it sounds like, and perhaps makes sense from a profit-and-loss perspective. They want managers to push workers into levels of accomplishment they’ve never seen before. But Burt and Jubenville commit little slips that reveal their implicit assumptions.

Nearly every page contains buzzwords so abstruse that I scarcely get through three paragraphs without teeth-grinding frustration. Free tip: any philosophical precept that needs more than a one-sentence definition is probably hiding something. Take this favorite, “dominant aspiration.” That aspiration is not yours, or even your manager’s, it belongs to your company. That means their aspiration dominates you.

In some environments, this makes sense. Both Burt and Jubenville are former pro coaches. In sports, the team wants to win, so the coach wants to win, so the players want to win. But unless you’re an athlete or entrepreneur, consider your company’s goals. Do you share them, too? If that aspiration, separate from your paycheck, motivated you, would you leave your spouse, children, and home to spend eight (or more) hours pursuing it daily?

Probably not.

I want to weep when I read passages like: “Tribe members want to know what their future with the tribe will look like.” First, the word “tribe” may have positive connotations (the Tribes of Israel), but mainly reflects colonial attitudes. European empires said “tribe” to diminish and subjugate Indian and African nations. Calling your workers a “tribe” basically acknowledges their conquered status.

Second, no they don’t. Workers want their work to matter. In traditional skills, we measure outputs: a well-framed house, healed patient, or bountiful crop. Futures are assured and rewards secured through hard, skillful service. The Bible says, “Thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things.” But white-collar sweatshops have no quantifiable outputs. This statement only makes sense when individual effort vanishes down a hole.

But this book essentially endorses such meaninglessness. It repeatedly describes workers as tribe members, herd animals, and children. Presumably, the authors don’t expect workers to read this book, because even hardened capitalists cannot miss the implication: shut up and accept the hierarchy. Success comes not from doing well, but from conforming to outsiders’ expectations.

From a distance, some sections seem more sympathetic. For instance, Burt and Jubenville advocate nurturing workers’ “body, mind, heart, and spirit” to maximize their potential. But they don’t really want to make workers better people; they want workers to “buy in to the dominant aspiration of the tribe”—that is, accept corporate goals as their own. They explicitly define success as workers submitting to arbitrary corporate structure.

Beyond literal words, consider what a manager becomes in that environment. Instead of leading, making decisions, or having power, they wrangle workers, persuading them to share company goals. But managers have no authority over the message, and little authority to make meaningful decisions. This book implicitly requires managers to be as broken-spirited as their subordinates.

Matthew B. Crawford, writing about “The Contradictions of the Cubicle,” says that “authority becomes smarmy and passive-aggressive, trying to pass itself off as something cooperative and friendly; as volunteerism.” We see that played out in real time with this book. Instead of demanding anything of leaders, or making them demand anything of the team, it camouflages dependence and subservience as democracy.

At heart, this book describes a plan for cheerful self-abnegation in an environment where workers don’t own their work, output, or time. It privileges forms of order over mechanisms of production, and would, I believe, precipitate immediate rebellion in any environment manufacturing concrete goods. It represents abstract management in a milieu of abstract work creating abstract stock.

This book in itself makes me angry. But worse, it represents the result of quasi-capitalism, a philosophy of social management contending that workers should achieve personal fulfillment by accomplishing others’ goals. It disguises its message in glittering generalities. If you ever wonder why you work hard and never get ahead, look at this book, and others like it, and sigh.

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