In the light of Corona – Part 13: The (Un)holy Grail of Work

I have two favourite academic books: Karl Weick’s The Social Psychology of Organizing (2nd ed. in 1979), and a dissertation by Ari Ahonen from 2001. The first one is a well-known cornucopia of insights, but the second is known to but few: as a dissertation it was never broadly distributed, it was written in times before the dissertations were made digital – and it is in Finnish. So, should you want to read it, you would need to first know Finnish, and secondly go through the effort of locating a physical copy of the book from the library of Turku University.

(UPDATE: Someone has both read this blog and the dissertation! I got a tip that the opus IS actually available online. So, go see, now you only need to know Finnish!)

In his theoretical dissertation of epic size (+400 pages of deep reflection) and scope (close to 50 pages of references), Ahonen ponders why, after a hundred years of management and organization research we still have few definitive answers about the best way of organizing and leading. He goes through a mindboggling amount of literature spanning the century and distills his findings into four approaches: the history of the field has not progressed linearly from one paradigm to another, but is instead characterized by four different underlying paradigmatic assumption sets, each evolving on their own trajectories. He makes one fundamental conclusion in addressing his complex quandary – which resonates also in our time of disruption. But before discussing that, I’ll walk you through the building blocks of the book. 

Paradigms and dead-ends

In his book, Ahonen first paints the picture of each of the four paradigms and their evolution, and then makes another circle and discusses the dead-ends of each approach to come to and argue for his conclusion. Not only do the rational, humanistic, critical and relativist paradigms all have long histories, but they are all still present: the metaphors underpinning the approaches resonate still today, even if the vocabularies and point of emphasis have undergone changes throughout the times. 

First of the paradigms views the developments of the so-called ‘scientific management’ often attributed to Taylor and the early stages of the mass production, including the emergence of the factories and the specialization of the work force. In the rational paradigm, the metaphor is “The Machine”: an organization is a machine, honed for efficiency, and any organizing or management builds on maximizing the output of the human components of the machine. While not bluntly stated nor explicitly acknowledged, this is still the dominant paradigm as its benefits include effective and efficient ways of reaching the collective outcomes the machine is geared to accomplishing.

The dead end of this paradigm is evident: in good or bad, despite all efforts to the contrary, humans are still not machines, nor parts of one. No insertion of data or artificial intelligence into an organization can change that. 

The second approach, the humanistic paradigm, can be traced to philosophers seeking the secrets to individual freedom, self-expression and quality of life. The Hawthorne experiments by Mayo are the first applicable efforts to merging the philosophical discussions of the nature of human into the organizing of the human collectives, and have subsequently spurred a lot of the HR-related insights about the impact of employee satisfaction on their work outcomes. In the contemporary realm the discussions of self-actualization needs, work-life balance and creativity characterize this approach that can be described with the metaphor “The Individual is King”. 

The dead end of this approach is the problem of alignment between the individual and collective goals. To paraphrase Ahonen, quality of work-life is another issue than the quality of actual work. (To dig deeper into this theme, I suggest Frank Martela.) 

While it may at the first glance seem that they golden days of the third cluster of assumptions passed with the demise of the Soviet Union, the critical paradigm can still be identified in the political narratives of the newly emerged populistic parties. The origins can be traces to Marx and his kindred spirits who viewed work as a power struggle between the dominating and the oppressed classes. The labels have changed, but at the core is the metaphor of the “Underdogs and Suppressors”: work is but one representation of the aim of the powerful to hold on to their dominion through the mechanisms geared towards keeping the masses poor and powerless. 

The dead end of this approach is quirky: on the surface it seems that the humanity has been inching forward towards more equality and democracy, which, if true, would constitute a dead end based on the increased futility of screaming oppression. But underlying these appearances, the dead end builds on another, deeper futility: while the mechanisms and appearances of power change, ultimately Michels and Orwell got it right – there is no escaping the iron law of oligarchy.

To excavate the paradigms Ahonen leans heavily on Foucault. Thus, it is a bit paradoxic that the paradigm he most vehemently criticizes is the one born out of the post-modern perceptions, especially the ones leading to relativism. He dubs the literature in the fourth paradigm “managementese”, describing the ethos of self-acclaimed business gurus and consultants competing for the flashiness and fashionableness of the tips they are selling. The relativist paradigm epitomizes the “Post-truth era” where the ones shouting loudest are heard, opinions and facts are blurred, and no shared values exist as anything goes. 

While there are benefits to questioning whether the shared metanarratives can always be taken for granted, the fragmentation of anything collectively believed or targeted leads to a dead end: any collective action, work included, can be realized only if there is a pre-agreement of certain mutually shared aims and faiths that enable aligning the individual actions towards collective aims. 

Ahonen’s thesis: what do we know of managing and organizing?

After painstakingly digging into the plural discussions and insights of management and organizations, Ahonen concludes that despite the volumes of both academic and practitioner-oriented literature and the abundance of empirical effort evidenced everyday in the working environments, no philosopher’s stones have yet materialized. We know a lot, but still there is no optimal approach to organizing work. This leads Ahonen towards trying to understand why this is the case, and the answer to this constitutes his main contribution. 

The problem is embedded in the different perceptions of what work is, and in the subsequent incompatibility of the ensuing aims of work in general. Ahonen describes work as the Holy Grail of all human ambitions: the means for material wellbeing, self-expression and -actualization, a source of belonging and safety, a representation of social standing in the herd of human animals, and the mechanism of collective advances on the levels of the organization, a society or the whole of humanity.

For work to be about self-expression and self-actualization, it must include freedom to choose the individual goals the worker personally finds fulfilling and meaningful to pursue. However, pursuing material wellbeing or collective goals includes also such tasks that just need to be done, regardless of whether they fulfill anyone’s self-expression or self-actualization needs. They also entail hierarchies, which do enable the representation of social standing: the problem is that in a hierarchy, there is a limited number of slots on the upper levels, and as few aspire to a position on the bottom levels, the pursuit of material well-being or collective goals not only strips individuals of the freedom to choose, but also the craved after social standing. Belonging in a social group also requires the individual to give up levels of freedom for the benefit of the collective good. 

In other words, we assign work with ambitions that are logically at odds: we want it to fulfill our material, individual and collective aims, which are never fully compatible. The reason for the lack of insights about how to organize work in terms of getting it to satisfy everything we want it to satisfy, is the impossibility of satisfying all of those aspirations simultaneously. Yet we continue idolizing work as the source of everything good and valuable, which ultimately makes the academic and practical pursuits of figuring out the ‘best’ ways to organize and manage work a crusade, a quest of finding the Holy Grail. 

Take-away in terms of enduring disruptions

Taken apart, humans have always pursued happiness constituting of the satisfaction of material needs, the warm and fuzzy feelings brought on by relationships and social belonging, and of the possibilities of expressing themselves through doing whatever they deem meaningful. Work as we know it is a notably newer invention – and its role as the panacea to all human needs is even more recent. 

In itself, viewing work as the ikigai is by no means a bad idea. As most of us spend a notable portion of our lives working, striving to combine the necessity of procuring shelter and sustenance with more inspiring human needs, such as companionship or self-expression, is naturally commendable from the perspective of the individual. Equally, as research has shown that happy people are more productive, supporting the fulfillment of these individual needs when possible, is also a beneficial aim in terms of collective accomplishments.

However, the view becomes a problem when it becomes a taken for granted assumption, defining the value of an individual. For the individual, becoming unemployed means not only losing the means for procuring material necessities, but also losing the sense of self as a member of a society, and the sense of self-worth built on being able to pursue the self-actualization and -expression needs aligned to fit the demands and possibilities of working. From the perspective of the collective, this view promotes perceiving human happiness only as a means to an end, a carrot offered to the productive individuals in exchange for their efforts in realizing the goals of the collective. Subsequently, from the perspective of the collective, in becoming unproductive the human loses also the rights to happiness. 

In times of a disruption that has a notable impact on the level and nature of employment, continuing to view work as the Holy Grail is downright destructive. The different, logically incompatible aims of work must be decoupled and viewed and handled separately. Work must be distinguished into at least three distinct components, that each mandate different treatment in disruption. 

  1. Material well-being: In the so-called developed societies, people should not die of hunger nor for a lack of roof. Taking care of the individual material needs requires political decision-making that accepts the value of an individual beyond their value as mechanisms of production. Basic Universal Income and other social welfare mechanisms spell clearly out the depth of how well this is acknowledged in any given society. In a disruption these underlying values of the society are fundamentally revealed: do we use the economic tools available to governments to support the individuals or the non-entity of ‘economy’?
  2. Sense of belonging: As herd animals, humans have social needs. Here the responsibilities lie firmly within individuals. Are my circles based on the statuses and merits of the individuals around me, implicitly thus acknowledging that my belonging in a group also hinges on my status and merits? Or am I surrounded by individuals who I enjoy being with, and who enjoy being with me regardless of whatever any of us achieves? How disruption-proof is the circle of my friends: if I lose my job, do I also lose a notable portion of my social interaction? How open am I to bonding with individuals outside my work identity?
  3. Self-expression and self-actualization, i.e. meaning: Unlike other animals, we’re miserable without something that we perceive as meaningful beyond the immediate survival needs. We humans want our lives to mean something. Even if we don’t like our jobs, they often provide us with a feeling of being useful, and usefulness is easy to translate to meaningfulness. When we like our jobs, the meaningfulness emerges not only from usefulness but also from other types of self-actualization satisfactions. Apart from work, other sources of meaning include family and hobbies – and the interesting thing in most sources of meaning is that we only notice them when they are taken away from us. This is what a disruption typically does, and in the case of a pandemic, the impacts may reach to all three areas, touching not only our work, but also our family and hobbies. 

    This area of meaning is the most difficult to rebuild. Many of the disruptive changes resulting in a new normal mean that the old sources of meaning will no longer be available. As individuals and as collectives we must reinvent ourselves through reflecting our genuine values, our genuine preferences – what truly matters to us. What was the component in work that was personally the most fulfilling, and how can I go about re-establishing a context in which I can continue to draw fulfillment from that? How do I deal with the finality of losing someone, and how do I learn to move on towards new meaningful relationships? If I need to decouple work-to-make-ends-meet and the search for meaning, what types of new hobbies could offer me avenues for self-expression and self-actualization?

A disruption the scale and scope of the one we are living through is an opportunity to question some of the basic assumptions we in more normal times are blind to. One of those assumptions concerns the role of work, and it may well be that the changes now brought on by the disruption are such that we would have seen in the near future anyway, brought on by the technological advances, socio-political turmoil or the environmental calamities already converging into an age of turbulence. 

To address the changes in work, as societies, we need to question how we view the individual: is it only a component in a production machine? As individuals we need to question what truly matters to us: who are the people constituting the group I want to belong into, and what makes my life meaningful? No better time to fundamental reflection than now. 

To conclude, work is not the Holy Grail, nor does losing it spell out the end of everything – if we won’t let it.

Milla

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