The paradox of control

Here’s a zen-like thought for you; water – to be controlled – must be allowed to flow free.

Ponder this thought for a moment. To control the flow of water, to capture it, use it, harness it, we have to provide only the shape of the vessel. You cannot grab water. You cannot wrestle with water. You cannot bully or punish water into doing what you want.

People are like water.

Trying to force a person to do something is counter productive. Even if they do what you want they do it begrudgingly, slowly, regretfully. They’ll do it as long as you punish them and the minute you stop – so will they. As an added bonus they’ll have cultivated a finely honed dislike – even hatred – for you.

This is the paradox of the modern working environment.  Some settings, such as factories, require continuous work of a certain type. In this context it is necessary for people to follow strict instructions. Yet the white-collar office work so many people are now employed in is not this type of context. Work is largely self-driven. There is no sense of immediate necessity. A report can be written now or in two hours. A spreadsheet can be modified today or tomorrow – or next week. The whole system won’t break down if one person – or many – is not working at a certain pace.

So why then do we treat office workers like assembly line workers? 

Traditional management styles – even more modern enlightened ones – start with a basic premise; workers must be coerced into working a specific way.

That specific way is typically a high rate of responding. We want people to be always working. Constantly on-task and focused. Laziness, that is to say the act of not constantly working, is looked down on, punished, and derided. A good worker is someone who is in the office at 8am, leaves at 6pm and takes only the mandated twenty five minutes for a hasty lunch. In some places even the sheer temerity expressed by some in wanting to use the bathroom more than once is seen as a punishable offence.

Yet workers remain unhappy. We do it because we have to. We suit and boot ourselves in restrictive clothing, drag ourselves out of bed and trudge to work where we inject our systems with high volumes of caffeine and nicotine laced consumables do some work and then sit, twiddling our thumbs, “looking busy” until lunch time which we wolf down to make sure we are back, promptly, at 1pm to do a short burst of work before sitting and clock watching until we are finally allowed to leave.

If, in this scenario, a worker cannot work constantly, then it’s their fault. They have a bad work ethic. They are lazy. They are disrespectful. The idea that 5 days a week, 8am-6pm, confined-to-the-desk setup might somehow be flawed is not questioned.

We worship at the altar of this modern work routine.

But should we?

It’s a well known secret that our ability to concentrate is limited to short bursts. Our capacity to work creatively and successfully drops off sharply with time. This is something you can validate yourself. If you actually kept a diary of your day you might be horrified to see how little work actually gets done “on company time”.

I want to offer you – Mr and Mrs. Manager or Employer – a radical solution; stop trying to control your staff. 

This solution requires trust and a certain degree of steel cajones but if you are prepared to buck the conventional wisdom you will be rewarded more than you can imagine.

The first thing you can probably do is relax the dress code. Seriously. Wearing a tie or uncomfortable polyester/cotton blend business clothing is antithetical to proper thinking. Trust me.

Second shorten the work week. Seriously. Allow people a “free day”, usually Friday, to work from home, or work on their own projects, or just do nothing. The value of a three day weekend is highly underestimated and you’d be stunned at how productive people can be when given free reign to be so.

Third and this is so so so essentially. TRUST your employees. Trust that they will do the work. Trust that they can engage with the tasks they are set without constant oversight.

A colleague of mine remarked once that in a previous life they had a job in a call centre and their office manager was so overbearing and strict that everyone in the office misbehaved and messed around whenever the manager wasn’t breathing down their neck.

Trust goes a long way to remedy this.

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