The folly of individual choice
It is very rare that I recommend a book, I did enough of that when I worked at Penguin Random House so I figure I’m due a break. And, to be honest, I’m baffled why my ex-colleagues didn’t acquire “The Lonely Century” by Noreena Hertz, because, quite frankly, it is brilliant. If ever there was a book for our current times, then this feels like it. But I’ll allow you to explore that for yourselves and instead move on to a few reflections that come from it.
If I think back to my early studies and career, I recognise now the relentless push towards individual focus in the workplace. Often driven by research from the US, we were encouraged to look at performance related pay, individual rather than collective bargaining and concepts such as engagement and discretionary effort. After decades of frustration caused by industrial disputes and fuddled business thinking, a new doctrine was emerging – singular choice.
I think most of us would conclude now that the push on performance related pay based on granular performance reviews is folly which failed to deliver on its one stated aim and of course we’ve seen the impact the individual bargaining has had on the gender pay gap, not to mention the inherent discrimination in many organisations against black, asian and other ethnic employees. And yet, the direction of travel continues through other elements such as pension choices, extreme flexible benefits and individual learning accounts.
And now, perhaps the biggest threat to collective organisational culture and support. The “choice” about where you work.
If anything, our workplaces and organisations should be a driver of societal cohesion. They should be places that bring people together to deliver collective outcomes and goals, they should be places in which we identify and feel we belong. They should be places that celebrate and welcome difference, through unity. They should be places that literally bring people together.
And in many cases they haven’t been anything like this.
The answer, however, cannot be to further fragment our organisations to allow people to choose when and if they come together with their colleagues. It cannot be to allow the behaviour of the majority to leave others feeling left out or to create organisations where only one “type” feels that they can truly fit in, or to create two or three tier organisations where only certain rules apply to certain groups.
The answer instead is to recreate our organisations around our communities, to be truly inclusive, cohesive and welcoming. Recognising that sometimes we all have to make individual sacrifices in the pursuit of a higher collective goal. Where we sign up (explicitly or implicitly) to support one another first and to think of ourselves thereafter, where the sum of the whole is greater than the individual parts. The answer has to be to try harder, not to give up.
If I think back to March this year, there was genuine hope that we would emerge from the pandemic having rediscovered concepts around community, collective identity, selflessness and the recognition of previously unsung heroes. As we go into the autumn and winter (and another lockdown) I worry this was more of a temporary blip, I sincerely hope I’m wrong.