As the man­agers moved in

The de­cline of the pro­fes­sional and rise of ca­reer man­agers marked the de­cline of in­tegrity in the work­place

The Witness - - OPINION - Christopher Mer­rett

ACROWNING mo­ment of a life­time’s pro­fes­sional work would in the past have been a hand­ing over to one’s younger, com­pe­tent suc­ces­sor, con­fi­dent that while times in­evitably move on, val­ues and prin­ci­ples would be care­fully pre­served and in­sti­tu­tional in­tegrity nur­tured.

The new gen­er­a­tion would, of course, face new chal­lenges and need to adapt, es­pe­cially in the area of tech­nol­ogy.

Such was my ex­pec­ta­tion when I took on new re­spon­si­bil­i­ties early in my ca­reer. In each case my pre­de­ces­sor was some­one to be re­spected and broadly em­u­lated. By the time I had reached the lofty heights of late ca­reer, those sorts of ex­pec­ta­tion had flown out of the win­dow. Over 15 years I ex­ited three jobs. One is now but a pale bu­reau­cratic shadow of its for­mer self. The oth­ers no longer ex­ist, bro­ken up in self-serv­ing re­struc­tur­ing ex­er­cises, the re­sult either of ide­ol­ogy or per­sonal am­bi­tion.

Look­ing back, on bad days, I won­der why I had both­ered and not re­served my con­sid­er­able en­er­gies for ac­tiv­i­ties that would have given me a long-last­ing sense of achieve­ment and sat­is­fac­tion. I sus­pect that many pro­fes­sional peo­ple now re­tire not with feel­ings of a ca­reer well-spent, but re­gret, frus­tra­tion and maybe even bit­ter­ness.

It does not re­quire much in­sight to con­clude that this does not au­gur well for in­sti­tu­tions es­sen­tial to society’s well­be­ing. The con­cepts of cus­to­di­an­ship, cor­po­rate mem­ory and le­gacy have been con­signed to the bon­fire of dis­carded ad­min­is­tra­tive val­ues. So, in­deed, has the whole idea of ad­min­is­tra­tion. We now in­habit a world of man­agers who, if given half a chance, add a mean­ing­less ad­jec­tive like process or ex­ec­u­tive to their ti­tles. They come with very ex­pen­sive salaries at­tached.

The most sig­nif­i­cant change in the work­place in the last half-cen­tury has not been com­put­er­i­sa­tion, but the de­cline of the pro­fes­sional. The rea­sons for this go back to the dis­mal eight­ies when the con­cept of man­age­ri­al­ism first be­gan to stalk the work­place in a se­ri­ous way and spread like cancer. It was a rev­o­lu­tion scarcely recog­nised at the time. That is the way of dra­matic change, which tends to creep up unan­nounced rather than crash nois­ily into our lives. It was based on the Thatcherite premise that work­ing life is es­sen­tially two-di­men­sional: the car­rot and the stick; re­ward and dis­ci­pline. It dis­counted, and of­ten treated with pro­found con­tempt, the idea that work is a creative need based on a range of hu­man strengths and virtues — imag­i­na­tion, com­mit­ment, prin­ci­ple, good judg­ment and ini­tia­tive among them — which ben­e­fit in­sti­tu­tions and society alike.

Fi­nance, pro­cure­ment and hu­man re­sources de­part­ments aban­doned their hon­ourable ser­vice roles and be­came pol­icy mak­ers, run­ning in­sti­tu­tions at the ex­pense of the pro­fes­sion­ally trained. The lat­ter largely had them­selves to blame for this: a dou­ble fail­ure to act with col­lec­tive de­ter­mi­na­tion and re­solve, and recog­nise the value and im­por­tance of qual­ity ad­min­is­tra­tion. Too few pro­fes­sion­als took on ad­min­is­tra­tive roles be­cause they were not ac­corded suf­fi­cient sta­tus.

The man­agers moved in. To­tally un­suit­able peo­ple rapidly rose into the ranks of man­age­ment; those whose char­ac­ters and per­sonal agen­das were suited to car­rot and stick tac­tics. They were of­ten se­lected on the grounds not of col­le­gial­ity and con­struc­tive in­tent, but ag­gres­sive in­cli­na­tion.

The aim was to sup­press pro­fes­sional in­de­pen­dence and cre­ate a docile labour force. Mind­less bu­reau­cracy, and end­less re­struc­tur­ing, took root. De­ci­sions of­ten in­stinc­tive to the well-trained, well-ed­u­cated and in­tel­li­gent now took aeons to re­solve and this nur­tured a cul­ture of in­com­pe­tence that, naturally enough, at­tracted and re­cruited fur­ther le­gions of the un­suit­able.

Lo­cal au­ton­omy and an­swer­abil­ity were ma­jor ca­su­al­ties: cen­tral­ism was the refuge of the in­ad­e­quate and a means of wield­ing and re­tain­ing power.

Paul Hoff­man of Ac­count­abil­ity Now re­cently drew at­ten­tion to the in­tegrity and trust deficit in pub­lic life. He was writ­ing in par­tic­u­lar of the state cap­ture in­quiry and the dis­mal prospects of re­cov­er­ing the loot. But his ob­ser­va­tion is re­flected in so many in­di­vid­ual in­sti­tu­tions where pro­fes­sional val­ues have dis­ap­peared to be re­placed by the ac­tiv­i­ties of cyn­i­cal op­er­a­tors.

Short-ter­mism is part of the prob­lem: the cur­rent fash­ion to ap­point at se­nior lev­els on fixed-term con­tracts (usu­ally no more than five years) rather than with the long view. This puts paid to the con­cept of cus­to­di­an­ship in both pub­lic and pri­vate sec­tors. Man­agers come and go in pri­mary pur­suit of their own ca­reers, be­hav­ing like wreck­ing balls as they seek to prove how much “change” they can achieve, re­gard­less of whether or not it is needed, or leads to any ma­te­rial im­prove­ment. What does mat­ter is their next step up the ca­reer (and wealth) lad­der. The old idea that it is the duty of those in se­nior po­si­tions to place an in­sti­tu­tion and its users and staff ahead of per­sonal con­sid­er­a­tion has long since died. The world of the self­ish and self­cen­tred has al­ways ex­isted. Now it has society’s af­fir­ma­tion.

No young per­son has ever asked my ad­vice, but were one to do so I would ad­vo­cate stay­ing away from in­sti­tu­tions. Sooner, or later if you are lucky, they de­stroy your hopes and try to erase your val­ues.

Rather find a niche that al­lows self­em­ploy­ment or work­ing col­lec­tively with col­leagues of like mind you can trust. That is one way to keep the wreck­ers at bay. But the long-term con­se­quences for society are hardly en­cour­ag­ing. In­deed, the very mean­ing of society dis­in­te­grates in such con­di­tions.

• Christopher Mer­rett is a for­mer aca­demic li­brar­ian, univer­sity ad­min­is­tra­tor and jour­nal­ist based in Pi­eter­mar­itzburg. He has a blog called From the Thorn­veld.

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