by TS DeHaviland
Occasionally, commentators like me get raked over the proverbial coals for calling certain economists and corporate management types "evil."
But then you hear a story like the one Yuki Noguchi did for NPR last week. Noguchi, to her credit, pointed out that Robert Simons, of Harvard Business School, the vocal proponent of stacked ranking systems interviewed for this story, has tenure and is therefore not subject to the system. But nobody else in the story seemed to even blink when terms like these were used in reference to struggling employees:
"You have surgery to cut the cancer out."
"[I]it can sometimes work with an ailing business that has gotten too fat."
"[T]he bottom performers."
We're really talking about people here, of course, and struggling people to boot. We're not talking about pathologies or cellulite or even the "bottom performers," but people whose "performance" in any given position is a complex matter of what's going on their lives, what kind of relationship they have with their co-workers, and even what kind of work they're doing.
To glibly refer to people in this way simply means that the experts are being evil, callously distanced from the humanity of people who work. Calling someone a "cancer" simply because that person might have coworkers that don't like her or might be a poor fit for a position or might be expected to do impossible things on impossible deadlines with little or no support is simply unconscionable.
"Bottom performers" may, in fact, be the true innovators, but what they're doing may be beyond the ability of an organization, its managers, or the person's coworkers to understand.
And anyway, stacked ranking systems ask for fundamentally contradictory things: that people compete with one another but also act for the good of the team they work with and the organization as a whole. What part of the stupid-but-true cliche "There is no 'I' in 'team'" have proponents of stacked ranking not heard?
It gets much worse, of course: systems such as stacked ranking create cadres of people who gang up against the one or two scapegoats that they know they'll have to get rid of every year. This doesn't improve anything at all; it just poisons the atmosphere of work for everybody. After all, next year, the "poor performer" the popular kids decide to yank could be you.
The flippant attitude of those who purport to know about management is so deeply ingrained that the so-called proponent of employee engagement who is quoted here dismisses it even as she tries to explain it: "Employees like to hear that their opinion matters. They like to hear that their manager cares what they think."
Employees like to hear it, but if their opinions really don't matter and if the manager doesn't actually care what they think, if their opinions are never acted upon, then "engagement," like "empowerment" of the 1990s, will be just another empty business buzzword, just another mask for the deep-seated evil that all too often governs the terms of employment.