17 May 2011

How does it happen?

Assume for a moment that most people in a corporation, if not all, are well intended. How does it happen that the corporation then ends up involved in things that are counter to such good intentions? This question has been one of the most interesting questions to me in my own corporate work. I spoke with many, many people in corporations, all over the world. These conversations were usually very immediate and personal, about the things that mattered most to those people. People were often hungry for a place to talk about what really mattered to them, and the corporate culture does not typically enable that. The very simplified version of this is that people do not actually spend a lot of time directly thinking about things like 'shareholder' value and such. Most people, even in the executive suite, are simply not 'motivated' be these things. They think about what you might expect them to think about and are moved by what you might expect them to be moved by: family, community, joy, love, etc.

Often the conversations I had lasted years, even decades, with particular leaders and corporations. In my experience, which is anecdotal, these leaders at all levels of a corporate enterprise, wanted to 'do the right thing' and typically had some view about what that was. It was also the case that there was a consistent gap between that desire and what was actually happening. This condition has been one of the central areas of inquiry for me over the past decades. In fairness, this condition also guided the selection of work in which I was engaged, so I have a slanted view. On the other hand, that view covers 40+ countries on every continent over a period of roughly 20 years.

My friend and colleague, Robert Hanig, often describes his work as having to do with enabling the 'proprioception' of the human system. In essence this means the system becoming self aware both at the level of the individual and the collective. This means there is a working and active correlation between the assumptions held, actions taken, and results accrued. The participants and enactors of the system hold and are informed by this awareness. Practically, this involves a whole variety of things, but this is the general idea. In the presence of such awareness the question about the ethics of the system and the individual can be meaningfully asked and correlated to decisions and actions.

This approach is distinct from a moralistic approach in which the results of such incongruence are understood as 'evil.' This distinction itself requires a great deal of capacity in the system in order for it to be authentic, rather than simply a kind of post hoc rationalization for the felt incongruence and tension. Such an approach does not attribute motives, or the very common complaint in many corporations that 'people are not motivated.' It is an inquiry into what moves people. Often there is direct conflict between what authentically moves people and how they understand their work. Most efforts to address this in the corporate structure are based on a premise of manipulation. In my experience most people are not directly moved by their work, particularly in corporate settings, but I have been interested to discover this in academia as well. It is a trade off for them, based on an assumed, and often unexamined structure of necessity. The result is at best a sense of felt conflict or tension, for the individual and in the human system as a whole. What is more typical is a kind of resignation and cynicism.

Much of the 'motivational' work is based on the premise that such resignation, suffering and cynicism are 'bad' and need to be fixed. functionally this is the assumption that the people themselves are 'bad' and need to be fixed. I have always viewed these feelings as sane and an accurate response to conditions present, in which one enters into a kind of horrific transaction, based on equally horrific assumptions, most of which is not made clear.

This weekend I spoke for a time with a woman who had recently left the corporate world. She had managed investment and marketing. At some point someone noticed that she was 'struggling.' The corporation hired a consultant to come and 'help' her. One of the things that they discovered was that she was receiving an average of 221 emails a day. Moreover, these emails were not informational, etc. They were consistently all 'requests' for specific tasks. All of these 'requests' were not coming from a single source, or even a concentrated source. The senders of these emails were unaware of one another or of their impact as a system. There was no or limited ability to say 'no' to these in the absence of such awareness. It is likely that some of these people were meeting with one another, but probably in a way that reinforced all of this, rather than revealing it. It is also probable the senders of all these emails were themselves in the same condition.

Her condition is not rare. It is the norm. No amount of individual coaching, efficiency, etc. are of any real use. Such efficiencies lead to more email. This is one of the myths contained and propagated by systems such as SAP. That is, in these circumstances even the most effective 'coaching' and whatnot become an enabler to the dysfunction of the system, actually scaling and amplifying that dysfunctionality. Heroic efforts create the same effect, typically at great cost to the 'heroes.'

Extrapolate this to an entire corporation. Extrapolate this to a globalized system of incorporation. Extrapolate this to the lives of all the people working in and effected by such a system. What is the reflective capacity of that system? To what extent do the structures and assumptions allow for reflection and awareness? How resilient is such a system? Add to this the quarterly myopia, 'driven' with the entire force of a globalized system of profit maximization and consolidation, based on the artificial notion that this is necessary for survival. Even the portions of such a system that are meant to be places of reflection and awareness, such as the strategic function, cannot really function as such under these conditions. In these conditions, to what extent can the system as a whole engage in the type of reflection and degree of awareness that are required for ethical action? We are enacting it, but we do not see that we are enacting it. We only feel the suffering and incongruence of such an enactment. We typically then seek to address that felt pain through a variety of coping mechanisms that actually serve to amplify the source of pain itself. It is literally a self enacted pedagogy of suffering and oppression.

This is how it happens, not by some centralized evil presence. One of the great myths is that as you move up the hierarchy of some system that you have more and more control over what happens; that you have more freedom. This is simply not true. The scale and complexity of these globalized corporations is really too great for that to be true. At the level of individual this eventually collapses in some way. This myth is one of the causes of 'mid-life' crisis. This model of 'freedom' is extremely flawed. It is actually a model of increased and increasing enslavement and objectification, violent by nature. This is one of the reasons that there is a constant stream of profitable management fads. These things are not manageable at any human scale. They can be lead, but such leadership would really look much more like Imperial China than any mechanistic management model. Because of the incongruence I suggested at the beginning of this post, it seems very unlikely to me that such systems can be 'democratized' in any meaningful or effective way. Much of the good intention and rhetoric about such democratization functionally becomes an effort to motivate, and is in that way simply manipulative.

The overall globalized corporate system is unconscious and based on false premises. Even as that becomes more and more evident, the action of the system is to complexify the model to account for the more and more evident inconsistencies and contradictions. The working model becomes increasingly unreal and abstract, even while arguing for its own practicality and necessity. It is a kind of insanity based on deeply rooted and now delusional understanding of the world. When it becomes unethical is when this is clearly seen and people continue to participate in and cooperate with this delusion. However, the structure of the enacted system tends to work to prevent such awareness, as we can see in the simple example I gave above.


  1. Reminds me of how at one point i caught myself complaining: somebody please tell me what to do, and then i said to myself, this is strange, given how i hate and have always resented being told what to do. I have been recently caught in this so often, i just let myself go, watch myself do whatever i want: i would always try to meditate for a few moments, feeling anxious about the deadlines from the law school, then eat till i am too tired to stay awake, then watch some youtube on line, then repete the whole process day after day. The only thing i intervened to control is to not eat bread or meat, things i crave whenever i force myself to read the research papers and journals. I just ran into a law journal called the Seperation of State and Business talking about how corporations have used money to control election and how states are ran, and thus seperation between them is needed.
    I have been reflecting about the incongruence between what is said and what is actually lived, the entire human right discourse to me is about moralising the right to exploit from its origin, all other well-being etc. are objectives in the future. I find myself asking why do academics ever talk in impersonal tones? Why do we always treat our point of view as what is the view of everyone, and the moment i write something which says my point of view...it fucking scared the hell out of my lecturers that i am recommanded to see doctors. Yes, go see doctors, when i hear that, i felt like a big "fuck you" is being slapped on my face.

  2. i talked to my lecturers and asked them what they are driven by, one said he sees states murdering officials international organisation and so he wants to force everyone in the class to see that there is a rule called the law of international organisation (title of his class) that says states can remove officials when they want to. The lecturer for Human Right and Business said that she wants to contribute to make the world a better place and then she said otherwise what is the point of living. The other lecturer said he wants to find peace because he thinks the western world and ideologies including international law are responsible for the mass murder and bombing happening and he feels he is so fragmented internally and he lacks self-awareness. All of these are strange moments for me to encounter because of the repressive aura emanating from them. I feel terrified as soon as i get to the vicinity of the first two and overflowed with love whenever i get to the third one.

    I read somewhere that the chinese character for Nature - Zi + Ran - means Self + Burn. To let the ego (memories and imaginations and of the shadowy self) burn in fire of present moment or conscious suffering, is that why we find ourselves walking on earth, caught in the spindle of necessity/fate?

  3. hi Serena. The conversation with your lecturers sounds very cool. I have no idea of course why you might feel those different ways around them, though it is interesting. I wonder, were you surprised by their answers to your question?

  4. I am most surprised by the first; not surprised at all by the second. I told both of them i feel terrified every time i am about to see them, the first had no response i can remember, the second was genuinely interested and asked me why. I said i have theories, one of them is that you resemble my mother and i strongly resist her attempts to control me. I remember the first professor told me how he used to give his pocket money from Oil-Executive Dad to Greenpeace in rebellion.