Are corporate leaders losing the plot?

Oct 16 2007 by John Blackwell Print This Article

A recent business trip meant I had to catch a short 90-minute flight. But as has become the norm in this day and age, the World's (formally) Favourite Airline chose to intern me for the obligatory seven hours in each direction.

This gave me plenty of time to digest their in-flight business advice – the generously titled "Business Life". Aside from all the usual commentary aimed at convincing the reader they're completely out-of-touch if they've not got the latest gadget or outsourced their children's birthdays to a third party, one article leapt off the page for its ill-intentioned, numb-brained advice and observation.

The article in question discussed in positively glowing terms the latest corporate trend for monitoring – make that spying - on every aspect of their employee's behaviour. It applauded the adoption of software to scrutinise staff e-mails for "inappropriate words" and possible divulgence of company secrets.

The article oozed with admiration over the emergence of software to check every staff phone call to ensure they're not discussing family or social topics, or heaven-forbid mentioning "the company". And when it emerged that several companies have installed CCTV to follow their employee's around the workplace, the article whooped with joy. The authors were virtually uncontrollable at the thought of extending CCTV surveillance to employees' areas of residence.

Can you conceivably imagine a more Orwellian existence than having corporate CCTV following you around your village, with camera's swivelling towards your front door every time you come and go, watching and listening for every inappropriate word that might reflect badly against "the company"?

Yet alarmingly, research has shown that two-thirds of companies already use software to block websites deemed inappropriate. Around half retain and review employee's e-mail messages and monitor their phone calls, while more than a third have even installed software to track keyboard strokes, and time spent at the computer.

This article led me to ponder the fragile state of mind of today's executives. Have they taken leave of their senses or are they retreating into paranoid isolation?

What's Driving Workplace Change?

There's no one single, simple answer to what's driving the huge changes sweeping our workplaces. That said, however, these changes are, to a large extent, being driven by workforces themselves.

Workforces are increasingly at the blunt end of every management decision – both good and bad. We find that largely, employees are a passionate and committed lot, and there's a lot of reality to be found in the old adage of "there's no such thing as a bad employee, there's only bad managers".

In recent years, employees have been exposed to a torrent of management trends. They have been rightsized and downsized, good people have been thrown out on a whim and jobs are deemed no longer to exist.

The employer-employee relationship is a voluntary union that must be based on mutual respect and trust

They've had legions of boardroom 'fat-cats' telling them to do more, faster, and better with less. They've been repeatedly told they need to be more productive. They've been pushed and cajoled into dauntingly complex matrixed organizations. And they increasingly find themselves simultaneously juggling multiple projects that frequently have a pan-organisation or global reach.

Well, surprise, surprise – our resilient employees are fighting back. With the spiralling availability of tools that allow anytime anywhere working, it's now projected that by 2010 employees will be spending just five per cent of their time working in the same place and at the same time as their colleagues. And ninety-five per cent of workers will be working alone, in a different place or at a different time.

Today's reality is that, as talent becomes an increasing rare commodity, employees are seizing every opportunity to choose the location and timing to deliver their work output – fitting it in with optimal productivity and lifestyle needs.

Managing in a Changing World

There's one inescapable fact-of-life that hiring a private eye to snoop on an unfaithful spouse doesn't bring about fidelity – it simply confirms there's been an irretrievable breakdown on the bond of trust.

A marriage is about the meeting of two free-spirited, free-thinking individuals who voluntarily agree to form a union, to respect and to trust each other. The workplace is no different.

The employer-employee relationship is a voluntary union that must be based on mutual respect and trust. The primary reason for companies employing "human being's" rather than "human doing's" is because the employer values the free-thinking, sentient individuals able to conceive and create products, services and solutions beyond the norm.

To deliver the levels of creativity and innovation that elevates performance to world-class, employees must be granted the support, the freedom, and unswerving levels of trust from their managers that allow them to fulfil their optimum performance.

Against this backdrop, snooping on employees is totally an totally flawed strategy. If the work relationship has sunk to such levels that managers feel compelled to allocate resources to spying on their staff, then the trust will undoubtedly be long-gone. And if the trust has gone, how on earth can managers expect anything approaching optimal performance?

Out-of-control management insecurities certainly don't foster harmony and world-class output. What's wrong with an employee ordering their groceries online while at work if they are delivering world-class output? What's wrong with an employee 'chatting' to a colleague on Instant Messenger if it fosters a closer working relationship? Would any right-minded employer try to stop employees chatting over lunch?

Is it not better to encourage an open working environment where staff can feel free to voice dissent and grievance – if such issues exist, surely it's better to know about it rather than suppress them into ongoing simmering long-term dissatisfaction.

It's wrong for managers to assume they can hide behind the cloak of "preventing employees being disruptive" by prohibiting staff from freely using communication tools and web services – let's face it, I can be disruptive with a pencil so should we be banning graphite writing tools from the workplace? I think not.

There's no getting away from the fact that managers have got to adapt to survive in this new world workplace or accept that they must leave. Managers must shed the old status symbols of command and control, and instead operate in a virtual world of guidance and encouragement.

Central to this adaptation is that the old conventions of work be rewritten around mutual trust and performance measures that don't rely on spying.

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About The Author

John Blackwell
John Blackwell

John Blackwell is a sought after global thought-leader on effective business operation. His is author of over 30 management books and a visiting fellow at three leading universities.