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It’s Time to Ditch Abusive Corporate Management Styles

What is a Cycle of Abuse?

In mid-October of 2008 I left a job that provided me with health insurance, a 401k, life insurance, and a regular income because I just couldn’t stand to do the work for one single minute more in good conscience. But beyond that, I realized that by staying in that particular work environment, I was legitmating a management style that is based on something psychologists refer to as a ‘cycle of abuse’.

What is a cycle of abuse?

In the first part of the cycle, the abuser, frustrated by factors often totally unrelated to his/her relationship to the abused, lashes out in a negative way through violence, harsh and/or unwarranted criticism, or verbal and/or emotional abuse, (such as swearing, demeaning put-downs, withholding praise and affection when it is clearly warranted, etc). Unreasonable expectations are often placed on the victim with harsh penalties for not meeting these expectations. This kind of treatment leads to a crisis of confidence and an erosion of the victim’s emotional well-being that becomes so severe the victim considers leaving the relationship.

At this point, the second part of the cycle of abuse kicks in. In this phase, often called ‘the honeymoon phase’, the abuser suddenly becomes remorseful and solicitous, heaping praise and affection on the victim and convincing him or her to stay in the relationship. Once the relationship is reinforced in this way and the victim is convinced to stay, the abusive half of the cycle starts anew.

The longterm effect of a cycle of abuse is to psychologically wear down the victim by creating a constant state of emotional and mental uncertainty, and thereby making the victim feel that the abusive relationship is all that he/she deserves and all that there is available. We see this most dramatically in the physically abusive romantic or marital relationship, in which (usually) the wife is repeatedly beaten but won’t leave out of fear of reprisal or fear of being alone. People outside this relationship are often highly critical of the woman and will openly blame her for putting up with the abuse.

While it is true that the only way to end the abuse is for the victim to gather the courage to leave, it is also true that the very purpose of the relationship is to render the victim so emotionally and physically ill and afraid that summoning this courage is almost impossible. Plus, the danger of leaving an abusive relationship is not imaginary. Reprisals for leaving these types of relationships are very real, tragic, and sadly, happen every single day.

The period immediately following an abused wife’s attempt to leave the relationship is so dangerous that counselors advise careful planning of each step and detail before making the actual break. More women are killed by their own husbands or lovers while they are trying to leave abusive relationships than are killed by strangers or anonymous criminals. These murders are ultimate acts of punishment doled out in fits of rage. That’s why there is such a great need for undisclosed halfway houses and safe houses: Such places provide a safe haven in the first weeks after the actual break.

What is often forgotton in this drama is that people who employ abusive treatment to maintain control in relationships are generally insecure, emotionally stunted, and lacking in specific social skills. They use abusive techniques because 1) they work, and 2) they don’t know another way and don’t want to know another way. Cultural conditioning often creates the low expectations that get people into these bad relationships. Societal and family pressure can keep them there once they’ve made that initial bad decision.

Welcome to Gigantocorp, Loser

So, how does this familiar and tragic scenario play out in today’s workplace?

As manufacturing disappears from the American business landscape, corporate office pools have become the new sweatshops of the 21st century. Few have unions, entry-level wages are low, and turnover is kept deliberately high. The management style in most call centers and other kinds of corporate cublicle offices is based on extreme quantification of every possible variable for the work, up to and including allotted bathroom time (if any is allotted, which often it is not). Frequent standardized reviews are the norm.

As anyone who has ever worked in a non-union factory will tell you, the key to keeping wages low and production high in such shops is to run time studies on the tasks performed and then set the bar for reinforcement (via increased wages or other perks) unreasonably high. Should too many workers actually reach the bar, you simply reset the bar higher. It’s important to allow a few people to succeed to show the others that ‘it can be done’ (never mind if it should be done!), but you don’t want this percentage to be too high, and once someone does succeed, you must immediately ‘reward’ that person by requiring more work.

They’ve proven they can do more, so now they must do more.

By demanding ever more work for the same wages, and by making the wages themselves dependent on satisfying unrealistic standards for performing work, the stage is set for an abusive management style. The template for each weekly and/or monthly performance review requires finding more areas of weakness than areas of competence. Afterward, unrealistic new goals are then set for the next review. Statistical analysis is the base of all of it, so there is an obsession with one’s ‘stats’ above just about all else.

The review process should leave the worker feeling that his or her job is in constant danger unless performance is improved, even though the truth is that the worker’s job is in danger from day one as a matter of corporate policy, no matter how he or she performs. In these workplaces, workers tend to be kept so busy and heavily supervised that there is little opportunity to talk with peers, so there is also no way to know that everyone is being ritually degraded in this way. In fact, requirements to stay constantly on task are so stringent that even bathroom breaks are often forbidden or strictly timed. I recall at one review being marked down because my average bathroom time for one month (out of 60 perfect months) was 7 seconds over the corporate time-study allottment.

I’m not making that up, sad to say. It really happened.

This management style is designed to create a terrorized, anxious work force that includes only a very few ‘high performers’ who are universally hated and tend to not stay more than a year or two at the corporation unless they move into management. As managers, they are still universally hated, but in their new roles they are tranformed into abusers instead of abusees. Most corporate supervisors are only slightly better paid than the workers they supervise, and are themselves dependent on frequent abusive review procedures that tie their own jobs to getting greater and greater production our of their teams.

Over the past seven years I’ve worked for two huge corporations that used this style of management. The first one adhered to what they called a “two years up or out” strategy. In other words, they wanted workers to get out after two years in the required entry level position–even if those workers were doing well–or else move up within the organization and do more. Staying in a lower position competently for more than two years was not an option.

My most recent workplace aimed for a year’s work out of a new hire before discarding employees or moving them up. Very, very few moved up. Out of my training class of 25, two workers were left after 18 months. New training classes start every other month. The idea here is to keep a steady stream of insecure ‘fresh meat’, (I had supervisors who actually referred to newbies with these exact words) and discard and replace all but the top 1% or 2% frequently.

‘Fresh meat’ can be induced to work very hard at low pay because they’re still hoping for a carrot at the end of a very long stick. They can then be discarded (through termination or attrition) long before they qualifiy for that carrot (raises or better jobs within the organization), thus keeping corporate labor costs low.

Since there are few other jobs available, employees tend to be circumspect and protective of their performance, even though it is obvious that almost no one stays for very long or gets promoted. No one asks questions out of fear of termination or reprisal. No one challenges the status quo even though everyone is quite miserable. If someone were to show up with a stack of union cards, that person would be lynched in the parking lot–by people who will be very shortly fired or laid off themselves–or emotionally tortured until they voluntarily quit.

The abusive environment is punctuated by spasms of grade-school level praise and encouragement in the form of pizza parties, dress-up events, minor rewards, and ’employee appreciation days.’ Contests and competitions are regular elements of the workplace and make working even harder than the already insane standards appear admirable (in exchange for a $10 gasoline certificate or some such thing, instead of a livable wage). Sporadic rewards and effusive praise (backed by abusive standard treatment) keep employees off-balance and give the employer something to point to in the rare instances when criticism is broached.

My problem with this abusive management style isn’t just that it’s painful (for most people anyway, including those dishing it out) and morally objectionable. My criticism goes beyond that to the less-obvious fact that these abusive practices are also inefficient and unnecessary. While corporations see monetary savings in constantly turning over a low-paid workforce and in the near-elimination of middle management and professional jobs, there are real problems with structuring a work force this way that I will address in the next section of this hub.

I’m going to focus on three weaknesses in the abusive management style that are probably obvious to anyone who has been on the receiving end of it, but are less obvious to the folks at the top raking in the cash. These weaknesses are:

1) Ritually abusive management insures lack of competence throughout the organization.

2) Abusive management crushes innovation and improvement, and…

3) Abusive values alienate and anger the customer base, leading to eventual business failure.

#1–Ritual abuse insures lack of competence throughout the organization. Because tasks are standardized and efficiency standards kept unrealistically high, and because people are moved quickly up or out as soon as those standards are met, the organization is kept in a perptual state of frantic incompetence. Anyone who has ever tried to get actual help at a 1-800 customer service line knows this, but it is also obvious in big box retail stores, branch banks, and other large corporately owned businesses that rely heavily this kind of management.

For example, at the bank I just left, branch managers were routinely turned over so quickly that the ultimate authority at each physical building (that is, the branch manager) had little idea of how the bank was actually run or what its standard operating procedures were for trouble-shooting customer issues.

I used to routinely get calls at the corporate call center from branch managers (who were technically my superiors) who had basic questions about the bank’s operating procedures. I was not allowed to answer these questions, but had to transfer the branch manager to a different line where their questions were quanitified and recorded so they could be held against that person at a monthly review. Customers who were angry were also routinely referred to branch managers who were not authorized to help them and wouldn’t know how to help them even if they wanted to troubleshoot, which they usually didn’t.

If you think I’m overstating the effect of this enforced organization-wide incompetence, just look at the current state of the banking industry. Or the retail industry. Or the cell phone industry.

I rest my case.

#2–Abusive management crushes innovation and improvement. Since everything, including potty time, is quantified and scripted by people who do not ever do the actual work at the bottom of the corporate food chain, obvious solutions to annoying, time-consuming operational problems are rarely implemented, or if they are, they are not implemented in a timely or effective manner.

What is most frustrating is that often, such places use the phrase “going above and beyond for the customer” routinely and hold it up as a laudable idea and a supposed corporate value, but employees will be punished for actually attempting to do this.

#3–Abusive management styles alienate and anger the customer and lead to eventual business failure. Customers are not stupid. They know that phone centers do not exist “for their convenience” but rather to shield upper management from any direct consequences for their bad decisions. The abusive corporate management style described in this article does one thing very efficiently: It moves money from to bottom of the organization (the customer-service rep interaction) to the top of the organization (upper management, CEOS, and stockholders) quickly and progressively.

Eventually, almost no service or product is provided at the bottom of the pyramid at all, but money is still demanded from the customer, even as the frustrated reps, hands tied by insane procedures, low pay, and abusive direction, start to take out their own frustration on customers. At this point a near-total collapse of the organization can occur.

A good recent example of this is Sprint, the cell phone service company that gained such a wide and well-deserved reputation for charging exorbitant fees and providing abusive “customer service” that a special team had to be set up to save core customers by ‘spying’ on their complaints about Sprint on internet message boards, and then popping in with an IM to offer to solve the complainer’s problems. (True story. You can’t make this stuff up–it’s too weird to be imaginary. Imagine commenting on this hub, and having Sprint suddenly IM you about it.)

Ford’s Better Idea. Henry Ford’s unremarkable better idea was to pay workers very, very well and treat them with some basic decency, simply and in fact only because that enabled the workers to afford to buy the cars they built. Ford realized that without a well-paid labor force, the market for the cars he wanted to build would be confined to the very rich, a small market indeed, and that building a few cars for very rich people was not as good a business model as mass-producing reasonably-priced automobiles for sale to the general public. Ford’s better idea created the American middle class; the same middle class that is now disappearing into the pool of part-time low paid service workers.

A big part of the reason the financial industry is tanking right now is that a very few people (less than one tenth of 1% of the U.S. population) now hold about 60% of the wealth in this country. The top 10% holds 80% of the wealth. And the other 90% of us share the 10% of wealth that is left.

So long as the people sharing 10% of the wealth can borrow money from the top 10% who hold the rest of it, they (we) can keep buying stuff we can’t afford and funneling more money upward. But when we can no longer borrow money (like, now) and we are living on a pittance of what we once were, the game is over. The economy comes to a crashing halt and the downward spiral that comes next becomes almost unstoppable.

The best metaphor I’ve heard for it is that it’s like a game of Monopoly. When one person has all the money, the game ends.

We’re nearly to that point right now. Game over.

Life in a Post Corporate World

Lately, I’ve been intrigued by the possibility of a post-corporate business renaissance in which individuals and small groups of people start up their own socially conscious businesses and lines of work while at the same time learning to live as independently as possible. We are all interdependent to some degree. But interdependence can be healthy. It’s the extreme dependence encouraged by the corporate work model that causes so much strife–If you depend on a huge, soul-less corporate entity for all your material needs, you will not get your material needs met, period, because a corporation is designed to maximize profit.

Meeting your needs does not maximize the corporation’s profit.

However, if you learn to live off the energy grid as much as possible, grow your own food if you can, barter goods and services instead of buying cheap imported crap, and make your own entertainment, you can choose employment that makes a contribution to society and to your own sense of well-being and happiness. You don’t have to base your choices solely on pay or benefits. If you think about this for a few moments, you’ll realize that the possibilities are exciting and endless.

Here’s one example:

A Seattle man left his corporate job last year and posted an ad on Craig’s List saying he would plant organic vegetable gardens and tend them for anyone interested for as little as $25 a week. He also delivered the produce as it came into season to the door of the client. Within a week of posting the Craig’s List ad, he had so many responses he couldn’t answer all of them and he hasn’t had time to post another ad.

Last year this guy grossed $90,000 and this year he has added employees so he can take on more clients. His customers get organic, locally grown produce (often grown in their own yards) at a price that is cheaper than what they would pay at a market, and it is delivered to their door by human beings they know and trust. There are no transporation costs, no big carbon footprint for trucking the food all over the country, and the guy who started this up is doing much better than he ever did as a corporate slave.

And that’s just one example.

So while we watch the lay-offs pile up and the corporate failures and shut-downs fall like bodies in a videogame, it may help to keep in mind that the time may have come for a change. Crisis & opportunity: Two sides of the same coin, or maybe not, but is it such a bad thing, really?

Once the dust finally settles, we could discover we’ve ended up in a much better place.