Sometimes it takes an accident of synchronicity to make a connection between two very different forms of research that sparks a new insight.
This has just happened to me. I am in the process of editing the next issue of Work Organisation, Labour and Globalisation which will include an article by the brilliant French sociologist Marie-Anne Dujarier. I do not feel too bad about revealing some of its contents prior to publication because it is based on research that has already been published in France in Le management désincarné. Enquête sur les nouveaux cadres du travail. It is a remarkable study, based on large-scale quantitative research as well as in-depth individual and group interviews and an analysis of management literature carried out over more than a decade.
The research focuses on managers. Not just any old managers but the specific sub-set of managers and consultants whose jobs involve introducing new systems and processes that affect the working lives of others. The new systems and models (or, as the French call them, dispositifs) they work with are increasingly standardised – often branded and sold by international consultancies and referred to by catch-phrases such as ‘KPI’ or ‘Lean Management’ (as it happens there will be an article by Sabine Pfieffer on one of these – ‘Agile Management’ – in the same journal issue). A number of scholars, including myself, have studied these new forms of (often algorithmic) management but have tended to do so from the perspective of the workers whose lives are transformed by their impacts. Dujarier’s originality is to look at what is going on in the minds of the managers who are introducing these changes, and the cultures in which their work is embedded.
By coincidence, I have also just been reading another book which also switches its focus from the more usually examined perspective of the victim to that of the perpetrator: Lundy Bancroft’s Why Does he Do that? Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men. Bancroft is a psychologist whose book draws on fifteen years of in-depth work with abusive men. It is deservedly a best seller because it demystifies a number of widely-held views about how and why some men become abusive and, in the process, helps abused women to understand why a lot of the strategies that they are often advised to turn to (such as couples counselling, mediation or anger management courses) are not only unhelpful but may be actively dangerous, simply providing abusers with new weapons to use against them.
The parallels between these two very different perpetrator-focused studies do not stop there. Dujarier describes the way in which change managers typically operate at a physical and cultural distance from the people whose work processes they are redesigning. They make it clear that they know nothing about the details of the lives their work is affecting and are typically based in a head office or consultancy surrounded by others doing similar work, with a shared culture. In this shared culture, empathy is strongly penalised. Although many are aware that what they are doing is ‘dirty work’, they do not express guilt about this but find ways of making the work enjoyable. They get considerable job satisfaction (and praise from co-workers as well as enhanced promotion prospects) from being able to keep things abstract, finding elegant solutions to technical problems. They avoid finding out too much about the people affected by their work, which they see as making life too complicated and slowing them down. Their pleasure in the work comes from treating it as a game, and their language is full of phrases like ‘winning the race’, ‘annihilating the opposition’, or ‘striking a blow’. They become committed to the work as a pleasurable intellectual exercise but without any emotional attachment. This is propped up by endogamous socialisation – they tend to mix only with their peers, who provide reinforcement and support for these values.
Switching now to Lundy’s abusive men, we find some very similar patterns. They are highly narcissistic with a notable lack of empathy. They also often bring a gaming attitude to relationships, speaking about ‘winning’ and ‘showing who’s the boss’. Furthermore, although they often claim to have lost control of themselves when they resort to physical intimidation or violence they actually demonstrate a strong ability to remain firmly in control. Bancroft quotes numerous examples of men who, while claiming to be under the sway of uncontrollable rage while hitting their victims are nevertheless careful not to leave any bruising that would show, or who are able to switch off their aggression and transform themselves into concerned victims of provocation the moment the doorbell rings. He also writes about the way they seek out the company of other men who share and reinforce their values. Like the remote managers who, one must assume, can generally rely on the support of top management to push through their reforms, however unpopular they are, these abusive men are also often able to rely on their misogynistic culture being shared by those in positions of power, such as police officers and judges.
Both groups seem sealed into hermetic worlds that mirror back their prejudices and expand and legitimise their sense of entitlement, while objectifying and belittling those who are the victims of their actions.
I am not of course suggesting that all managers are abusers. Or even that changes in work organisation may lead to a growth in abusive behaviour. Far from it. But these parallels do point in the direction of some larger social issues that are not currently being addressed by academic research in a very coherent way, probably because of the fractured disciplinary landscape (for example, management studies, labour sociology, psychology and gender studies are worlds apart, barely even sharing a common language). Dujarier’s managers and Bancroft’s abusers are two very different symptoms of much larger problems but by no means the only symptoms. It would be equally possible, for example, to look at mass killings, the hunting of endangered animals or the pornography industry through similar lenses.
The lesson I draw from these parallels is that we should be asking much deeper questions about the connections between new forms of work organisation, alienation among workers at different hierarchical levels, the loss of empathy that arises when there is no face-to-face communication and the development of toxic subcultures and coercive forms of behaviour. In particular, we should look at the structures that enable and perpetuate abusive forms of masculinity, allowing coercive and violent men, as well as those who insist they are just doing their jobs and don’t want to think too hard about the consequences, to inhabit worlds in which their attitudes are mirrored and reflected back to them and in which they are never confronted with the real emotional consequences of the damage that they inflict.