A correlation has been assumed between the growth of casual and portfolio work and an increase in anxiety in the workforce. But is the assumption valid? By Leon Gettler
Frank Blount smelled the fear shortly after he arrived in Australia. One of his first tasks as the new chief executive officer of Telstra was to divide the telecommunications giant into 23 business units.
“What we did was appoint people that were already inside the company,” Blount said. “They were the P & L managers of the complete business unit. Now things didn’t go well for a year or two, but I just couldn’t find out why.”
“Then it hit me like a ton of bricks. These people didn’t know how to operate in a true business environment. Most of them were MBAs, but they were too frightened to tell anybody that they didn’t know how to run a real business.”
The noted psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim, regarded throughout the world as one of the greatest child psychologists of his time, argued that fear was at the root of learning and conscience.
A former inmate of Dachau and Buchenwald, the Austrian-born professor had confronted his own terrors. “If we do not fear God, why learn about religion?” he asked. “If we do not fear the forces of nature, why learn about them?
“It is true that too much fear interferes with learning, but for a long time any learning that entails serious application does not proceed well unless motivated by some manageable fear. This is true until self-interest is enlightened enough so that it alone is sufficient motive to power even hard-earned learning all by itself.”
However, as Blount’s experience suggests, fears snowball and create new problems, often out of all proportion to reality. And when that happens, it can paralyse an organisation.
Psychologists define fear as “a strong emotional reaction involving subjective feelings of unpleasantness, agitation, and desire to flee or hide … accompanied by widespread sympathetic activity.”
This sympathetic activity, a set of neurological responses, is instinctive. Blood drains from the face, and it is pumped into the large skeletal muscles in the legs, making it easier to flee. At the same time, the body freezes up so that the person can assess what to do next. Circuits in the brain switch on, and hormones start flowing. The result: we are on edge and are ready for action as we focus only on the danger at hand. This allows us to decide how best to deal with the threat, whatever it may be.
But there is a problem here. If fear were as common as has been suggested, society would cease to function. Businesses would be brought to a standstill if customers, suppliers and employees were locked in this state of terror. The question is whether we are talking about real fear or something else.
After all, the beast we call fear was rampant in the killing fields of Cambodia, Rwanda, Kosovo and East Timor. It was crouching in the cellar in Grozny when Russian bombs were falling on the city. It was the mad dog on EgyptAir Flight 990 when the jet plummeted at the speed of sound into the Atlantic, killing all 217 people on board. It was there when the ground began to move beneath the feet of the children of Duzce, 175 kilometres east of Istanbul, in an earthquake that killed nearly 4000 people.
I tasted fear 13 years ago when, as a young reporter, I was sent to Fiji to cover a coup. There, I confronted nervous and sleep-deprived soldiers who stood over me flicking their rifles safety catches on and off. One day, I was apprehended and ordered to face a wall. I heard the guns being cocked behind me. For an agonising minute I waited for the bullet to explode into my back. It never came; it was a mock execution.
Several months after I returned from Fiji, back in the safety of Sydney, I was interviewing a Vietnam vet. Over there he had been a forward scout. When the platoon went out on a “recce” (reconnaissance), he was the one in front, the one who was most likely to get the first bullet. He survived and now we were having a beer in the Cross.
“Not many people know this, but fear has a taste,” he said.
“I know,” I replied. “It tastes like iron filings.”
He looked at me in surprise. “Were you there too?” he asked.
To say that offices and factories are now paralysed by fear can be offensive for those who still have that taste in their mouths.
And yet, one cannot deny that insecurity is a feature of post-industrial society. Even the very perception that people are more frightened today has its own power, because it does influence behavior.
Perhaps we ought to make a distinction between fear and anxiety. Fear is a response to a specific and existing danger; anxiety reacts to an anticipated threat. You mightn’t even be able to identify the threat, or be able to articulate why you feel that nameless dread.
But how does one distinguish between what is real and what is not? Semantics aside, the two start to coalesce into a self-sustaining engine that generates problems of its own. An anticipated threat can become real. The anxieties of Blount’s managers may have been phantoms, but many would have acted out those anxieties on their subordinates. They would have been kicking the cat.
This is why workplace bullying is more common in cultures in which there is a fear-laced environment. These are the organisations where talent is scarce and there is cut-throat competition, where complaining is a sign of weakness and where there is widespread denial. There are no problems, and no one takes responsibility when they do occur. In such a world, phantoms turn into monsters.
The Thomas D. Dee professor of organisational behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business, Jeffrey Pfeffer, believes that employment security is fundamental to winning employee commitment. Employees feel freer to contribute to improved productivity and are more capable of creative thinking when they are not frightened of working themselves out of a job.
Economist Lester Thurow wryly notes the change in work patterns in the flexible, knowledge-based economy, in which lifetime learning and income maximisation have replaced jobs for life.
“Real live human beings like the feeling of a solid floor underneath them,” he says. “Homo economicus does not worry about starving between jobs.”
At the same time, the very notion of security and lifetime work is a recent historical phenomenon. For centuries people led lives insecure in the extreme, working either on the land, in mines or in factories. The nineteenth-century female mill hand in Leeds would have known about it when she was flogged for slowing down on the job she had to work at from 5am to 9pm; as would the peasants of eighteenth-century France who were made homeless by property owners who appropriated common land.
The acting director of the National Institute of Labor Studies at Flinders University, Professor Mark Wooden, questions whether the increased use of casual employment, contractors and various forms of fixed-term employment have been accompanied by a rise in job insecurity.
The Roy Morgan Research Centre has been surveying workers on job security since 1975. At least once a year, the Morgan Poll asks people to say whether they feel more or less secure in their jobs. In November 1998, only 16% of respondents reported that their job was unsafe. This was the lowest percentage since 1977. Overall, the long-term trend in perceived job insecurity has been flat.
It is a surprising figure given that unemployment soared over the same period. Furthermore, how does one reconcile the apparent stability in perceived job security with the shift away from traditional employment models to more flexible and, by definition, less secure patterns of employment?
There could be several reasons. First, the data points to the way society has fragmented into “winners” and “losers”, into “insiders” and “outsiders”. Those inside the loop (i.e. those with work) may lead more secure lives. Secondly, job changing is not necessarily an accurate measure of insecurity because people can move from job to job for either negative or positive reasons. Moreover, much of the growth in casual employment affects groups for whom job security may not be a priority (e.g. students).
Nor can it be assumed that all flexible working arrangements offer substandard conditions. As Wooden points out, the groups least likely to be satisfied with their jobs are those in permanent employment. Finally, the differences between permanent and non-permanent may not be as pronounced as many believe. The average job tenure for casual adult employees is four years, while for permanent employees it is six years.
Management thinker and social philosopher, Charles Handy, is in little doubt where the least secure jobs are and they are not in the casual workforce. More than 20 years ago, Handy predicted that large slabs of the workforce would be made up of part-timers and “portfolio workers” who used their different skills across many different positions. Their work was less secure but more fulfilling.
These days Handy concedes that his vision of the “shamrock company” the core of specialist essential staff surrounded by contractors and part-time workers was perhaps conservative. The “shamrock” now buzzes with activity, as people move in and out of the different areas. Permanent employees become contractors and vice-versa, customers become suppliers, and so it goes.
“The most insecure job these days is to work for a large corporation because it is out of your control,” Professor Handy says. “A notice could come any morning saying that, as of the 14th of next month, your department is redundant.
“What we had was an illusion of security. We trusted the institutions for security, but it was a false and dangerous thing to do. They delivered for a time, but now they don’t. The only real security has ever been with yourself, in your own talents and your own skills, and your own outlook on life. You have to trust in yourself and invest in yourself. Ultimately, that makes for a better world. It’s scary and it’s exciting; but we can’t run away from it.”
But, as Wooden’s research suggests, scarier for some than others.
Once was you were defined by your job or your possessions. But the changes in the workplace and the drive to product segmentation have changed this. What we call “fear” is really a crisis of identity in this fragmented post-industrial society.
As the inventor of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, says, the next century will turn the world upside down. “The basic social conventions of the industrial era the stable career, the nine-to-five job, the gradually (but steadily) increasing salary were all built around the notion that people moved their bodies in response to information.
“If you wanted something, you went to a store. If you wanted to build something, you worked in a factory.
“In the Net economy, the creation of value doesn’t require that kind of physical movement. Income accumulates not in the form of cash but in the form of clicks. Free websites and e-mail enable “regular folks” to create multiple identities, or to start one project before they finish the other.”
The key to dealing with change is balancing it with what remains unchanged.
As best-selling author Richard Nelson Bolles says, it is a point we often forget. Bolles, whose book What Colour Is Your Parachute, written 30 years ago, is still selling 15,000 copies a month, said recently he did not believe that the world was awash with change.
“Human nature survives and has survived through the ages by being able to hold tenaciously to two concepts: What is there about my life or world that has remained constant? and What is there about my life or world that has changed or is changing?
“I have always argued that change becomes stressful or overwhelming only when you’ve lost any sense of constancy in your life. You need firm ground to stand on. From there you can deal with the change.”
For managers, the challenge is embracing change on terra firma. But to do that, they need to understand the dynamics of anxiety, which, according to Freud, come into play when the source of security is felt to be absent.
In other words, anxiety presupposes hope; and that means that the two opposite impulses co-exist. Or, as the poet John Milton puts it so aptly in Paradise Lost: “So farewell hope, and with hope farewell fear”. Without hope, anxiety turns to despair.
Management writer Peter Senge argues that harmony in most work settings is maintained through a facade. Developing new learning capabilities, and making change is a frightening process. Fear is a given; but it must be balanced with hope. Unfortunately, many managers deal with the problem by denying it exists.
“What passes for teamwork in most settings is the smooth surface, the apparent absence of any problems,” Senge says. “This type of harmony is at risk in any process of profound change … Developing collective learning capabilities is like lowering the water level until the smooth surface starts to disappear. The rocks that were previously under the surface appear. They were there all along. Everyone knew they were there. But we colluded to keep them covered up.”
This collusion takes the form of covering up mistakes, of supporting the isolated units where people only look at problems in their own functional areas, and of supporting the managers who lack the moral strength to confront them.
What Blount discovered was a universal phenomenon that could be found in workplaces everywhere, from Melbourne to Milwaukee, from Paris to Perth. The challenge of fear and anxiety, says Senge, may well be the most frequently faced challenge in sustaining profound change in organisations.
Change requires confronting underlying truths and learning needs candor. Both demand a greater capacity for openness. The alternative is an “openness gap” between the growing candor on one hand and the limited capacity for openness on the other. When such an environment prevails, people can lack the skills to deal with difficult issues or the confidence in themselves or others to negotiate complex problems.
The answer does not lie in the absence of risk. That is impossible. Instead it requires establishing conditions that enable appropriate risk-taking. It means starting small and building momentum before confronting difficult issues. It means ensuring that leaders set an example of openness. It means recognising diversity as an asset and using breakdowns as opportunities for learning.
At the same time, leaders should not push too hard when the result is fear and anxiety, as it can be counterproductive to bring all undiscussable issues to the surface at once (e.g diversity, legal charges, environmental damage, ethical breaches). Unfortunately, many results-driven managers, hell-bent on driving their agendas, have been guilty of this. What they should have done instead was create an environment in which it was safe to examine these issues.
“Although management credibility is vital in initiating change, safety is significant in sustaining change,” says Senge. “The challenge of fear and anxiety often continues to be an issue long after the challenge of walking the talk no longer concerns people.”
Former US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt identified fear as the enemy. “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself. Nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyses needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
Not so, says Federal Reserve chief Alan Greenspan more than 60 years later. Fear, it seems, has received bad press. In his glowing economic report to Congress in 1997, Greenspan said that a heightened sense of job insecurity had helped trim inflation. Fear was good because it meant limited wage growth because worried workers were less likely to agitate over salaries.
So who was right? Was fear the problem, or was it there to ensure balance? The problem for managers today is that both men had a point.
This is the human condition. We are all vulnerable, as Joseph Heller reminds us in his book Something Happened: “In the office where I work there are five people of whom I am afraid. Each of these people is afraid of four people (excluding overlaps), for a total of twenty, and each of those twenty is afraid of six people, making a total of one hundred and twenty people who are feared by at least one person. Each of these one hundred and twenty people is afraid of the other one hundred and nineteen, and all of these one hundred and forty-five people are afraid of the twelve men at the top who helped found and build the company and now own and direct it. All of these twelve men are elderly now and drained by time and success of energy and ambition.”
But there is another view. Fear, or its related emotion, anxiety, the argument goes, does keep those wheels turning. It can ensure that people stay on their toes, regardless of whether their fears are soundly based or not.