A question of trust

In seeking an antidote to the selfish ravings of Somalia-bound Liz Jones (I’m not linking. You’ll work it out, but I don’t suggest you try too hard), a kind soul pointed me towards the wise words of Barry Schwartz on society’s loss of wisdom. It’s a great piece: one of those tub-thumping, uplifting TED talks that gets you nodding and waving along with his thesis. Whooping, even.

Basically, he says we’ve dispensed with our humanity in our quest for efficiency and profit. The wrong things are being measured. What really counts in any public-facing service is an appreciation of the softer aspects of, well, human interaction. We’ve lost the wisdom that gives us sensible decision-making, discretion and the ability to “get” all this. Perhaps not “lost”, as much as “designed-out”, in order to please all sorts of other gods.

What’s not to like? How could he possibly be wrong?

There he is, pointing to the job description of the janitor who has a whole load of specified tasks to perform. Mop the floor. Straighten the curtains. Swab the sink. But nowhere, nowhere, does it say: “Be nice to people. Be human. Be flexible.” (In a really perverse way, Bonkers Liz was saying something similar. But from a position of ignorance and vacuous moral bankruptcy, so basically, she can fuck right off.)

And, one might argue, does a job description need to spell out the requirement to be nice? I don’t know, perhaps it would make some difference if it were written down? I’m not convinced.

In the murky world of measurability and management, what does it even mean, anyway? If you put your cleaning out to tender, and one company comes back with a price that’s 10% higher than their competitor, but they promise to smile a lot more at people, and leave a bit of cleaning until tomorrow if someone really just needs a nice chat instead…what then?

Because when you do start buying into this idea, and go down the road of rewarding the soft stuff like satisfaction and happiness, all sorts of strange things are going to happen.

Only last month I heard tales from a friend whose former employer was very keen for staff to “revisit” customer surveys that weren’t high enough, point out to the customer that their personal bonuses were connected to the score, emphasise that the survey wasn’t the place for all their woes with the company to be vented, and see if they couldn’t nudge it up a couple of points. Seriously.

You get what you measure, remember?

Or rather, you get the measurements that lead to a benefit for the person being measured.

And there’s a double-edged sword in all of this. Mr Schwartz and his cheering audience are doing a great TED-style job of assuming good intent. They’re thinking of all the upside that comes from freeing people up to be a bit nicer. Like that extra latitude to go and make a cup of tea for Mrs Jones through being given a bit of slack on the amount of loo-scrubbing they have to do.

They’re probably not thinking of the janitor who is a living misery to the people around him, but who, when challenged, points to the mopped floor, the straight curtains, the swabbed sink… Fancy taking on that performance review? Substituting the subjective judgements of whether someone “has the right attitude” for the hard measures of dustiness or shine? Subjectivity that puts feudalistic power back in the hands of managers who can bully or fire pretty much at will? Always a trade-off, isn’t there?

One persons’s empowered janitor is another person’s slacker-in-waiting. One person’s disability benefit is another’s disempowering handout. One banker’s justified performance bonus is…ok, perhaps that’s too far.

But it’s just Red vs Blue. The eternal debate. Centralise, decentralise. Liberate, control. Trust, assure.

Reds are great at spending someone else’s money. Blues think that pain is a far better motivator.

Trust. Trust. It all really comes down to trust. And so much of trust is based on visibility.

What we decide, what we believe, is based on what we see. The stories we’re told. And here there is an asymmetry. Negative stories travel fast, and easily become powerful myths. If conservative forces don’t believe, deep down, in public service provision at all, that will drive the narrative.

Transparency means that we get a lot more narrative. Blue editors have no end of material, and mass-consumption platforms on which to put it, to propagate Schwartz’s death of wisdom. And when they also claim to be willing to wave aside protocol and contract to “do the right thing”, the dissonance can be shocking.

I’ll end this by mentioning a fantastic piece by Onora O’Neill, one of the most enlightened people it’s my pleasure to know. She thinks rather harder about these things than most. Join her.

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5 Responses

  1. Tom Stoneham says:

    I suspect that some organizations could learn from traditional methods of ‘managing’ academics (methods which are being undermined by the introduction of non-academic management ethos into Universities).

    The basic idea is that academics get a ‘workload’ which might be quantified in all sorts of artifical ways but essentially aims to capture /output/: courses taught, books published etc. If output is low in one area, they will be asked to do more in another.  But the real point is that no one cares or asks when, where or how they do the work. Their time is their own, they can find their own patterns and ways of working, so long as they get the expected work done. 

    [This is being threatened by the fear of the ‘slacker’ (as you put it), but what Universities are learning – rather too slowly – is that the cost of getting rid of slackers is often higher than the cost of keeping them on.]

    How might this apply to hospital janitors? (1) Don’t pay them by the hour, but by the ward/floor etc.. (2) Make the job description less focussed on tasks and more on results (e.g. not ‘mop the floor’ but ‘keep floor clean’). (3) Use evaluative terms in job description.  (4) Use peer-review rather than performance review.

    For the record and full-dsiclosure, I once worked as a cleaner (toilets included) in a geriatric, psychaitric ward. I had just got a 1st from Oxford, was about to start an academic career, and had an idealistic notion of the dignity of labour. I lasted two weeks.

  2. Francesca says:

    I have a theory that some evil Daily Mail features editor is sending Liz Jones to Somalia on the basis that, surrounded by people who are even thinner than she is, she will have a nervous breakdown and they will be rid of her.

  3. Tim Aldrich says:

    On reading the opening paragraph I was thinking of Onora O’Neill as she was on a Radio 4 special this morning (http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b0133s0f/Beyond_Hackgate_Who_Should_We_Trust_Now/). It got me thinking about much the sames issues as you, Paul. Here’s a different take.
    I have been a little troubled by the idea of corporate values (corporate in the wider organisational sense) in that many stated organisational values (honesty, respect etc) surely should be shared human values: when they need to regulated for or explicitly stated, as in your example of the janitor, something has gone badly wrong.
    A loss of wisdom may be a part of it though I expect many could subsitute ‘commonsense’ for ‘wisdom’ and you’re halfway to a Daily Mail comment piece… I wonder if misplaced entitlement is part of the issue with the erosion of trust.
    Back in the day we trusted people we knew and people because of who they were (MPs, bankers, journalists even etc). This gave professions in particular a sense of entitlement (quite literally in many cases). As trust has become eroded over the last half century, rather than moving to a social model in which we all accept that everyone should be respected, allowed privacy, assumed innocent etc etc we sought to place ourselves in the shoes of those we had toppled from the pantheon of entitlement.
    Liz Jones’ recent pieces exemplify this. Once upon a time we trusted the NHS because it was, well, the NHS. Since then it has been discredited by many (the arguments in her journalism are not new) and in its place, rather than a respect for the common decency of all, its detractors like Jones present the case for their own entititlement (“Don’t you know who I am? I’m off to save the Horn of Africa”)
    If you apply this to other recently dented institutions, if the media as whole, bankers and politicians are to restore trust, establishing a culture in which everyone is entitled to respect, a fair hearing, privacy, etc is a prerequisite. As O’Neill points out, greater transparency won’t get you far enough – it shows the deficiencies but puts nothing in their place

  4. Paul Evans says:

    That ‘reds are great at spending someone else’s money’ is a reification: For a marxist, everything you’re describing here can be explained by ‘alienation’ and the superstructure that justifies the brutal power-relations of capitalism.

    Sounds fairly spartist, I know, but it still works for me as the least worst explanation of why humanity looks and behaves the way it does. Watching all the innovative ideas that come out of social media (p2p collective action, the need for more projected humanity, etc) I’m struck by the existence of a consultariat who could read Marx’s Critique of political economy and say “fuck-a-duck, *this* is what I’ve been saying all along….” 

  5. […] This, from Paul Clarke’s blog honestlyreally, summarising Barry Schwartz on society’s loss of wisdom, is intriguing: Basically, he says we’ve dispensed with our humanity in our quest for efficiency and profit. The wrong things are being measured. What really counts in any public-facing service is an appreciation of the softer aspects of, well, human interaction. We’ve lost the wisdom that gives us sensible decision-making, discretion and the ability to “get” all this. Perhaps not “lost”, as much as “designed-out”, in order to please all sorts of other gods. […]

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