Monday, June 30, 2008

p06 Followership

Towards an International Workplace Constitution, I

By John Taylor; 2008 June 30, 07 Rahmat, 165 BE


Market fundamentalists have a strange idea that business is efficient and government is not. This, as any fan of Dilbert knows intuitively, is utterly false. Ignorance, greed and folly do not congregate exclusively in any special corner of the economy. Corporations are as laden with bureaucracy as any government office. And, as Chomsky points out, in a democracy the people at least can influence policy decisions their government makes, while nobody but a few managers and board members question what a corporation does. Shareholders rarely know what is happening and when they do, their vote is a sham.


Without the shared worker ownership proposed by Abdu'l-Baha in the Montreal address to socialists just added to Promulgation (the talk that was recently shared here), a strange schizophrenia and psychopathology will continue to be kneaded into corporate DNA. Workers (since the end of aristocracy, we are all workers) are divided into warring camps of owners, clients, government, managers and blue collar "Larry the Cable Guy" types. All their interests are divided artificially, a situation designed to provoke opposition.


George Monbiot in his Manifesto suggests a simple way on the international level to rein in autocratic corporations to the same rule of law that as individuals we all have to obey. As it is, companies are by and large exempt because, lacking a world government, they have no international overseer. The result, Monbiot points out, is unavoidable: piracy. "International trade without international rules, as hundreds of years of colonial exploitation show, is piracy." (Monbiot, Age of Consent, p. 189) How do you keep business from piratical practices? The solution, according to Monbiot, is just to require that they apply for a license in order to trade internationally. That way, when (not if) they exploit workers in poor nations, they will have to answer for it. Most companies pride themselves in being good corporate citizens, but that responsibility stops as soon as they cross borders. Most are guilty of criminal violations of labor codes, pollution, dumping, and other irresponsible behavior. To change this Monbiot suggests a simple answer: an international Fair Trade Association.


"So the first function of what we might call a Fair Trade Organization is surely to prescribe and enforce the standards to which corporations wishing to trade internationally must conform. It could, in this respect, function as a licensing body: a company would not be permitted to trade between nations unless it could demonstrate that, at every stage of production, manufacture and distribution, its own operation and those of its suppliers and subcontractors met the specified standards." (Monbiot, Age of Consent, p. 227-228)

The laws and rules are already there. International institutions cannot be criticized for not addressing the theoretical requirements of economic justice.


"Nor do we need to devise an entire set of new regulations. Since 1919, the International Labour Organization has been developing standards by which we can judge the fair treatment of workers, and has produced a comprehensive set of `principles concerning multinational enterprises.' The United States Commission on Human Rights has drafted a collection of `guidelines for companies.' The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has developed similar standards." (Monbiot, Age of Consent, p. 229)

Beyond international order, the real problem is simple. Just see that the law is obeyed. Monbiot is surprisingly optimistic about this challenge as well, since the mechanisms are already there.


"Nor do we need to start from scratch when devising a means of enforcing these rules. In most nations, health and safety inspectors must approve an industrial premises before it is permitted to operate. If the company's procedures are found to be unsafe, it is put on notice: it must take immediate steps to change them, or cease operating. If it breaks the rules, it can be fined; if, in some countries, it breaks them persistently or exposes its staff, its neighbours or its customers to a grave risk, it can lose its licence to trade and its directors can face prosecution. We merely need to apply that well-established national principle at the international level. To prosecute company directors, we could seek to expand the mandate of the International Criminal Court. No longer would governments such as India's be left impotently to wave writs which will never be served upon such people as the chief executive of the Union Carbide corporation, who can avoid arrest and prosecution on charges of culpable homicide following the catastrophe at Bhopal simply by staying away from India. If corporations operate internationally so, surely, should the rules. By restraining the corporations, we prevent them from restricting the democratic choices of the countries in which they operate." (Age of Consent, 229-230)


Of course, as their criminal acts indicate, the underlying problem in our economy on the micro-economic level is, by and large, sloppy, incompetent management. And that boils down to poor leadership.


A recent issue of New Scientist magazine has a fascinating article about the evolutionary origins of leadership that sheds a great deal of light on our sorry situation in the workaday world. Most corporations rely on one person with one skill set to be the boss permanently. In reality it would be wiser to be more flexible by not one but a whole series of leaders with a variety of abilities to be put in place when conditions are exactly right. The article points out,


"... our hunter-gatherer ancestors would have deferred to different leaders depending on the nature of the problem at hand. Yet today a single individual is often responsible for managing all aspects of an enterprise. Few leaders have the range of skills required, which may account for the high failure rate of senior managers - in corporate America it runs at 50 per cent (Review of General Psychology, vol 9, p 169).

"Surveys routinely show that between 60 and 70 per cent of employees find the most stressful part of their job is dealing with their immediate boss. This may be partly because ancestral leaders only acquired power with the approval of followers, whereas in modern organisations leaders are usually appointed by and accountable to their superiors, while subordinates are rarely allowed to sanction their bosses.


(note from JET: in an oligarchy leaders are appointed from above in order that the lion's share of wealth will continue to be directed into their hands. Only an egalitarian system can afford to consider alternatives to top-down appointments.)


"What's more, our psychology equips us to thrive in smallish groups of closely related individuals, which may explain why many people feel indifferent to large organisations and their leaders. Finally, in ancestral societies there would have been minimal differences in status between leaders and followers. In the US, average salaries for CEOs are 179 times those of their workers." "Follow me: The origins of leadership, by Mark van Vugt, New Scientist, 11 June 2008


This article points out that the most effective corporations in the world right now tend to follow the ancient hunter-gatherer model that is most natural to our human nature. Companies like Toyota and Virgin break workers up into semi-autonomous teams of one or two hundred workers who get together and elect their own bosses, supervisors and managers from among their own number. That way, I suppose, if a boss is criticized he can respond with words I heard the elected president of the Ontario Esperantist Association say, "If you do not like what I am doing, why did you elect me?" Workplace democracy would surely eliminate most of the tensions, neglect and abuse endemic among bosses and workers.


The same article also points out that evolutionary psychology is starting to pay attention to something that we do not even have a word for right now, "followership." They are asking, why do people defer to leaders? The best answer they have come up with is that obedience is a good strategy, if only because it gives others a chance to step in later on as leaders. I think it is fair to say that most of the virtues and teachings of the Baha'i Faith are directed more at "followership" than leadership, which makes sense, considering that even the boldest among us follow far more often than they lead. Followership is also the most important and overlooked necessity for change; if we want better leadership we all must improve our "followership skills" first.


Next time I want to continue this theme, then go into some specific proposals for a workplace constitution.


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