I can’t handle being useful

The language of management is often offensive, pompous, and demeaning. It's time for a spring cleaning.
Zac Alstin | Nov 10 2014 | comment  



There’s an urban legend that at one stage the United States was a single vote away from making German its official language. A history lecturer brought it to my attention, asking his students whether a Deutsch-sprechende superpower might convey a different impression on the world stage. Anglophone America may give us occasional qualms about cultural dominance or economic hegemony, but imagine the PR image a German-speaking American President would have in the minds of a post-World War II world. Such is the power of language, and our subjective individual and cultural associations.

We needn’t look at other languages to find potent examples of linguistic oddities in our own lives. While the world of management has suffered its fair share of mockery over the use of jargon like “deliverables”, “competencies” and the use of “action” as a verb, other, far more commonplace, terms have slipped under the radar, terms that are, by turns, insidious, offensive, pompous, and demeaning.

Take ‘manager’ for example. We’ve all known good managers and bad managers, but what about ‘manager’ in principle? It turns out that ‘manage’ is quite an old word, derived from the Italian maneggiare meaning, of course, to handle a horse. Coming from the Latin manus for ‘hand’, your manager is, so to speak, your handler. ‘Management’ is, as many of us have surely long suspected, a polite way of telling people to their face that, like an unruly horse, they need a firm, confident hand to break them in.

Take a look at the following instructions on ‘How to get a horse under control’. In most instances, we could simply replace ‘horse’ with ‘employee’ and ‘riding’ with ‘working’, and repackage it as a management education program covering everything from interpersonal communication and working in a team, to Occupational Health and Safety guidelines. It would look something like this:

Try changing the way you are controlling the employee. Remember, every employee is different. If you usually work an employee that needs strong cues and you have gotten in the habit of practically kicking to make him speed up, consider that this employee may not need such an aggressive kick. Try using softer aids and don't pull so hard on his mouth.”

‘Officer’ is another commonplace term, with administrative officers, project officers, business development officers, research officers, and of course chief executive officers, all sounding very important with the associations of military or police service. Officer sounds so official.

But the original meaning of ‘officer’ is simply ‘one who holds an office’, and an ‘office’ in turn is merely “a post, an employment to which certain duties are attached”. As ridiculous as it sounds, an officer is therefore just a person “employed with certain duties”, which, the last time I checked, included everyone with a job.

Technically we’re all officers, which ought to mean the term is redundant, like if everyone on earth had the same surname. Yet ‘officer’ serves some value to an organisation, allowing it to attach labels to all the diverse and sometimes pointless roles that emerge within a major business over time. ‘Officer’ turns a task into a title, and it does so with the minimum of linguistic difficulty, in an efficient and streamlined progression from “we need someone to do X” to “let’s hire an X officer”.

So while a research officer could simply be called a ‘researcher’, it would be less fitting to call a project officer a ‘projector’, let alone calling an administration officer an ‘administrator’ – the poor things might get ideas above their station. In an ideal corporate world everyone would have compatible job titles, but alas we must endure instead a dystopia in which Gardeners shoot the breeze with Maintenance Officers, and Chief Executive Officers exchange idle pleasantries with Directors; all because it doesn’t sound right to talk about Gardening Officers or Maintainers, nor Chief Executors and Direction Officers.

Allowing that the ideal corporate world might not be the ideal world per se, perhaps a more poetic approach would better suit the inherent dignity of the individual human being, a theme undoubtedly close to the hearts of corporate elites everywhere. What if, instead of living and working in the shadow of a mere title, people were encouraged to identify themselves primarily as human beings who, in their particular roles, just happen to be in charge of certain things?

For example, the research officer might just be Paul who does research. The maintenance officer is Geoff, who maintains things. The admin officer becomes Susan, she who administers. And the Director of Finance becomes Mary, who makes money go in the right direction.

Of course, achieving such an ideal would require a lot of mental effort, and worse still, a great deal of honesty and humility. Once we start giving people names and titles that reflect what they really do, it will no longer be possible to hide behind pomp and presentation. It’s one thing to say “I’m the manager of this team” and quite another to say “I handle these people”. The latter lacks pretence. It is a statement of action, and it has implications and repercussions that the softer title of ‘manager’ avoids. It’s the same rationale that led North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il to style himself “Dear Leader, who is a perfect incarnation of the appearance that a leader should have”.

The problems multiply as we climb the corporate ladder. Will Directors be content to become mere ‘guides’? Will the Chief Executive Officer lower himself to become ‘he whose duty it is to be first in carrying things out’?

If he did, he would find plenty more to carry out: Finance becomes ‘settlement of debt’, Operations is reduced to plain old ‘actions’, Strategy becomes the wildly inappropriate metaphor “art of a general”, while Human Resources would be the "means of supplying a want or deficiency," like restocking a pantry.

It gets complicated, wordy, and messy. But there’s a brutal poetry in the clumsiness that converts the Director of Human Resources into ‘Frank, who guides those who supply the deficiencies amongst the humans’.

But the ultimate linguistic realignment would come with a reassessment of the term ‘employee’. The word ‘employ’ means “to apply, devote, or make use of,” from the Old French emploiier. The suffix –ee was not added until the late 19th Century in America, as a marker denoting the recipient of an action; in other words: the employee is used, the employer is his user.

This subtle little morpheme is based on the French -é, denoting past-participles and nouns, and hence analogous to the English –ed. So the distinction between employer and employee is not unlike that between the ruler and the ruled. But surely there’s something amiss in giving the great mass of active people, the workers, and doers, such a passive, submissive label? Why impose a false dichotomy that turns the active worker into the passive employee?

The cynic in me wonders if it reflects the priorities of American industry at the turn of the century: an inherently hierarchical and capitalist attitude to the value and identity of the working classes, and hence a society in which a select minority of individuals, businesses, and NGOs are in a position to ‘use’ or employ the rest of us. As far as demeaning language is concerned, it’s right up there with being ‘handled’.

Perhaps a better approach would be to view the worker as fundamentally something more than just a commodity to be used? A great deal of time and energy has been invested in fields such as organisational development and management training for the sake of improving the efficiency and performance of organisations. But in the context of an employer/employee dichotomy, it’s hard to see how this amounts to anything more than working out how best to handle and use us.

An alternative might lie in a more radical approach to professional ethics, an ethical business model that starts by recognising – as we all would wish for ourselves – that the worker is not simply there to be used in exchange for his wages, but to contribute positively in multiple dimensions towards the mission, culture, and success of the broader enterprise.

Zac Alstin is a freelance writer living in Adelaide, South Australia. He blogs at zacalstin.com.



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