The confusing interplay between “work” and “slavery”

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Short answer: no. We might get emotionally whipped in our jobs, but in general there is not physical abuse in white-collar workplaces. (I fully realize there are thousands — if not more — of enslaved people in the world doing the work of others, but that isn’t really the topic of this particular post.)

Also: we get compensated, and often very well. Another big difference.

The longer answer to this question is more nuanced.

This article from Boston Review about the ties between managerial development and slavery has been making some rounds. There are a lot of good parts to it, so read the whole thing if you can. This part stood out to me:

In a sense, scientific management replicated slavery’s extractive techniques while jettisoning the institution itself. Gantt’s rhetoric was not necessarily of distance but of progress; he purportedly liked to say that “scientific management marked a great step forward from slave labor.” James Mapes Dodge, a Philadelphia manufacturer and early supporter of Taylor, explained in 1913 that “we cannot tell who first liberated the germ idea of Scientific Management, as it was born to the world in the first cry of anguish that escaped the lips of the lashed slave.” Dodge’s reference was metaphorical, to a vague and distant past where slavery prevailed, not to the slave South. But he understood that “the present generation” had inherited “from the past the relationship of master and slave” and saw it as the job of scientific management to move beyond it.

The “Taylor” referenced in there is Frederick Winslow Taylor, who wrote a book in 1911 that many people still use to guide managerial development today.

Think about that for one second: in 1911, Henry Ford competed with horses. Now we have, essentially, self-driving cars. A lot has changed. Since then we’ve had two World Wars, the Cubs finally got another World Series, there’s a fucking trillion-dollar company out there, etc. Maybe we should think about how to manage a little bit differently?

But there’s more!

There’s a post from a few years back called “Slave Owners vs. Modern Management: Can you tell the difference?” There are a lot of similarities.

And then there’s this:

“It’s a much bigger, more powerful question to ask, If today we are using management techniques that were also used on slave plantations,” she says, “how much more careful do we need to be? How much more do we need to think about our responsibility to people?”

That’s from Caitlin Rosenthal, who wrote a book on the subject called Accounting for Slavery.

So yes, there are some similarities and overlaps between how dudes ran plantations back in the day and how middle managers and execs run companies today. And heck, in many ways you could argue a plantation and a widgets company are also similar: there’s a hierarchy, the output is production, and the desire is money. Those things haven’t changed in 300 or so years.

The bigger modern management issue

To me, it would be this: we use managerial practices and techniques from, essentially, 1911. The economy was very different there. Very little work was subjective. Now, in a supposed “Knowledge Economy,” much work is subjective. That’s partially why some guys absolutely love sales and clinging to sales and analyzing sales numbers and sales sales sales. Because sales is (a) often the only thing that really matters internally and (b) it’s the least-subjective thing in a business. You either sell or you don’t. You’re either about to hire or about to lay off. Eat what ya kill, etc.

So the big problem is really this: we apply Industrial Age thinking and concepts to a Knowledge Economy. That doesn’t work.

You see it in tons of examples:

That’s the cornerstone issue: we’re managing the wrong way for the current time period.

How could we manage better?

Short list:

  • Respect your people
  • Communicate openly
  • Let people put their personal lives/families first when necessary
  • Allow for flexibility — child care is a massive issue in the U.S.
  • Carefully design job roles for need instead of bodies because you feel busy
  • Don’t assume ideas can only come from the top
  • Have conversations about where a role is headed, potential for advancement, etc.
  • Etc.

But then we come back to the main problem: work is about hitting the number. We’re all slaves to the number, whatever number it may be, at some level. And that’s probably the biggest similarity between slave owners and modern managers: the number is the religion, and everyone else is just a tool to make sure that number is hit. That’s a messy little parallel that we should probably stop ignoring.

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Blogging, largely about work and how to improve it. How I make (some) money:

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