The Tyranny of Middle Class Values and How Some Think About Work

ethics, right, wrong and middle class values

Employee Engagement? Who Cares!

I wrote on the human resources discussion list, a short piece that was stimulated by one consultant’s praise for the employment engagement concept, one that, by the way, I abhor for a number of reasons.

The gist is that pretty much all the fads that get popular — employee engagement, autonomy, TQM, etc are based on a hidden set of values that tends to come from the upwardly mobile middle class — a group that is ambitious, and desires to get ahead. Perhaps one reasons these initiatives fade away is because the work world simply isn’t made up exclusively by those people.

Here’s my comment, a bit rough, but…

Gary’s comment about Pink reminded me of something. I’m not sure I’ve mentioned it here, but it has to do with how our “modern” approaches to management are based on a middle class set of values that fits with people who we traditionally think of as upwardly mobile.

Whether it be:
or choose your buzz

it’s largely based on a set of underpining values that idealize a set of values “we” want employees to have, and stresses ways of looking at work that are, in many cases, way out of wack with reality.

Which, I suspect, is why these things come and go, pretty much leaving the planet as it was before.

For some odd reason I have a group of childhood friends who, by different routes, all became organizational type consultants in their fields, a few of whom I’m comfortable speaking of as world class, top in their fields. Several have worked for the top 3 consulting firms in N.A.

What is great about these folks is they don’t sit in offices but get down and work with the people at the bottom, and actually prefer it, whether it’s in International Development or helping mining companies become more effective.

They don’t talk using the buzz words though of course they all have the vocab and understanding. They implement multiple strategies, realizing, for example, that the people who dig iron ore out of mountains don’t share the values of Gallup, or even Deming.

One of the real dangers for authors/consultants is believing that because most of our contacts with people involve people in the upper-middle class, that somehow we are better, or our values are better.

There are perfectly excellent employees who don’t want to run their own jobs, let alone anyone elses, and who go to work with their lunchpails to work their shifts, take their money home, and put forth their engagement in their families, friends, gardens, etc.

Understanding that the world is not a seething mass of get along upward middle class people wanting to be autonomous is part of understanding what diversity means.

That is one reason I have such strong reactions to models that prescribe middle class values to “fix” employees. Employees who are not “engaged” are not “broken” and it doesn’t mean their managers are broken either.

I think HR folks who interact often with real employees where they work for extended periods of time understand this, and get torn between the allure of the fads and rejecting things outright.

I happen to embrace those middle class values. I am what I am. But I don’t go around expecting the housekeeping staff at this hotel to want what I want. All I want is clean towels when I need them.

And finally, as a customer, since I’m sitting here with the flu in the hotel. I don’t give a rats ass about what goes on in the heads of the people in this hotel. Is that chamberperson down the hall engaged? Well, maybe not for the job, but she sure is engaged in her university studies that she works at part time. And she’s “engaged” in her life. Not mine. Not yours, Not Garry’s.

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