For most of human history, there was only one thing you needed to motivate your workforce: a whip. So long as workers merely had to heave stones from a quarry, they could be struck hard and often, with impunity and benefit.
But the rules of employment have changed because most jobs now troublingly require that employees put their heart and soul into them. Employers have been compelled to realize that someone expected to sell real estate or run marketing promotions cannot profitably be sullen or resentful all day, and therefore, that a sense of motivation must be the supreme object of managerial concern.
Therefore, no one works too long in an office without being drafted into that peculiar and sometimes life-changing piece of torture: the performance review.
The wood veneer door shuts with an aluminum click. Suddenly everything is quiet except for the bass note of the air-conditioning unit. For the manager, it's a case of trying to find words, in Philip Larkin's famous phrase, "at once true and kind, or not untrue and not unkind."
Language gets strained to breaking point: incompetent cockiness becomes "enormous enthusiasm," dopiness "diligence" and a complete absence of initiative or spark "fitting in well with the team." This is somebody's child, spouse, friend, lover sitting in front of you and you must strain to find the most charitable interpretation of their crooked character.
Courtesy of Alain de Botton
Alain de Botton is the author of The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work.
Courtesy of Alain de Botton
But of course, the positives are only a sentimental fig leaf to the next stage: the muffled explosion of rage at the fact that the terrifyingly expensive and largely unsackable employee has been revealed as entirely unsuited to the task at hand, in a wholehearted betrayal of everything agreed upon at the moment of hiring.
However, the whipping has to be done so gently, like handling uranium, for fear of the ego smashing into watery pieces on the office tiles. All must have prizes. So criticism evolves into mutual vows to do better next time: "to keep the goals of the organization more in mind," "to remember to focus on results rather than procedures," to "engage more with the client-facing side."
It isn't any more pleasant for the employee. The manager is attempting to adopt the kindly, disinterested tone of a university supervisor, but this isn't an exercise in pastoral care; it's the attention a mechanic might pay to a piece of malfunctioning equipment.
Yet the language of Karl Marx would feel out of place in the gentle, depoliticized world of the modern review. The manager is your friend, a strange version of your mum or dad you can't shout at or be honest with.
Perhaps things would have been simpler if we had kept faith with the blunter tone of an earlier age.