ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Philosopher Alain de Botton has been thinking a lot about work recently. No wonder, he's the author of a new booked called "The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work." As far as the sorrows are concerned, de Botton has been pondering old and new, but not necessarily improved methods of motivating workers.
Mr. ALAIN DE BOTTON (Author, "The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work"): For most of human history, there was really 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 troublingly now 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. 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 rest of 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.
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 does have to be done very gently, like handling uranium, for fear of the ego smashing into watery pieces on the office carpet tiles. All must now 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.
All this 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 office review. The manager is your friend, a strange version of your mum or dad that you can't shout at or be honest with. Perhaps things would've been kept a little simpler if we had kept faith with the blunter tone of an earlier age.
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SIEGEL: Philosopher Alain de Botton is the author of "The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work." And you can give his essay its own performance review at the opinion section of the new npr.org.
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