In challenging times, retreat is a natural human response. Rightly or not (and sadly usually not), we tend to perceive some earlier time when things where ‘right’ and – at some level, conscious or otherwise – look for ways of returning to this blissful state. As Carole King sang, in a song whose lyric merits a less casual interpretation:

I think I’m going back/to the things I learned so well in my youth;
I think I’m returning to/the days when I was young enough to know the truth”.

This longing can take many forms: downsizing and the ‘move to the country’ (which became known in the 1970s as ‘back to nature’, but goes back to William Morris, Edward Carpenter and beyond); simplifying our lives – with attendant junking of digital gadgets and promises to cycle or re-cycle more often. These urges are essentially nostalgic, with the inherent sting of all nostalgic impulses: while we can return to earlier patterns of behaviour, the times have moved inexorably on. Time is a one-way street.

That a period of major turbulence and crisis such as the last couple of years should provoke soul-searching is entirely understandable, especially as it will be some time till we are truly ‘out of the woods’, whichever route we take. But it does strike me that, if our urge is to regain the things that we feel that we have lost, turning back the clock is not the answer: we need to find new ways of grasping these things. This was a point that occurred to me on my habitual browse through the reviews section of the Sundays, reading about Matthew Crawford’s recent book The Case for Working with Your Hands: or Why Office Work is Bad for Us and Fixing Things Feels Good. (I’ve added it to my reading list: a review may yet follow). Crawford is simultaneously a philosopher and a mechanic, describing his joy at the absolute nature of hand-work and the satisfaction of the fruits of direct labour. Certainly a case can be made for ‘physical’ working roles: we can’t outsource getting our engines fixed, or download a new carburettor.

My problem with the argument – pinpointed by one of the book’s reviewers at the US Amazon website – is that Crawford appears to have found one answer, but not its missing twin. (You can read an article written by Crawford exploring some of his themes at the New York Times.) If office work is bad for us, what can do to stop it being that way? Organisations are still ultimately lead and managed by people, after all, even if that might not be immediately visible in some workplaces. While Crawford argues that “The trades suffer from low prestige”, the picture he paints of office life is hardly merrier. His descriptions of it speak ultimately of alienation, both from outcomes of decisions and action and from the consequences of those actions. These are all valid points, but Crawford’s moment in the media spotlight seems to be more a case of a well-written book (he is also a University of Virginia Fellow, despite the greasy hands and overalls) than blinding insight: these are not new insights.

When I’ve read the book, I’d be interested to draw a comparison with Richard Sennett’s The Craftsman (reviewed here recently). Sennett’s writings – in that book and elsewhere – make a point that human lives seek purpose and narrative, and that these are things that modern work – knowledge work, or any role undertaken in large organisations and/or office cubicles – denies us. On one hand, organisations are currently besotted with  notions of employee engagement (terrified that, when ‘the recovery comes’, we will all flee to be motorbike engineers in Virginia just to get away from them), while on the other we are denied opportunities to connect with our labours in ways we might find engaging.

After scratching my head to think of the most succinct way of defining what we feel we have lost, I decided on a single word. Dignity. I confess I was steered in  my decision by another newspaper article, To depart with dignity is all you can want in life – or death, written by Sarah Sands in The Independent, and prompted by Gordon Brown’s departure from Downing Street – a moment he was generally (and perhaps unexpectedly) held to have handled with not just dignity but grace and skill. It’s a well written article, but it troubled me: the associations it raises for dignity are mostly of the most moving and laudable ways of facing or dealing with departure, loss or defeat. But the following paragraph sparked another train of thought:

Dignity is based on free will, which is what civil rights mean. It is hard to have dignity without a degree of independence. It is interesting that Jack Straw blamed Labour’s defeat on the alienation of the traditional working class. It was cruel to ply them with benefits, while giving away their jobs to immigrants. Gordon Brown, of all people, turned his back on the dignity of labour.”

It’s a point picked up in The Craftsman, and in our review (see the final paragraph). New professions – what we lump together gracelessly as ‘knowledge work’ – has its own drone-class: you may be familiar with jokey terms from the last few years such as ‘bitflipper’, ‘code monkey’ and (most famously) ‘McJob’. These are the levels of job most readily seen from the metaphorical higher floors of today’s businesses in crude terms of cost analysis – the ones most readily adjusted in spreadsheets without much thought of the human impact. But if Crawford and Sennett are right in that lower levels of ‘labour’ aren’t just mindless and menial, and that there is thinking, practice, review and meta-cognition, then to do so is not just to be dismissive of potential human capital (a sin, but not an original one) but to contribute to the loss of dignity that adversely affects the culture, mood and experience of work. As Carole King also sang, “A little bit of courage is all we lack”: the courage to challenge bad practice is a confidence we would all benefit from more of us having and demonstrating.

Many famous names have commented through the years on ‘the dignity of labour’. Even Richard Nixon, hardly a man who history will record as an expert on the subject, was able to observe that “Scrubbing floors and emptying bedpans has as much dignity as the Presidency.“ American aphorist Mason Cooley possibly showed more insight when he commented “To confer dignity, forgive. To express contempt, forget.” There’s a powerful eight-word lesson in leadership and in what nostalgists might call ‘industrial relations’ in that nugget. It was unpacked in more detail by Clive James in a Radio 4 programme last November, as quoted by the splendidly named Slugger O’Toole:

When there is dignity in labour, workers usually want to work, even if the task is a drudge. They should beware of any outrage on their behalf by false friends on the playtime left who have never done a hand’s turn. While it is a fine thing to be an artist, it is an even finer thing to be a doctor or a nurse. And it can be just as fine a thing to stack shelves or clean lavatories.

One of the few virtues of the old Soviet Union was that it respected the dignity of the workers. It also slaughtered them by the million, but that was the effect of totalitarian rule, not a sign of any innate conflict between management and labour. To the extent that there is any innate conflict, modern history has consisted largely of the long process of resolving it.”

If you’ve been attempting to flee this dignity-robbed modern country via the services of one of our major airlines, you could be forgiven for thinking that the long process has a way to go yet (and for arguing that Twittering during arbitration processes isn’t the only abuse of dignity going on). But if the importance of dignity is yet to be fully recognised – in the meantime, we can patiently relish Aristotle’s comment that “Dignity consists not in possessing honours, but in the consciousness that we deserve them” – there are hints abroad that it may yet be conferred on those denied the pleasures of squeezing a spark from a reluctant plug. The following quote is from the Work Foundation’s “Exceeding Expectations” report:

The way my predecessor was managed out of the business…one of the things you look at is how that’s going to be handled…It’s a very powerful clue, very powerful clue, especially at a senior level… and how it’s communicated in terms of the formal communication and the informal communication, the corridor chat, the non-verbal stuff, you know, how all of that is done and that was very impressive and then I watched a few months later another member of the Executive effectively being managed out of the business but you wouldn’t have known it. It was handled with tremendous sort of dignity and gentlemanly conduct and in all of my day to day dealings with, well week by week dealings with [the CEO]…they are always focused on the people, they will always be focused on what it will mean for them, how it will be received by the organisation, what the signals are, where the consistency is to other things we’ve said and promised.”

It’s still about departure and dismissal, but it’s also about impact, those that remain, consistency of message and behaviour (a point that Crawford attacks forcefully, not just as a source of dissatisfaction but of business and social disaster). Dignity of labour is not – as you might think from Libby Brooks’ recent Guardian article of the same name – necessarily dependant on making things: we can’t all be artisan producers. Even if we could, we would not be able to afford each other’s products without a wholesale reconfiguring of the world economy.

But we can see the conference of dignity as a part of the skill and craft of leadership and management, and recognise it as one that takes time and skill to master. We can see delegation, empowerment and development as ways of increasing the pride, self-confidence and self-respect of those that our paymasters will ultimately wish to see take over our own chairs, and not see contemptuous, dismissive or belittling behaviour as the best way of equipping them to do so. And if our budget holders squeal in the meantime, we can remind them that manners – one of dignity’s metaphorical parents – are still free.

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