Carol Craig is the Centre's Chief Executive. She is author of The Scots' Crisis of Confidence, Creating Confidence: A Handbook for Professionals Working with Young People, The Tears that Made the Clyde: Well-being in Glasgow and The Great Takeover: How materialism, the media and markets now dominate our lives. She is Commissioning editor for the Postcards from Scotland series. Carol blogs on confidence, well-being, inequality, every day life and some of the great challenges of our time. The views she expresses are her own unless she specifically states that they reflect the Centre's thinking.
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Twenty or thirty years ago a common assumption was that hierarchy at work was becoming less important and employees were becoming better placed to direct their own activities. Just as 'the leisured society' we were promised never materialised, freedom from command and control hasn’t either. If anything in some areas of employment it’s getting worse.
This isn’t about power hungry bosses but about the style of management they now routinely use - a style based on performance management techniques, particularly targets.
Sadly this development is not only bad for employees for it’s also having a perverse effect on services. Indeed in the past week there have been three stories in the news on how targets are having a negative effect.
On the 2nd of April a GP from Surrey wrote in the British Medical Journal about his fears that NHS England’s targets for diagnosis rates for dementia could easily lead to ‘substantial harm’ to patients as it was encouraging overdiagnosis.
At the end of the week there was then a report from the Metropolitan Police Federation which said that the force’s excessive use of performance targets was leading to a ‘culture of fear’ in the Met. For example, some teams are being set targets such as five stop-and-searches per shift and two criminal reports. The report reads:
There is evidence of a persistent and growing culture of fear spawned by the vigorous and often draconian application of performance targets, with many officers reporting that they feel almost constantly under threat of being blamed and subsequently punished for failing to hit targets.
On the same day there was another news story that the Westminster Government’s planning targets may be ‘driving perverse behaviour’ in local authorities. The Westminster’s Communities and Local Government Committee is sufficiently concerned that it has launched an inquiry into the National Planning Policy Framework. This follows in the wake of the publication of a report by Cambridge University’s Centre for Housing and Planning Research. This argues that whether local authorities are meeting planning targets has nothing to do with how well they are performing, as some are ‘gaming the system’ to meet their targets. For example, some local authorities are rejecting planning applications and asking for a resubmission simply to the meet the target time for decisions.
In case readers think that the issue here is simply England and the provision of public services then they should think again. In 2013 the Scottish Trades Union Congress published a report written by Professor Phil Taylor of the University of Strathclyde called ‘Performance Management and the New Workplace Tyrrany’. Taylor interviewed frontline staff in Scotland for the report and his summary of what he heard makes uncomfortable reading. Most of the workers he interviewed came from the telecommunications industry and the financial sector. In the conclusion to his whole report Taylor writes:
… these Performance Management practices are not merely unjustifiable on grounds of welfare, decency, dignity and well-being, but that they may also be utterly counterproductive from a managerial perspective. They require enormous commitments of resource by middle and front-line management and serve merely to create a deep well of resentment and discontent amongst a highly pressurised workforce.
It is hardly surprising then that one senior union representative from the insurance sector said that if he were to ask employees what was their biggest problem at work they are likely to say ‘Targets, constant pressure, Performance Management, never any let up, fear.’
Performance management practices are having a huge impact at work both on how organisations go about their business and employees’ well-being yet I am continually surprised by how little we are discussing the issue or even questioning how we got here.
I think Phil Taylor is right to argue that while there may have been some good intentions behind Peformance management as people thought it may create more humane workplaces, in reality it has been used to help capitalist restructuring – ‘cost minimization, growing labour market flexibility, downsizing and redundancy’.
One of the main changes in white collar jobs in the last few decades has been the introduction of ‘lean processes’ and the intensification of work. Performance Management has played its part both in cost reductions and maximizing workers’ productivity.’
The above quote is taken from Letting Go: Breathing new life into organisations which is the latest book in the Centre’s Postcards from Scotland series and I’m very proud that we are trying to inform people and get them engaged in some of these very important issues.
The authors, Tony Miller and Gordon Hall, set out clearly what they believe is the thinking underlying our current obsession with targets and bonuses. They argue that it is partly because of the dominance of economic ideas of human beings it that human beings are self-interested and not to be trusted. This is why those at the top think they must continually direct people’s behavior. The problem with this approach is that it flies in the face of copious psychological research on how, as human beings, we are intrinsically motivated and want to do a good job. What’s more, a small group of people far removed from day to day operations will never be able to make the best decisions.
Indeed apart from the fact that performance management is very oppressive for employees, it is the counterproductive nature of targets which drives me crazy. Professor John Seddon summed up the problem well at a Centre event in 2009 when he said:
Targets always make performance worse. Any arbitrary measure in a system will suboptimise the system. … When you derive the measures from the purpose of the service from a customer’s point of view and put them in the hands of the people who do the work and give those people the means to understand and improve the work you get a level of performance you never would have dreamed of setting as a target. … There is a systemic relationship between purpose, measures and method. … If you impose arbitrary measures into a system you create a de facto purpose – make the target. That is how we’ve destroyed the public sector.
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