Is This our Neoliberal Meritocracy?

AutocracyI know many people who are truly amazing.  They think outside the box, they practice an art, they connect to community and to land, they have passion for some goal, they can hold a humorous conversation and be great company in any context.

And many tend to be ‘underemployed’.

I find this very, very curious. Isn’t the cream supposed to float to the ‘top’ – at least in the sense of being closer to the inspiration and big decisions?

Most of these amazing people are not the dull conformists who keep the trains running (sorry, I know that is important), the same people who then get promoted to positions where understanding culture and the broad context required to think strategically and adaptably is so, so necessary …. and so, so lacking.  Why does this happen?

We are told we live in a meritocracy.  But I have seen less and less merit at the top.  I once worked in a public sector that cared about service and New Zealand, had no concept of separating ‘managers’ from ‘staff’ (no one was called ‘manager’, you were senior, principal, deputy, officer in charge amongst other officers, etc.), and where you got brownie points for thinking and where there was explicit concern for your personal development and career path if you had a particular personality & skill set.

We genuinely admired the competence that rose.  That went from the 1990s after the State Sector Act 1988 started to kick in.  And then the rot accelerated; because while A-Grade people hire A-grade people, B-Grade people hire C-Grade people, and they in turn hire D-Grade people until ……..

I’ve worked in latter rigid hierarchies where the top ‘managers’ were separated into largely two types (with bright exceptions who were generally looked at sideways).  There were those who were incredibly dull and concerned about their positions.  Administrators.  Not thinkers.  Some were good train schedulers but completely divorced from big picture outcomes and incredibly focused on tiny measured outputs.  Little results, not big achievements – Just tell me what to do, I don’t want to know about greater purpose.  I’ll go in any direction, so long as you instruct me where to step.

Being particular and obedient gets promoted.

Resistance-is-useless-VogonWith conformity comes rigidity – and any demand for immediate innovation or adaptation results in a headless chicken panic (change!! uncertainty!!!), and any questioning dialogue about how we are going relative to a purpose resulted in shock, more rigidity, denial, anger and blame, reference to the manual, intakes of breath, and Vogon guard behaviour where Resistance is useless !

And then there were the megalomaniacs who played the game to rise.  Like the train schedulers, not particularly bright, usually very narrow, also taking any dialogue as dissent and personal attack.  In serious need of dealing with some deep wounding personal issues perhaps.

Both the megalomaniacs and the train schedulers use “the way of nature” as their management style – only want to please themselves and so build and demand command The way of nature and graceand control of a minutely regulated machine with hierarchical layers of instruction and the expectation of blind obedience.

None use “the way of grace“, which builds a ‘can do’, open-hearted, adaptive team.  Personal ego doesn’t matter, it is the purpose that does.  A team committed to an outcome, where ideas and dialogue are a way of being, an esprit de corps, the very essence of high performance.  Yet I’ve heard such approaches explicitly referred to as “bad man-management” by those who subscribe to command and control.  Allowing dialogue was apparently a sign of weakness.

This is partly McGregor’s Theory X versus Theory Y management; Theory X assumes people are inherently individualistic, selfish and lazy, and so set up structures and procedures to control.  Theory Y thinks people naturally want to be a part of a community and do a good job, and so focuses on freedom within a framework, and a culture of resilience and performance.

You know you are in trouble when X is the way.  You may note the association with some Manaakitanga - mycommunitiesassumptions of Neoliberalism; “there is no such thing as society, just a collection of individuals.”  Look after number one.   Assume that is the way.  Never think that there are such virtues as Manaakitanga, Whanaungatanga, Kaitiakitanga.   Never imagine that we could have a world that is better because at the centre of it all is not control, or a desire for power, or selfish ends, but an Ethos of Care.

Neoliberalism and the authoritarian and petty Way of Nature go hand in hand.  Neoliberalism and a sense of belonging and the purpose to care and create something bigger than ourselves are mutually exclusive.  You can have or the other, but not both.

I think Neoliberal Economics has not only degraded the concept of community and care,

and discouraged questions about purpose,

and displaced a culture of deeply critiquing assumptions and the consequences of short-term selfish actions with a perverse faith in greed and expedience ….

…. it has also actively fostered the rise of autocratic hierarchy.

Dialogue is dissent.  Only the megalomaniacs and the train schedulers rise.  And for the rest, we have as Albert Hirschman argued, three options: We can Exit, we can Voice in the hope of effecting change, or we can become actively or passively Loyal to the growing machine.

But when the D-graders and megalomaniacs are holding the reigns, what then?

I once had a CEO say these words to me after I was discussing the importance of an engaging and purposeful culture over organisational structure, and how restructurings can adversely affect both morale and a desired culture (a wise friend once renamed ‘restructuring’ ‘DEstructurings’ after we had seen babies thrown to the winds, and bathwater preciously coddled).

The CEO said in dismissal of my concerns about morale, “You can have high performance or high morale, but you can’t have both.

Conversation was pointless after that.  If you advance that sort of belief, then you can have absolutely no faith in the organisation’s future.

We have created less adaptive, less thinking, less committed places… built more on blind obedience than foresight, thought and adaptability ….

…and there is less and less room for my friends who are truly amazing.

The Neoliberals claim they are Work will set you freethere for ‘freedom’, while in the meantime they construct signs over the factory gates with new versions of Arbeit Macht Frei.

And when there is no one left Voicing from within because they have either Exited or become Loyal for the sake of their mortgage …… what then?

Chris Perley

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One Response to Is This our Neoliberal Meritocracy?

  1. Clive Anstey says:

    I really enjoy your blogs but usually don’t have time to comment. This time I can’t resist.
    As usual, you put your finger on a critical shift in institutional structures from the mid 1980’s. For better or for worse we accepted the need for institutional stability up to the mid 80’s and the administration of policy and procedures was a central function of agencies. Good administration required people of a certain type and inclination, people who would hold the line and uphold the status quo. This could stifle innovation and lead to a certain inertia. The restructured organisations of the late 80’s abandoned the centralised administrative functions which were farmed out to consultants or devolved to individuals across the agencies. Collective purpose and accountability to shared objectives went out the window.

    ‘Policy’ no longer reflects values deriving from democratic processes (tedious as these may be) but rather reflect the ideology of an ill-defined minority lurking in the shadows.

    From a land management perspective some form of ‘administration’ is critical if only to keep track of the ‘status quo’ or resource condition. Without the information the proper administration of resources provides we end up with random ‘improvements’ that, at best, serve short term gains for minorities. Effects based resource management is fine if you understand what is being affected. All too often we don’t; being a change agent is far more exciting than administering the status quo.


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