As a homeworker, I’m normally able to maintain a certain distance from the patronising initiatives that our bosses periodically roll out (their phrase, not mine), so it can be a shock when I’m confronted by the bunkum that my colleagues have to endure. On a recent visit to the office, I was bemused to find myself sitting at a hotdesk opposite a wall of motivational posters, the management equivalent of ‘You don’t have to be mad to work here but it helps.’ One of them instructed me to ‘Be here now’, an injunction that, far from achieving its purpose of focusing my mind on the task in hand, created an earworm that led me to waste a good half-hour tracking down old Oasis songs on YouTube. ‘Things turn out best for people who make the best of the way things turn out,’ burbled another. Well, duh, as my nine-year-old would say.
Alongside these pearls of management wisdom was a poster illustrating a vertical scale. The top half was labelled with upbeat words such as ‘resourceful’, ‘creative’ and ‘flexible’. ‘Sense of humor’ had been lobbed in there among the adjectives, demonstrating a cavalier disregard for UK spelling conventions and grammatical consistency, and contributing to the impression that the diagram had been scribbled out on the back of a beer mat five minutes before closing time. The lower half of the scale was reserved for a range of negative emotions towards which I felt myself rapidly gravitating – among them, ‘irritated’, ‘angry’ and ‘depressed’.
This is the mood elevator, an essential tool (so I’m told) for creating a healthy and fast-paced working environment and managing our corporate culture. The premise is that negative thought-patterns generate low moods, which impede our effectiveness in the workplace. It’s a neat solution, absolving employers of responsibility for their workers’ well-being. Never mind that you’re bored shitless on a minimum-wage, zero-hours contract, working for a boss who passionately believes in this kind of crap: just change your way of thinking and – ta da! – problem solved.
Initiatives like this are beloved of senior executives, whose bonuses and sense of self-worth depend on forcing underlings like me to waste our working hours attending culture workshops and goal-setting meetings. I wish I could just do my job, instead of filling out endless self-appraisal questionnaires and 360-degree feedback forms. What’s the appropriate response? To sink into an even deeper depression, or just shrug and go along with it?
One option is to be quietly subversive, playing the system while privately acknowledging its inherent absurdity. In her bestselling critique of French corporate culture, ‘Bonjour paresse’, Corinne Maier advocates various ways of subtly undermining our bosses. One of my favourite tips is: ‘You’re not judged on merit, but on whether you look and sound the part. Speak lots of leaden jargon: people will suspect you have an inside track.’
In the end, though, my ‘sense of humor’ fails me. Perhaps I would be able to laugh if it weren’t all so insidious. Taken seriously, many of these corporate mind-control games strip us of authenticity, turning us into cynics and manipulators. Once I was sent on a networking course, where I was taught various techniques for working a room. So now I know that the person who is rather creepily mirroring my body language has been on a similar course and is trying to establish a rapport, while ‘Can I get you a drink?’ is code for ‘Thanks, I’ve got what I wanted from you and it’s time to move on.’
My company trumpets innovation as a core value, and yet the one piece of blue-sky thinking that it’s not prepared to countenance is the suggestion that these initiatives are a massive waste of time. Another oft-cited value is diversity. Odd, then, that our bosses seem intent on making corporate clones of us all, drumming out the mavericks and weirdos who refuse to modify their ‘behaviors’ and simply want to get on with their work.
There’s no sign of any let-up. Today we received an e-mail encouraging us to create a special break-out zone in the office where individuals can contemplate their emotional well-being and mark their current level on a blown-up, laminated copy of the mood elevator. I think you can guess which adjectives I’ll be circling. Here’s a plea to management: let us be ourselves. We sell you our labour, not our identities; what we do for a living isn’t the sum total of who we are. Who knows, our productivity levels may even benefit from this refreshingly hands-off approach. Perhaps I should present it to our gullible executives as a ground-breaking new management theory.