The workplace or the workers?

18 11 2009

Interesting article in last Wednesday’s Guardian – William Tate considers how the press responds to failures in an organizational system, and whether it makes more sense to criticise the staff or the system.

Sometimes it’s the workplace that’s stupid, not the staff

While cases like Baby P’s are tragic, I’m inclined to agree with Tate and with Eileen Munro, to whom he’s responding; the people involved in a system are, usually, motivated and caring people doing the best they can within a set of constraints.

What interests me is Tate’s division between the “system” and the staff. Where do we draw that distinction, and is it ever really meaningful? We all like to talk about “culture” and the system”, imagining it as something that controls and shapes us, something that washes around us like a fog. But it doesn’t exist outside of our heads. Inasmuch as there is something called a “culture” and something called a “system”, we create it. All of us, everyday, in the way we tilt our heads when that guy we don’t really like says something friendly, in the way we structure our workdays, in the way we respond in a crisis. It’s like money. It exists only because we all agree to pretend it does.

“The system” doesn’t control people. They control it. They created it because, I think, it’s easier to absolve some of the responsibility for your actions to an amorphous and impersonal idea that you never have to face. Ever bewailed your company’s “culture” or processes? What did you do to change it when you did that?

You change it when you refuse to accept it. You change it by the way you think. If you don’t like a culture, change it.




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