“The corporate ‘culture of instability’ is largely responsible for the loss of meaning at work”

INTERVIEW – In The totalitarian management, the journalist Violaine des Courières attacks the new management methods in some companies. They combine, according to him, the archaisms of the French company and the excesses of Anglo-Saxon capitalism.

Violaine des Courières is a journalist in the service of Marianne. His first book, The totalitarian management published on Thursday January 26, 2023, by Albin Michel edition (224 p., €21.90).

THEFIGARO. – Your book aims to identify the dysfunctions of modern business and dismantle a type of management that combines the archaisms of French business and the excesses of Anglo-Saxon capitalism. How will this new form of governance be seen??

Violaine DESCOURIERS. – It was a five-year investigation. I interviewed labor inspectors, key CEOs, employees, managers, and all these testimonies point in the same direction. What is remarkable is that the bosses are the most virulent regarding this form of “totalitarian drift» in companies, They consider that there is a need for urgency. This drift is largely linked to the company’s finances; Ex-CEOs tell how, over 30 years, they’ve seen the financial vice tighten dramatically.

Today we denounce the smallest violence in our society, but in the company all blows are allowed in the name of an ideology of performance.

Violaine des Courières

These people have pressure from shareholders, to the point that they can’t take it anymoresee the long-term vision and have a strategy for their business. Henry Lachman , ex-CEO of Schneider Electric, told me that he gradually became myopic. This fog imposed, unintentionally or not, by shareholders challenges them. Another CEO said that shareholders, including Anglo-Saxon pension funds, are calling them every day to impose “woke” values ​​on them against their will. CEOs become employees.

Can we speak of “totalitarian” governance?Isn’t that overkill?

When I came up with the idea for this book, I was expecting this sentence. I suspected that the bosses would fail me. So, one day, at an event, I met the general manager of a French multinational and I asked him your question. He answered me clearly: “There really is a totalitarian drift”. If even a big boss says it, there is a real problem. The problem is that these leaders do not want to speak publicly.

The problem is not the company itself. This so-called totalitarian management is poison that comes from the Anglo-Saxon world and is making our companies sick. Meditating on this problem seems to do me good. Especially if it helps to (re)define the values ​​of an alternative capitalism.

According to you, this new method of management appeared in the finance of large companies. How has the era of mergers and acquisitions shaken up “dad-style” management?

A striking figure: between 1985 and 2017, the number of mergers and acquisitions in companies was multiplied by 18. Thus a culture of instability was established, which scientists thought, especially Peter Kruse. This German doctor developed the theory of “culture of innovation» in his book Change management. According to him, instability makes it possible to have better profitability, because permanent change pushes the employee to be efficient. He did not take into account the fact that in the medium and long term, innovation ends in destruction, which we see very clearly today in the explosion in the number of burnouts.

This idea, which links innovation and performance, is pervasive in today’s business culture. However, when there was a reorganization, employees were almost automatically dismissed, so it was also a culture of turnover. I see a totalitarian drift there, because, following this logic, no one is responsible for anything. From the moment the employee has a mission in a company, he does what is asked of him, without asking the slightest question. In this organization, it is necessary to constantly pay attention to the image that we send back, because in order for the employer to entrust us with other missions or to recommend us to other companies, because of this permanent fluidity. So I met an HR manager of a company transition who happened to dismiss women when they came back from maternity leave, because they were considered less efficient in the short term. Why? Because he was paid to complete short assignments and should, therefore, be careful of his reputation and follow orders given to the letter, he told me.

The show is yoursThe weakest link», broadcast on TF1 in the 2000s, the symbol of this “totalitarian management”…

Indeed, we can draw an interesting parallel between the new modes of governance and the Le Maillon program waning. This program features a selection process very similar to that of today’s companies. That is, the competition is no longer between good and bad, but between strong and weak. The most amazing thing is that, just as the players agreed to go and be embarrassed on television, the employees agreed to join the competition and end up firing each other. It is a form of voluntary service, of the fellowship of shame. The company has become a form of arena, a separate system, where all shots are allowed, as if it were a game show.

Don’t we have a fantasy view of “old-fashioned management»?

In fact, the managementto daddywasn’t always very soft-spoken, but those who knew him were afraid of new management styles. Which goes to show that, even if it wasn’t perfect then, the world of work is forever drifting.

The employees who find the most meaning in their work are the ones who have the most links with their colleagues, but today’s teams are constantly changing.

Violaine des Courières

What was important then was the bond of loyalty. When you stay with a company for 15 years, you can have an unbearable boss, sure, but you can’t be fired overnight. Everyone honors their moral contract with each other. Today, having a permanent contract and seniority in a company is just a facade.

You point the finger at the obsolescence of the employee’s skills. In the new economy, you always have to be nimble. Is it because it is based on the ability to constantly learn new things: what is celebrated are potentialities rather than concrete achievements?

Perfect, it’s a very worrying drift, there’s almost a kind of “professional eugenics“. From the moment skills are no longer important, due to the intervention of artificial intelligence for example, employees become interchangeable. The employee is no longer selected for his skills but for his ability to work quickly and profitably. Hiring is therefore based on behavior, and some employers rely on completely nebulous “neuroscience” studies, to try to anticipate our short-term claims of profitability declining. mental capacity after 45, so we end up with employees being fired, and deemed unemployed, for the simple reason that they are over a certain age.

Does the question of management directly reflect the loss of meaning of work itself which contributes to the unhappiness of the employees? Is the appearance of “silly jobs” in large companies a source of anxiety and frustration?

The Direction of research animation of studies and statistics (DARES), estimated in a 2021 study, that the loss of meaning in work increases as changes and reorganizations increase. Therefore, there is a real correlation between the illness of employees and the culture of instability. Permanent changes, mergers and acquisitions, but also the introduction of new software, new teams, have an impact on employee psychology and participate in the devaluation of the meaning of work.

We also noticed that the employees who have the most meaning in their work are the ones who have the most links with their colleagues, but when the company and the teams are constantly changing, how do you establish strong relationships?

Telework and flex-offices, which create permanent instability, do not contribute to employee discomfort?

In fact, the instability is also due to the fact that we no longer have an office, no fixed place to work. Having the same colleagues, in the same workplace, promotes fulfillment in the company.

Eliminating the work/home distinction is the source of many burnouts.

Violaine des Courières

There are two ambivalent aspects to teleworking. Some employees have realized, thanks to remote work, that they are too focused on their company and have forgotten their family, their passions… So teleworking allowed them to reinvest in their personal life. It is this awareness that has led to the phenomenon of mass resignations in 2021/2022. But on the other hand, there are also those who are stuck in their work, and cannot release the financial pressure. At this time, home and private life are the vampire of work, and not the other way around. The company comes to live in their home, and the elimination of the work/home distinction is the source of many burnouts.

One of the important points of this survey is the issue of employee education. Now, the companyteaches» employees, with sports programs, training to promote their «opening», the command to be a leader. The company is trying to teach us to be a unique being, to meet production requirements.

Has the new form of management resulted (or caused) a change in the relationship of employees to authority and hierarchy?

This question is quite complicated. I think the new generations have a different relationship with authority. They adapt to this culture of instability, the breakdown of trust, and choose themselves when to leave, rather than being fired. Young people have a more utilitarian view of their work, and this can cause major problems for employers, especially SMEs. Many of them saw their father sacrifice everything for work before being fired. They don’t want to, they don’t want to sacrifice their family life anymore. They understood this and preferred to try to take advantage of this fluidity.

Violaine des Courières, Totalitarian management, ed. Albin Michel, 2022, 224 pages, €21.90. Photo credits: Albin Michel

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