By Robert Folsom
December 13, 2011
Conspicuous authoritarianism is scary, and you instantly know it when you see it: For example, when governments persecute people because of their political beliefs.
Another sort of authoritarianism is easier to disguise; it can surface almost anyplace and come from nearly any direction. The psychology behind it goes far beyond what governments do. Sometimes you won’t see it for what it is until you think carefully and ask questions; only then will you realize that it’s a capricious, petty, or inexplicably silly brand of authoritarianism.
So let’s ask a few questions about a corporate decision that was the recent topic on the “Room for Debate” page of The New York Times, under the headline “Should Workplaces Ban E-Mail?”
At issue is the decision of the massive U.K.-based firm Atos, which did indeed recently announce it will “phase out” all internal corporate use of e-mail among its 80,000 employees in 42 countries.
The first thing I wonder is, How can such a policy even be enforced? But let’s skip that and consider the ostensible reason for banning e-mail: that “90 per cent of them are a waste of time.” By way of an alternative to e-mail, the firm’s CEO also said employees will be “encouraged to talk to each other in person.”
Now, I realize that employers who hate to pay for wasted time may find this logic appealing, likewise employees who must read and reply to many dozens of e-mails each day.
But if we do think carefully about this “problem” — and its proposed “solution” — we see that they obviously flout common sense to the point of inviting laughter, or sarcasm, or both.
If your employees’ use of email is 90% inefficient, is it safe to assume that they’ll save time by having more face-to-face conversations? Really?
Are we to believe that their “in person” chats won’t include last night’s poker game or next month’s wedding plans or who got drunk at the company’s Christmas party?
The Times article mentions that “reply all” emails are often notorious time wasters. True enough. Yet is the answer then to hold more meetings — where there is no “delete” key and a single windbag can waste a dozen (or more) peoples’ time all at once?
Instead of a zero e-mail policy, wouldn’t employees benefit more from a few hours of skills training in 1) better time management, and 2) e-mail as a time management tool?
But this exercise in logic is really beside the point. Which is to say, to impose a corporate policy as transparently harebrained as this makes sense only when we realize that it flows from a deeper psychological impulse. It’s the impulse Alan Hall described this way:
Authoritarianism begins with a negative social mood trend, which in turn spawns a desire among some to submit to authority and among others to coerce their fellows to submit. At the same time, still others, caught up in the same emotional climate, battle against authoritarianism.
We forecast that a continuing long-term trend toward negative social mood will produce increasingly authoritarian — and anti-authoritarian — impulses…
Here I’ll reiterate what I said at the top: Authoritarianism, and the battle against it, is emerging on a grand scale and in more mundane ways. Read all of Alan Hall’s fascinating two-part study in the April and May 2010 issues of The Socionomist.