The Rat Race—It’s Not Metaphor

When those in authority over an enterprise employ/hire someone they give him/her work to which he/she is to apply his/her labor in support of aim of the business enterprise.  This employer-employee arrangement is consistent with a basic principle of capitalism where capital employs labor.


We speak of being employed and being an employee without much further thinking about just what this could mean.  Oh, I know that being employed means you are being paid for performing (another’s) work and that the pay you get gives you a chance of meeting your basic (living) needs.  However, I believe there is another way to view the arrangement and the experience of what it means to be employed, to be an employee.


Let’s first acknowledge that what matters most to those in authority over a business is results.  Informed by Fayol’s functions of management, to this end management practice (or leadership if you prefer) seeks to organize, direct or command and control the behavior of others for the express purpose of realizing desired results through performing the work of the business enterprise.  It’s commonly referred to as driving performance and it’s what leaders do—or so people think.


Essentially the business enterprise employs (your) behavior.  That is to say each individual is considered to be a behavioral unit comprised of specific skills and knowledge, not a self-initiating whole person with very human needs.  Thus those hired, commonly referred to as employees, are merely purchased units of behavior—behavior employed.  Behavior is what employers care about and it’s what gets measured.  According to Robert Galford (Leadership Fellow in Executive Education at Harvard Graduate School of Design) in a recent HBR blog post the first two things a boss expects are: 1) be focused on making the numbers and 2) be aware of the numbers and initiatives important to his/her boss.  Those in authority exercise control over those without.


Unfortunately people don’t appreciate being related to as an object; they don’t really like being viewed as anything other than a whole person, with very human complex of needs, capabilities, sensibilities and potential.  To quote Abraham Maslow, “a person prefers to use all his capacities, to flex all his muscles and resents being treated as just a part of the person.”  No one likes being another’s tool, yet isn’t that how we often are treated!  No wonder a large percentage of us work for the weekend!


Management Has Theory

This behavior-centered approach is not some half-baked idea.  The associated management methods are informed by the field of psychology known as behaviorism, which grounded in solid scientific animal research.  W. B. Watson, the father of this field of psychology, advanced the notion that people haven’t free will—like all animals—and thus the initiation and manipulation of behavior must be from outside forces.  The research, largely conducted using laboratory rats, provides understanding of the process of operant conditioning and the stimulus-response dynamic as a means of influencing behavior.  Why rats?  Laboratory rats present no inherent self-initiative qualities in their behavior.  That is, rats thus don’t need to be (and can’t be) asked what they envision or intrinsically find joyful.  So to get them to behave as one desires, one (as the outside force) simply acts upon them.  Given the parallel view of humankind that underlies the capitalist economic system—not self-initiated, pain avoiding and pleasure seeking and the most intelligent animal—the prominent use of extrinsic motivational techniques involving the promise of reward and the threat of punishment as way of directing, controlling and conditioning behavior necessarily follows.


The widely practiced carrot-and-stick fear-based methods of management—merit pay, pay-for-performance and the commission system, cascading goals & management-by-objective, rank-&-yank and performance appraisal—are informed by this branch of psychology.  In other words, what management is managing aren’t individuals as subjects but rather behaviors as objects that are put or taken into one’s service.  Hence the term employee—the one whose behavioral capacity is paid for and used by another—is not referring to another human being (a person) but merely a resource or asset for use (i.e. manipulation, exploitation, conditioning) as desired.  Seen in this light, the commonly heard claim our employees are our most valued asset is not all that flattering.


Moreover this view of and way of relating to people carries little if any moral guidance on what one does to the units of behavior that one has purchased—working with objects carries no moral obligation to the object.  Once I purchase a screw it is property to employ it as I desire; it matters not to the screw whether I use it as a screw or a nail. No wonder many executives seek to diminish the cost associated with the behavioral units they employ in any way possible—results justifies the means.


This behavior-as-property view is not limited to the workplace—the laboratory has no boundary.  Specifically, another behavior that businesses seek to manipulate, exploit and control is consumer behavior; that is an individual as customer presents as a purchasing unit.  Yes our economic system is all about manipulating and exploiting the behavior of others, be it as employee or consumer.


Thus there is a whole new understanding of what being a member of the rat race implies.  In effect the egoistic capitalistic mindset has permeated into so much of society that most don’t even realize its pervasive exploitation of all human beings, of all that is alive—of life itself.


Hence we don’t question the notion that our educational system must serve the needs of business rather than the developmental needs of people, or that our government must first and foremost serve the needs of the economy and industry—with elected officials being the handmaidens—and not the collective needs of the citizenry.  We accept it as reality and don’t bother to stop this train (of thought).  It appears we’ve been captured and trapped just like rats.


What If

It need not be this way!  We are not destined to live life according to the principles of an inhumane system of economics that feeds only our ego so that we can serve it. Contrary to what many say, there is an alternative!


What if economic activity was not intent on maximizing one’s own material gain through the exploitation of people and the natural environment?  What if the aim of economic activity was not myopically limited to wealth accumulation? What if people weren’t cast as pain avoiding and pleasure seeking intelligent animals?  What if the management of business was informed by a fuller and deeper understanding of humankind and life?  What if those in management actually cared about the development of people? What if private concern and public concern actually overlap?  What if the intent of business was to contribute to human progress, where progress involves the concern for the future, for the viability and sustainability of all life well beyond this moment?  What if work served both our subsistence and developmental needs; our biological/physiological need to live and our very unique human need to self-actualize?


We wouldn’t be a society wherein the rat race dominates, and where the race to the top is a race to nowhere.  Rather, we’d be a very human society of deeply interconnected people with the means and sense of meaning to contribute to each other’s and our collective development. We’d be a society of people being humanly productive.  There’d be no race, yet we’d all be winners!



2 thoughts on “The Rat Race—It’s Not Metaphor

  1. Pingback: Better Makes Better | For Progress, Not Growth

  2. Pingback: Join the Race | For Progress, Not Growth

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