Noble Employee Myth

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Kevin’s post about Dr. E. L. Kersten reminded me that in an earlier podcast carnival I linked to an interview with Dr. Kersten- the podcast is now expired. In the interview he talks about his book, ‘The Art of Demotivation’;

The noble employee myth is the very simple idea that if people are unhappy at work that there must be some sort of problem with the organisation and therefore the employees contribute nothing to the problem. But I do believe that oftentimes employees are unhappy simply because they expect too much from the organisations they work for, and if you expect too much and you don't get it, then naturally you're going to be unhappy…

…I make the analogy to Rousseau, and his idea was that by participating in civil institutions, it tended to corrupt people, whereas in their natural state they were happy. And the noble employee myth...the idea that the average worker is just desirous to be honest and hardworking and do as much for the company as possible, but when they go to work for an organisation they encounter bureaucracy and bad management and so forth and so consequently they tend to do things which are dysfunctional and counterproductive, but the source of all that is always rooted in the company according to the noble employee myth….”

He also talks about how this myth originated;

“Well, I think a lot of it started in the early 1900s with the rise of behaviourism in social psychology, and if you're familiar with behaviourism, the idea is to look for what sort of environmental influences impact human behaviour and happiness and so forth. So because of the scientific method and because of the rise of behaviourism in psychology, this gave rise to the discipline of organisational behaviour. Given the just fundamental assumptions about life and how life works, organisational behaviourists are always looking for external variables that impact human beings, and so there's this constant paradigmatic emphasis on the environment. So I think that's where a lot of this began, is just the rise of the discipline, the growth of behaviouristic psychology and a desire to look for something external to the employee that supposedly causes employee behaviour.”

Links with the motivational speaker movement (one in a hundred books now sold in the UK is motivational, there are 20,000 motivational speakers in America alone and the industry is a $5 billion industry in the US);

“Actually I think that's partly...that contributes to it, but I think the root of that is in the humanistic psychology, and many people are familiar, for example, with Abraham Maslow and his hierarchy of need, but around the turn of the century there was a real growth in humanistic psychology, and there was this idea that we all needed to be unfettered by the constraints of the environment so that our creative self, our true self could emerge. And there is a certain strain of organisational behaviourists that became enamoured with these ideas as well, and I think what happened in the popular culture is these two ideas became wedded together, so consequently now what many employees have been taught to look for is an organisation, an external environment, which will help them grow and become all that they can be. Clearly the motivational speakers and the human potential movement and all of that is an outgrowth of this humanistic psychology that really got started in the mid part of the 1900s.”

Are expectations outstripping the reality?

“I agree with the analogy there of looking for the perfect mate because many people, if they're looking for 'the one' who will meet all of their needs, they end up being very, very disappointed whenever they do find someone because whoever they find is going to be imperfect and they're going to recognise that they themselves are imperfect and the relationship is not going to be perfect, even though it might be satisfying and it might be a good relationship. People who expect perfection, they tend to make the other person miserable in a romantic relationship. I think the same thing happens in organisations; they've got this organisational ideal and they enter the organisation, they expect it to meet their needs for meaning and significance and satisfaction and money and all kinds of things, and if it doesn't meet all those needs they (for some reason) get bitter and they begin to blame the organisation for many of the life problems that the organisation has not necessarily signed up for. Having said that, some organisations do make those promises because they've been taught that's what they need to do, but I think that tends to produce more misery than anything else”


Try their screensaver, watch the short film More, Spin videos, look inside the book, BitterSweets, The Pessimist’s Mug and posters about Demotivators.

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This page contains a single entry by Paul published on May 20, 2006 1:37 AM.

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