Golden Barbed Wire

Currently, it seems like both institutions and enterprises are in a state of inertia. And humans always seem to suffer. At least that is what diverse polls tell us. Also, I hear many laments during direct conversations. Frustration at work increases, more and more persons succumb to inner resignation.

I can easily understand that. The collective life in enterprises is increasingly subjected to being moulded into processes. This development has been going on for several years, step by step and consequently not really easy to make out. Yet it keeps getting stronger. Nobody can escape it. More and more regulations and written rules of behaviour are generated. There is a simple answer for every question.

Those who are still capable of feeling it feel dependent and incapacitated. A feeling of powerlessness spreads, dissatisfaction grows, you are frustrated and often do not even know why. At the same time, the systems protect you as never before. Security is all, risks are undesired. The total care through the system is the slogan of the hour.

Actually, the care is something those who enjoy it gladly accept. After all, it provides a comfort zone and promises security. Because you are in a protected area and basically there is nothing you need to worry about. Because you are part of a big “community” – one of many.

This is how the concern employee will feel comfortable. Yet this is often quite treacherous. But then, how does this situation arise? Both as a student and later as a regular employee, I spent almost ten years working for Siemens, where I personally made the experience of gliding into the world of security.

For me, the “lulling process” started with eating in the cafeteria. Usually, that was where I got good food at fixed times and for a reasonable price. And, like most people, I found “my” company cafeteria quite good. Also because it made my life easier.

Well, it means the cafeteria was the central point of the work day. It decided what we were going to eat. There were two standardized meals. At Siemens, we had one “simple” meal (green voucher, 1.20 DM) and a “higher-quality” meal (red voucher, 1.50 DM). The vouchers looked like those coins you can use instead of EURO coins when you need a trolley in the supermarket.

The vouchers were available from a very basic machine. If you paid 6 DM, you could choose between getting five green vouchers and four red vouchers. The same vouchers were available in yellow – for dessert. The price was 0.30 DM. For 1.50 DM, the machine gave you five of them. In those days, even dinner was available in the cafeteria – very comfortable.

The daily choice between green (basic) and red (better) meal became the most important part of daily life. The question “what’s to eat today” certainly gives diversity to the day. It suggests decisiveness and some last vestiges of freedom. Besides, going to the cafeteria at noon provided a break in the work routine.

This is what you get with big companies and institutions – all is provided for. You get food and warmth. The cafeteria as the tip of the iceberg consisting of a complete all-out provision by “Mama Siemens” or similar. “Mama Siemens” (as a metaphor for huge concerns) gives their people a place to work, a good income, warmth and light, and nice offices. At the gate, the security guards keep a watchful eye. The boss will select the courses his employees might find useful. And if an employee had a health problem, he or she could feel free to consult the company doctor. What more do you need?

This is what I experienced as part of the working population during my first years. I sat in a golden cage. We were domesticated and mollycoddled, like tamed pets. Until all this care – and if I am honest, there were other reasons, too – made me leave.

Many of my friends and colleagues did not manage to escape. They became prisoners inside the “golden barbed wire”. Initially, it was the company retirement money that attracted them. Then the dismissal protection. Without noticing it, they became zombies of the system that provided everything. Everything was pre-conceived and pre-arranged. No problems, no challenges.

Today, we also have set processes for everything: vacations, appraisal interviews, the hours you work, business trips, meetings, employments or notices, personnel-related issues, social media: everything is ready-made and served conveniently.

As soon as they reached their 50th birthday, if not sooner, they started looking towards the end with anxiety. And many were permitted to leave before they were sixty – well provided for, but basically too young to stop doing something meaningful.

And as systems always work: 
As soon as the regulations have started, they will never stop. Be it communication, creativity, development, marketing, sales: everything is standardized. „Best practice“ gives way to processes, bureaucracy will flourish endlessly, lateral ideas are not welcome.

Instead of “common sense” you get “this is how we are going to do it”. Creativity is replaced by planning. Transparency becomes an unwelcome threat. Everything must be measurable, even the suggestions for improvement. Customers’ wishes and the needs of your providers will fall victim to the Shareholder Value.

The system overshadows everything. Only what is useful for the system can ever be good – even if this is only allegedly so.

Consequently, the enterprises wear a mask that gets stronger and stronger. It is a fir tree they used to call structure organization – with mistletoes of structural concepts hanging from it.

To be sure, from the inside, those enterprises look different, because the industrious colleagues will ignore the fir tree with its mistletoes where necessary (which is quite frequently) and instead directly communicate with each other. This is how they see to it that the enterprise will be a success, after all – in violation of the rules.

Many enterprises remind me of the image of a city where the pulsating life starts to be structured by the construction of signs and barbed wire fences. Yet they leave enough – basically unlawful – holes for everything to still function.

It is called bureacracy!

(Translated by EG)

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