Personal responsibility: sheep farming in Barnet?

Seth Godin is proclaiming the “end of the average worker” – the art, he advocates, is to be different in some capacity and make yourself unique, so that people will find you and pay you more, It has been deduced from this that people without a specialism are discovering that it is harder to find work. It is now – apparently – all about expertise, and not experience. Specialists, it seems, outperform generalists in nine out of ten cases – statistics more akin to cat food preference. Goodbye, then, to the generalist?

Adam Smith in the Wealth of Nations (1776) gave us the concept of the division of labour, and – by consequence – “universal opulence” from higher productivity. In this advocacy, it underlined the need for specialisation – each person had their defined role in the process, the sum of which created optimum output. Without this work, I probably wouldn’t be writing this blog at all.

In reacting to the perceived injustices of capitalism, Marx in turn prophesised the disappearance of the division of labour, in a memorable passage from the German Ideology (1845) in what is often labelled his “romantic” period:

. . . as soon as the distribution of labour comes into being, each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a shepherd, or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood; while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic.

Without wishing to debate the desirability of cattle-rearing in the evening, the vision of this time has underpinned the post-industrial concept of the portfolio career, characterised by unhindered flexibility, personal choice and responsibility, ethical organisation and purpose, and co-operative and mutually supportive social interaction.

If we are now facing the renewed importance – even criticality – of specialisation, where does this leave the dream?

I have already railed against the unfortunate, prevailing tendency for your “job” to be considered to define you, to create an instant pictogram of you the human being I argued that we are so much more than what we have elected “to do”.

So – is the dream a society of specialists living a flexible working life, beneath a veneer of choice and limited self-determination? Or is it a life of deep, fundamental flexibility, facilitating multiple contributions, changes of direction, the career lattice, and “serial incompetence” (whereby you pursue a role until you have mastered it and then try something entirely new). Is the technological age one that Smith or Marx would recognise?

I hold that we have to be wary of the rise of specialism, as it fundamentally erodes our ability to exercise personal responsibility. It is the tyranny of a single decision in our life, mitigating against the opportunity to pursue alternatives, eroding the courage to exercise that choice through fear of being unable to sustain a living. It says to the individual despite backing yourself and your resourcefulness, forget it.

I will probably elect to spend my evenings doing things other than cattle-rearing – but I value the opportunity to try it if I believe at some future juncture it will make a positive difference to my life. May the generalist survive and thrive.

Personal responsibility: baggy trousers, dirty shirt?

This is a short series of blogs lamenting the erosion personal responsibility within organisations. To make decisions is human, yet our ability to do so is being slowly eroded. This short series of blogs explores some of the areas where we might be better left to fend for ourselves – because we can, you know.

There was a recent furore over a major bank’s dress code. While some may argue that the initiative was well-intended, it addressed a symptom and not a cause. The organisation wanted its employees to help improve its image, so told them exactly how to dress (and to make sure they file their toenails) over 44 pages, rather than looking at the deeper question of why its image was below its own expectations.

Like most codes or rule sets, that governing dress makes it easier for us, because in following a prescriptive set we are required to think less. Jeff Goldblum’s five identical outfits for each day of the week in “The Fly” remind us of this – and provided the unfortunate blanket excuse that if you are hyper-intelligent the way you appear does not matter.

Yet by providing strict boundaries the code leads us to think less while acting within its borders. If the dress code says suit and tie, it doesn’t usually insist that the style is current, that it fits, is free of breakfast debris, or that it bears some visual relationship with the accessories. It’s okay, you have a suit and tie on. You’re within policy. So what could be wrong? The bank sought to address these detailed concerns, and were roundly criticised for it.

I have heard a lot recently that in terms of our “personal brand” – as with all brands – we are only the sum of how we are perceived by others. And so it is with ourselves as we stand here. You can have the best blog on the planet, the sharpest LI profile, a razor sharp wit, but sooner or later you will have to show up somewhere.

The issue at the heart of the matter of what to wear for business is not about whether you are compliant with code or policy, but how you have applied yourself to considering your appearance, and therefore how you might be perceived. It is about self-worth, and self-respect.

What you wear for business has to be both appropriate, and reflect the person you wish to be perceived to be. It does not need to cost a lot of money. It does however takes time and thought. There are plenty of sources of advice available – starting, one would hope, with your partner or close friends. You don’t even need to leave the house and run the gauntlet of the high street on a Saturday afternoon.

You should not need a code to tell you what to wear or not to wear. You should be proud of who you are, and how you present yourself. Organisations should not dictate what you should wear on the basis that they do not trust that you will devote any time or thought to the matter. They should instead foster and encourage self-respect and the importance of appearance in how you – and the organisation – are perceived. They should instil the confidence and the means, rather than bypassing it en route to a given solution. It will pay dividends in other areas – performance, communication, relationship development. A dress code will only ever be just a dress code.

You need to consider – if you don’t take an interest in yourself, how can you expect others to take an interest in you?