(2 pm. – promoted by ek hornbeck)
It wasn’t that hard when I was a grunt. As long as my job was constructive, something that made the world suck less, a regular job was OK. I was a working class guy, the Man was the Man, and never the twain would meet.
Now, I’m the boss. Sure, it’s a non-profit, but I’m still in a position to hire, fire, and order people around. It’s also important to note that “non-profit” doesn’t mean nobody is taking home too much money. It doesn’t mean the work really helps anyone. Non-profits are, if anything, more worried about their reputation than for-profit businesses, who don’t need to appeal to the goodwill of the bourgeoisie for sustenance. I have confidence in the decency and mission of the outfit I work for, but as anyone who has spent time in the non-profit/NGO world understands, organizations change and non-profits can be quite ruthless. They are every bit as flawed as the human beings who run them.
For better or worse, I help run this one.
Now, instead of separating myself from the Man, I find I am the Man. I manage several dozen employees who depend on me to be competent and fair in my decisions, which critically effect not just their working life, but their homes and families, and even their long-term employability anywhere.
What’s a good socialist to do?
What makes a self-described proletarian take a management job in the first place? I don’t think there was a single reason. (I’ll depend on you to help me sort out legitimately motivated rumination from lame rationalization.) Maybe I sold out? I make a lot more money, though hardly a fortune, and my prospects for future work, in or out of the sector, have improved immensely.
I would never have taken a job managing private business. Things like racking up billable hours for an some asshole in a corner office would make me sick. But it’s not just who you’re working for that matters; the notion of having authority makes me deeply uncomfortable. My ideal was neither to lead nor to be led.
And yet, when I had the chance to take over a large department of a non-profit, I went for it. I told myself I could manage people and processes more efficiently than my predecessor (true), be fairer and kinder in my decisions (true, though always within organizational limits), and that I could be a small but beneficial influence on a changing organization. Altogether, the combination of my belief in necessity of our mission and my conviction that I could help us do it better allowed me to live with myself. I took the sting out of making more money than most of my co-workers by finally being able to take in a member of my family whose circumstances were growing worse every day. Given what we might call objective conditions, it seems a decent arrangement.
I confess I didn’t go in wondering how to start a revolution. Mostly I worried about being a decent person while executing my duties competently. Working life is complicated enough without having to take instructions from a Red Hamlet puzzling away in the air-conditioned office. I know from being a grunt most of my life that indecisive management is almost as bad as bad management. I didn’t try to be anyone’s buddy, either, which would be forced and, from an employee’s position, not to be trusted.
Helpfully(?), I took to giving other people instructions like a duck to water. It’s my nature to think in terms of systems, of what works and what doesn’t, and put that into practice. Most people seem to expect disorganization and arbitrariness at work so much that organization and rationality are a relief even if they don’t change the basic boss/employee dynamic. I realized simply being procedurally competent, fair within the limits of what’s possible, and good-natured about it do a lot to inspire confidence.
In fact, any fantasies of making radical change in the workplace evaporated before the necessity of providing a stable, pleasant-as-possible working environment for people who trusted me not to make things worse. People with a lot to lose tend to prefer stability, something employers often exploit mercilessly.
Some things I do are relatively small: when we are short a worker, I pitch in and do their job and my own. I get dirty like anyone else. It helps to confirm that I’m not there to aggrandize myself, but because we have a task to accomplish. Making everyone take a turn cleaning the bathrooms is considerably easier when they see me taking my turn along with everyone else. Some of what I did is simple good manners, like listening to what people have to say. You won’t always be able to give them what they want, but knowing one can at least be heard fosters respect.
Some things are larger. I have broad authority to hire who I want for a job, and I’ve made a point of promoting a talented employee of color and a talented female employee to positions that reflected their potential–and made just as much a point to see that they have the tools they need to do well at their jobs. I’ve pointed out to my peers and supervisors that as we go up the organizational chart, we get older, whiter, and more male, while (I hope cleverly) not appealing to anyone’s sense of right and wrong, but to our image in the community. Gradually I have become a voice that is listened to on matters outside my department, and I use that voice to make what I believe is progress.
So far, the most revolutionary thing I’ve been able to do is to give the workers I supervise reason to believe they will be treated fairly and with personal respect. Beyond that, I don’t yet know what is possible. I may not be able to start an insurrection, but I can give my employees an idea what it’s like to be respected at work.
What are your ideas? There doesn’t seem to be a manual for the socialist manager in a capitalist world.