It happened because our corporate policies were put ahead of our shared values.
It happened: a passenger hauled by his arms from a plane to enable airline staff to get from airport to airport. His reaction to being grabbed out of his seat seemed to take everyone by surprise, and from the moment he refused to go along with things, every mistake was made. He was physically harmed, mentally harmed, and then further abused by media and social media investigations of his personal and professional life. His identity was publicly debated and he was shamed, in crude and judgmental ways.
Speaking to the media, his lawyer proposed that this is not just about the harm from an isolated incident. It’s that corporate culture as a whole has shifted decisively in favour of profit, efficiency and compliance, and away from dignity, care and respect. Far from producing better outcomes, competition has introduced unsustainable levels of aggression towards consumers, backed up by corporate policies driven to protect profit, and soothed by corporate euphemism.
Mostly this aggression is contained in backstage planning; occasionally, we catch sight of it in unintended ways. We learn that planning focused on the capture of market share, the reduction of labour costs, and the shaving of resources to the bone is covered for by marketing that focuses on superior customer experience, softer blankets, fresher food in supermarkets. What’s really at stake for businesses feeding their shareholders: how can we win, and how can we win cheaply? And above all, how can we manage the obstructions and interruptions to our winning strategy introduced by the very people that we’re here to serve?
Universities see themselves in this greasy mirror. Under increasing budgetary pressure, we’re actively investing in policy and technology that will let us serve more passengers with less. We’re thinking like airlines: shrinking seat pitch, charging a premium for the extra inch that enables passengers to sit comfortably, and then finally adding seat overbooking as a further layer of profit-protection. Specifically, we’re increasing class sizes, casualising labour, cutting contact hours, and burbling about “blended learning”. And behind it all we’re building big data telescopes through which individual students are glimpsed only as tiny, tiny dots on the landscape of market, demographic and behavioural analysis. Analytics in higher education are instrumentalising the way we develop the environment in which individuals come to learn. Through this lens actual learning is the pea that disappears under the cup of measurement: it’s the diversion, the misdirection that makes the whole trick possible.
What can we do? It’s easy to complain and feel defeated, but here’s the plan. We can tell each other stories, and listen well.
I’ve had the opportunity to deliver professional development training recently, on narrative practices that help leaders identify and defend their own values rather than simply promoting the institutional vision hammered out in brand, policy and threat. Narrative practice has the potential to reframe academic professionalism as an expression of what we care about, what we choose to stand for. It lets us bring a fuller sense of self to decision making, and challenges the “shared values” of reputational vanity, market capture, or whatever we’re currently chasing.
I developed this training with students (in a class which I’ve written about before here). We learn from stories of professional experience that work is a continuous practice of relational ethics, demanding skilful and intentional ways of navigating challenges. We learn that to work well and sustainably is to be protective of good climate: to moderate the impact we are prepared to have on the lives of others, and to contribute in mostly quite modest ways to the creation of workplaces worth working in.
The best thing that’s come from this was to hear from a student that she had been successful in her first graduate interview because she was able to take her insights from this narrative class and talk about herself in ways that felt authentic to her. They chose her—but that wasn’t the best thing. A bit later, she wrote and told me that narrative insights also helped her to react quickly and confidently when it became clear that the job was a gift she needed to return. After observing how often the things she was asked to do made her feel uncomfortable at a deep level, her confidence in her own values helped her to work constructively with this discomfort, and separate from the job calmly and professionally.
Fun fact, as my daughters like to say: it’s easier to work in this narrative frame with students than with staff. The students who come to this class are open-minded and curious about their futures. They are interested in being heard, and in listening to each other. They are open to uncertainty and risk. Workplace leaders, on the other hand, have more on the line; they’re watching the rising tides of redundancy and job casualisation around them, and hoping that by clambering to higher ground they can stay one step ahead of what’s coming. On top of this, they’re increasingly seeing colleagues being dragged from the plane, and responding with helplessness and loss.
And this is the climate in which they have to lead.
In The Renewal of Generosity, which I’m currently mentioning in everything I write, Arthur Frank identifies the presence of menacing possibility in our workplaces as one that leads to demoralisation. By this he literally means the sapping of moral capability, the ability to stand for our own values, rather than the supposedly shared values of the strategic plan or the corporate vision. I agree: to restore the climate of our workplaces through practices of hospitality, generosity and consolation, we need to create space and support for leaders to listen to the stories that they’re hearing every day. The consolation of small stories, these ways in we keep in touch with each other as humans through the day (“How was your weekend?” “How’s your mum doing?” “Have you got plans for the holidays?”) aren’t trivial, or unproductive. They’re the ways in which we offer each other the gift of appreciative listening, and learn what matters to us.
And as it happens, they’re a win for organisations too: leaders who make space for storytelling in teams are building capacity to last over time, to work cooperatively through the most adverse circumstances, to be able to articulate and argue for their values, and to maintain their ethical focus. This is at least as useful as the current corporate fad for paintball-style team building, or team-based wellness challenges, all based on the myth that competition is healthy, fun and a win for all. (Which can’t possibly be true, when you think about it.)
Values-centred narrative practice on the other hand actually strengthens the “shared values” claim in corporate culture. But it does this by challenging the logic of chasing profit (or survival) through aggression towards consumers, service users, clients, students and staff. Having recently learned how empathy developed through touch and eye contact expands our neural capacity, I’m proposing that we also need to look more closely at story work in teams, and treat this as real, productive work. Narrative practice has taught me that small stories shared in a climate of trust create the conditions for innovation. Storied values expand our imagination of how others see the world; and they develop the generous, hospitable and empathic culture we need if we are going to learn from failure, risk, slow progress and small gains.
In other words, this is exactly how universities should be working. We’re not low-cost airlines, and even low-cost airlines don’t seem to like the way things are going.