Oh, Those Bad Bosses

The AFL-CIO's Working America project has launched a "bad boss" contest. Unfortunately, the prize is only a free vacation, rather than the opportunity to see your nominee drawn and quartered after a lengthy and humiliating public trial.

I've heard so many bad boss stories that I'd hate to be one of the judges. The boss who makes you work overtime without pay (which would include Wal-Mart, unless it has cleaned up this practice)

...the boss who expects little personal services, like back rubs or picking up his or her dry-cleaning ... the boss who regards you as sexual chattel .... the boss who likes to keep you in a state of constant anxiety about your employment status ... the boss who throws tantrums, along with various heavy objects.

Much as I'd like to see all these miscreants brought to justice, I tend to think the emphasis on bad bosses is a little misguided. The problem isn't particular bosses, but what I call Bossism -- the hierarchical system that governs all known bureaucracies, both public and private. Giving one person huge power over others is like a giving a three-year-old a hose: not everyone will get soaked, but the chances of coming out dry are slender.

But, you may be wondering, how would anything get done without bosses and Bossism? Well, a surprising amount gets done that way all the time, as I saw in my Nickel and Dimed jobs. If the restaurant gets swamped or the nursing home residents start tossing their food around, don't count on a manager to tell you what to do -- if, indeed, there is a manager within hailing distance. In crisis situations, I again and again saw low-paid workers organize themselves, more or less spontaneously, everyone pitching in and helping each other, with no one playing the role of "boss." As for any real boss on the scene, the best he or she could do in a crisis was to pitch in -- or get out of the way.

What I was witnessing was workplace democracy in action, or, more fancily put, what French sociologists call autogestion or workers' self-determination. It may sound exotic, but it's not just an attribute of the rare anarchist collective. In fact, it's a notion revered in contemporary corporate culture as the team.

The rhetoric of teams, implying some sort of equality among the players, is everywhere today. You're not an employee of Whole Foods; you're a "team member." You don't work for Wal-Mart; you're an "associate," theoretically as capable of making a creative contribution as the regional manager. According to Wal-Mart folklore, for example, it was a lowly associate who came up with the brilliant idea of "people greeters." (But whenever I, in my brief stint as a Wal-Mart associate, made a useful suggestion -- like why stack so many of the women's plus-size clothes at floor-level, where they were accessible only to the young and agile? -- I was always told that such decisions were made by the big bosses in Bentonville.) When corporations uphold the idea of "teams," they're grasping for the kind of ingenuity and creativity people naturally bring to a challenging situation -- if they're allowed to, i.e., if they're treated like participants instead of like servants or subordinates.

So, yes, line the bad bosses up against the wall, but let's not forget that the real problem is Bossism, with all its nasty effects. It's Bossism that generates arrogance among the bosses and learned passivity among the bossed, along with fatalism or corrosive resentment. Everyone knows there's an alternative embodied in the idea of the team. When are we going to start taking it seriously?

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