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Treated like children


Can an organisation encourage its employees to behave in untrustworthy ways by treating them like children?  Possibly, as a recent experience suggests...

Over the last couple of weeks, we've been looking at the fundamentals of performance.  The fundamentals, in case you weren't paying attention, are motivation, ability, opportunity and interference.  I have to wonder, sometimes, at the extent of the ways in which some organisations seem to interfere with their employees.  For instance, a while back I visited an office to run a workshop: it took forty-five minutes to clear security (not an exaggeration) which involved watching a health and safety video and then taking a short test on the content.  The video covered such surprises as telling watchers to hold the handrail on the stairs and to call the emergency services if they came across a fire.

The advice didn't end there.  At the coffee point, the fridge bore instructions for use, including the gem that it was to be used for storing food.  In the gents' toilets, there were three instructions on how to wash your hands, as well as warnings that the hot water in the taps might, actually, be hot.  

I'm a middle aged man; I've been using stairs - quite successfully, as it happens - for over forty years without needing any kind of advice.  I cottoned on to the idea of what fridges were for not long after I started using the stairs. I understand the concepts of hot and cold and the idea that hot can hurt.  I don’t feel that I need all these warnings but perhaps I'm unusual in that respect.  Perhaps there are young people who haven't mastered these concepts; perhaps there are people, fresh from university, who haven't figured out the best way to walk up and down stairs without ending up in a crumpled heap at the bottom.  I suspect not, however.  

I'm all for keeping people safe but surely there has to be a place for common sense?  Surely there's a place for treating people like adults?  I have to wonder what this kind of infantilizing of people actually does to them.  I try not to be deliberately perverse but the more I'm told to hold the stair rail, the more I felt like deliberately not doing it.

The interesting thing about this client is that, for the first time in twelve years, I had stuff stolen overnight from the training room.  Talking to a security guard about it, he was telling me that this was not unusual.  When they get a spate of thefts from an area, the security guards place hidden cameras to monitor what's going on.  They never catch anyone, however, because they always tell people that the cameras are going to be placed there and the thefts stop.  What this shows is that it's not strangers walking around pinching things and it's not the cleaners: it's the people who work in the office.  

What must it be like, I wonder, not to be able to trust the person sitting a the desk next to you?  What must it be like to know that the person sitting next to you, the man or woman that you chat with, that you share jokes with, will steal your mobile phone if he or she gets the chance?  Perhaps I'm wrong but I believe that these two factors - the infantilization and the petty theft - are connected.  I believe that if you treat people like they can't be trusted to even look after themselves, they'll behave in untrustworthy ways.  I believe that organisations, like people, reap what they sow.

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