The Inevitable Fate of the Change Agent

Is it really possible to make peoples’ lives so unhappy at work that they kill themselves?

I have had more than one boss with bullying tendencies. The best example was a guy who kept people waiting outside his office for a minimum of 15 minutes, each time he wanted to see them, in order to demonstrate his authority: the same man would always ring me at home once or twice every Saturday and Sunday for much the same reason. After a while I got sick of it and didn’t answer the phone at weekends if I knew it was him: I also told him that this waiting thing was disrespectful; from then on I only waited for a minute or two, then left, telling his rather surprised secretary to let me know when he was free. He didn’t like this very much and soon found a reason to sack me.

In my working life I have found that some more traditional business cultures have bullying, of one sort or another, woven into their fabric. Less so today perhaps and certainly less so in more modern industries and organisations, which are often more reliant on competitive performance than bureaucratic, or institutional, momentum.  One man’s bullying though can be another’s firm leadership. As John Mole has demonstrated so wonderfully in his classic book Mind Your Manners, about how business culture varies between nations, there is quite a big difference in how managers act and decisions are made in different countries. Most American managers in, say, Holland, where leadership is practised more gently, would be considered bullies.

I got to think about all this when I read about the ex-France Telecom CEO, Didier Lombard, who has just been put under formal investigation in France for his alleged role in a wave of staff suicide; he is accused of advocating tough management practices, amounting to physiological harassment, of people he actually never met.  Lombard was in charge at a time when there was a lot of controversy about the suicide of 30 employees in 2008 and 2009. Whilst the investigation is just underway and Lombard vigorously denies the charges unions say that harsh practises, including tough targets and moving people’s jobs, were partly behind the suicides. France Telecom say the number of suicides were no higher than that in the population at large.

John Mole’s famous map, that plots leadership and decision making styles by country, shows that while decision making in France is fairly middle of the road, leaders are quite autocratic: perhaps this reflects the fact that it is a pretty elitist country with most of the bosses of state industries coming from a few top schools.  Bosses are expected to be bossy there and in some cultures, less enamoured by the autocratic boss, that could well be seen as bullying. To some extent, whether it is bullying, or not, may be just a cultural attribute.

Having once run a business with offices in France I am also very aware of how phenomenally difficult it is to sack someone: Lombard’s stated intention of reducing the 100,000 workforce by 22,000 and by moving another 10,000 into different positions seems to me to have been very ambitious: a challenge to the status quo; a gallic slap in the face for the powerful French unions.  Profound change like this could only be achieved with a degree of forceful intervention and determination. In such a company, that probably combines both the institutional artefacts of a utility and the protective working environment that is France, this must also have been a new and worrying development for people who expected a job for life.

I have been very involved in leading organisation change in big telecoms organisations and there is only one way to do it: you need to decide what you want to do; you then tell people what they have to do, enrolling them as best you can; then you have to make the ones who don’t want to do it, do it.  It is no easy task and it requires a fair degree of determination and courage, for want of a better word, to make it happen, as many people will try and stop you.

My take on it all is that Lombard is a poster-child for the sort for profound changes that many state industries need, particularly in countries where workers’ rights are strongly protected, like France, and not many people are going to like that very much, not least the unions, so he was never going to get away with it without a response of some sort. The competitive landscape today is very different to what it once was and working practises need to change and that will put a lot of pressure on individual employees: none of us like change being forced on us like that.

It will be very interesting to see where this all goes, but Lombard seems to be being made a scapegoat for inevitable organisational pressures to change that not only affect France Telecom but most other big French companies too. I think it is more of a tactic on the part of the unions to stop other bosses of French industry getting the same ideas and thinking they can really change things, than anything else.  It isn’t unusual for change agents to be rejected by the host company; it is though unusual for them to be attacked in quite this way – it is probably only possible in France.


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