Accountability, Tangibility, and Other Lost Values “at Corporate”

Last week, I attended the 18th Annual Stakeholder Dialogue at UST’s Downtown Minneapolis campus. Matthew Crawford, philosopher and mechanic and author of Shop Class as Soulcraft, was the guest speaker. At first, it struck me as remarkable that a man with a physics undergraduate degree and a Ph.D. in political philosophy from Chicago would become so disgruntled with his work at various think tanks and other institutions that he would open a motorcycle repair shop and then preach the virtues of manual labor. But as Crawford spoke, I found in his words undeniable truths that were consistent with my experiences in corporate America.

First, Crawford pointed out that change in material culture has made it harder for the individual to be self-reliant. To illustrate, he pointed out that when most of us lift the hood of our cars, we are confronted by layers of technology. Some of us no longer find a dipstick in our vehicles! This creates a “learned helplessness,” inhibits individual agency, and leads to a lack of accountability. As “professionals,” we so rarely see the direct affect of our actions, so we have no real accountability.

If you are skeptical of this claim, consider the following example. I worked for a large food corporation whose primary corporate focus was increasing margins. They had a charming corporate acronym for it, which I’ll refrain from disclosing, in order to protect the privacy of the company.

There was no end of simultaneously downsizing and upcharging, of removing ingredients (often the most healthy ones because they were the most expensive), and all kinds of other drastic actions that did, in fact, increase the corporation’s margins. But what were the results? Who knows? We all worked in the isolation of professionalism, without connection to broad or long-term results.

Crawford pointed out that in his motorcycle shop, had he taken action without attending to consequences, the motorcycle would decidedly remain impaired. The tangible elements of his work there kept him accountable to his actions. Perhaps there are solutions for this in the professional world, ways to keep us all accountable. To discover methods for keeping us accountable would require a great deal of time and thought, which leads me to my next topic of interest from Crawford’s speech, having time to think.

I remember working my 60-80 hours a week, frantically keeping abreast of all my projects, managing them with accuracy, making lists and checking them off each day, meeting deadlines, and being determined to show competence to the right people in the pyramid. The pace of work in corporate was indeed impressive. People at my company got more done in a single day than many non-professionals get done in a week.

At the end of the day, I had done a lot. A LOT. But the question I always asked myself was did I do the right things? Did I do meaningful things to me, to the company, to society? Frankly, it didn’t matter. My performance wasn’t based on thoughtful work but on sheer output at a basic level of quality.

Crawford noted that the fast-paced environment demands complete focus on the job, but frantically accomplishing “things” makes concentration impossible. Crawford had to actively suppress his ability to think because he would get slowed down by thoughts that contradicted a certain action. He had to suppress his sense of responsibility to the project at hand and just push it through. That detachment was made easy by the fact that there was no immediate consequence to action, as delineated in previous paragraphs. Unlike a carpenter, who has an absolute standard (level) when laying flooring, there was no standard to which Crawford was held.

So for you who manage teams of people madly accomplishing lots of stuff during the day, does the resulting perversity of this behavior lead to maximum profit for the corporation? I argue (and Crawford would agree) that getting past things with haste is incompatible with giving things their due, with doing them in best possible way. In our time, there is a separation of thinking and doing, a detachment that could not (would not) be found among people connected to the craft in commerce. Food for thought.