A Brief History of Micromanagement

Posted in Tubeworker's blog on Sun, 30/08/2009 - 11:46,

(with apologies to any historians)

A recent encounter with a mystery shopper at my ticket office window got me thinking about the increasing pressure that management are exerting on the staff to conform to a predetermined script of words and behaviours.

The history of elite groups trying to control and enhance the productivity of their workforce is a long and not very pretty one. Slavery was a preferred form of workplace discipline in past eras and to this day has not been entirely eradicated. This 'holistic' approach to micromanagement contains within it severe risks for the manager because the workforce, having no stake in the success of the enterprise (not even a £500 bonus!) tends to revolt and to slaughter their masters.

A more subtle form of control was required and so was born feudalism. The workforce of serfs (a word derived from the Latin for slave) was still firmly micromanaged by their lord and master but achieved just enough freedom of thought and action to keep them onside most of the time, give or take the odd peasants' revolt.

Technology moved on apace and instead of making almost everything they needed themselves (housing, food and clothing), people started to specialise more in specific skills and trades as well as selling their labour to the highest bidder. The rise of industry and mobility of labour enabled bosses to hire and fire as required and make vast profits as a result. It was the birth of capitalism.

Soon individuals were gathered together in large workplaces, under constant scrutiny and with division of labour each worker felt him/herself to be a small and carefully-controlled cog in a very large machine. This is the familiar feeling of alienation experienced by every worker in the modern world.

This juggernaut rolled on, through revolutions and the industrialised genocide known as world wars until in the 1960s we arrive at the modern anti-hero of micromanagement: the 'time and motion' man (yes, it was always a man!). This management stooge would observe and time with a stop-watch each stage of the production process and report back on how productivity could be increased, often by cutting workers' breaks from the repetitive tasks. So unpopular were they that stories abound of time and motion men being chased from the factory floor by the irate workforce. Nowadays their modern equivalents have computer technology and CCTV to monitor the workers free from the threat of direct action.

One area remained relatively unscrutinised, however: the face-to-face transaction between worker and customer (or passenger as they were once called). Enter the mystery shopper! Those of us who are subject to this form of intrusion are well aware of the robotic behaviour that it encourages: the empty-sounding "Would you like fries with that?" and "Have a nice day" phrases that blight social interaction at work today. Such pollution of normal human relations was pointed out 150 years ago by Karl Marx in his analysis of capitalistic society.

Fortunately, most of us retain enough freedom of thought to act with some degree of initiative when dealing with unexpected events. Indeed the Underground would grind to a halt if we all remained permanently in our subservient, micromanaged mindset. Which brings me to the result of my mystery shopper survey. I was awarded one mark out of five for loading the requested small amount of pre-pay onto and Oyster card. However, I noted with glee that an additional mark had been added for my quoted response, "I will put on whatever you want, but London Underground management would prefer it if you top up by at least £5." It felt like a small victory.

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