I’ve just finished reading Richard Sennett’s new book ‘Together’, which is subtitled ‘The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation’. As with his last book ‘The Craftsman’, itself a dense and detailed account of how hand and brain are inextricably connected in the practice of craft, ‘Together’ commands a huge historical, social and literary vista, in this case ranging from a Lily Allen song to the court of Louis XIV via all points between. It manages to be simultaneously erudite, earthy, unsentimental and lucid.
Many of Sennett’s key themes have lodged themselves in my brain, none though as insistently as his riff on the relationship between cooperation and civility. It crystallised something that began as a personal niggle of mine and has grown into a serious professional concern.
If finishing Sennett’s book yesterday provided fertile ground for this post, the actual seedling was an email from someone I’ve not yet met but would guess is around thirty years of age. Bear with me, it’s a significant number. This morning, not for the first time in our correspondence, they opened with a warm thank-you for my quick response to their previous message. More than a courtesy, it’s a big thing for them, clearly a (pleasant) surprise. My point here is that it shouldn’t be.
Sennett characterises contemporary Western societies as generally lacking in civility – the sensitive, empathetic, ethical approach to relations and communications with the people you need to work with to get stuff done. Whilst this is clearly true, in business the degeneration is more marked, more corrosive. And this is where age is moot; if you are under thirty-five it’s likely that a graceless and instrumental form of interpersonal relations has been your default experience at work. Because of the age-profile of creative, digital and technology businesses, they’re especially prone to it – which is my alibi for airing the issue in this blog.
You could dismiss this as the perspective of an older observer, a relic from a mythically kinder more considerate era, and I’m happy to let you have that one; the likelihood is I am from a different generation to yours. But whilst you can make a case that the degeneration of civility in contemporary business is inevitable, you will not persuade me that it is desirable.
And here’s the reason. Sennett’s thesis evoked another familiar professional experience of mine; teaching management teams how to orchestrate multi-disciplinary work. Often their attitude to the digitisation of their particular market has evolved, from initial denial, via a reluctant admission that this indeed is starting to happen, to a present acknowledgement that it is gathering a threatening momentum. But often it’s only the raw reality of the numbers – such as the recognition that a major revenue stream is declining inexorably – that finally brings the point home, late but hopefully not too much so.
The digitisation of just about everything is driving a new business dynamic; the resurgence of the specialist. Whilst there may be composite experts who, for example, have a skill-set that includes trend-spotting, product selection, web site design, ecommerce and electronic payment systems or crowdsourced fundraising, online platform-building, social media, mobile communications and shared-value economics, they are going to be somewhat scarce. Far more likely that an online fashion store or micro-investment initiative will be put together by a team of specialists, working together.
Which brings us back to civility. Its degeneration is totally counter-intuitive to the absolute necessity of cooperation in building complex digital products. Many leaders of businesses and teams wheedle their way around this, paying lip-service to ‘integration’ whilst in practice maintaining silos and hierarchies (which have a convenient affinity for those who are over-invested in the status quo). Map out the process for delivering a product or service and they’ll agree the specialists need to be there from the get-go. Ask them what that means in practice and they’ll invariably show them coming on three stages in from the start, reserving the early process phases for those in charge – themselves!
Sennett closely links civility to mutual respect, empathy (which he is scrupulous to distinguish from its more self-serving cousin sympathy) being deployed to acknowledge the other’s essential contribution and value. Communications that are civil and respectful oil the wheels of cooperation and help create properly synthesised multi-discipline solutions that work, a world away from the arms-length way, for example, developers are often treated (which means they don’t understand the real purpose and meaning of the thing they’re building, with predictably unsatisfactory results), or those pitch processes where each element is farmed out and the expert contributions are cobbled together the day before the presentation, a parody of integration that is usually transparent to the audience.
I see hope in the next generation, coming through behind those brought up exclusively under neo-conservative governments and so thoroughly socialised into a credo of miltant individualism and unquestioning materialism. Mrs Thatcher’s “there is no such thing as society” was a rallying cry for anti-cooperation. Yet individualism now faces a massive challenge from the sheer interconnectedness of things. There are few excuses for treating your colleagues (if you’re fortunate enough to find yourself in a position where you have some, given the level of structural unemployment in ‘advanced’ economies) as mere instruments and agents in the pursuit of your own agenda.
A renewal of civility at work and in business might just help us to get things done more effectively in the way they actually to need be done now – together.