Sir Alan Sugar

When fear is the motivator

The way George Orwell described fear as a motivational force is curiously relevant to management. 

'Nineteen Eighty-Four' is one of those books that is so famous we've almost forgotten what it's about. We happily use the adjective 'Orwellian' for anything we find mildly oppressive and we think 'Big Brother' is a television programme. This classic novel is often described as a satire on life under unremitting surveillance, sometimes as a work of futurology or science fiction. It is shocking for its apocalyptical images of a post-nuclear London overrun by a feral proletariat drip-fed Victory gin and pornography. It is also one of the most starkly realised descriptions of the culture of fear in the English language. The fear is total, manufactured by a corporation for whom control is everything: control of its message, product, image, people and even its past. Many of you will be drawing compari-sons with where you work.

Although 'Nineteen Eighty-Four' is a work of fiction, there are some sinister parallels between the novel's psychological landscapes and how we work six decades after Orwell sat at his mechanical typewriter in 1948. Increasingly, commentators and analysts are referring to where we earn our living as the 'fear-driven workplace'. It is a by-product of 'Management By Fear' (MBF), and although Orwell would not recognise our desktop technology, he would be familiar with MBF.

In his masterpiece, Airstrip One (the UK) is ruled by a branch of 'the Party' that controls everything and everyone in the super-continent of Oceania. The Inner Party rules the Outer Party, and the Outer Party floats on top of the proletariat that makes up 85 per cent of the population. Everyone is ruled by Big Brother, an ambiguous corporate logo designed to inspire fear and consolation in equal measure.

Everything is held in equilibrium by carefully controlled doses of fear that manifests itself in the form of paranoia induced by living under constant surveillance. 'Big Brother is Watching You' is one of the party slogans, but in reality the thought that Big Brother might be watching you is even more frightening. The surveillance takes the form of an intriguing technology that is effectively a two-way television that is in every public place and private home.

There are hidden microphones almost everywhere, as well as informants, zealots and Thought Police. The arch-enemy of the state, Emmanuel Goldstein, is an invention of the state, and Big Brother does not appear to exist in any tangible form. The ongoing condition of war that exists between Oceania and either Eastasia or Eurasia is largely fictional, while the rocket bombs that fall on the slums of London are widely supposed to be 'friendly fire'.

The party inflicts destruction upon its own people to propagate the notion that their privations are the cost of a total war that does not exist. This, in turn, generates sufficient hatred of an invisible enemy to form a cohesive and yet docile oppressed mass. Everything is held in place by fear. As inner party mandarin, O'Brien, says: "If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face - for ever."

In one of the starkest moments in what is an extraordinarily bleak book, party worker Winston Smith is tortured by O'Brien in Room 101. As Smith vainly tries to resist the programme of pain, O'Brien, who is also an author of anti-party propaganda, describes a world of "fear and treachery
and torment, a world of trampling and being trampled upon, a world that will grow not less but more merciless as it refines itself."

All-seeing telescreen

Newspeak, the internal language of Orwell's 'Nineteen Eighty-Four', has provided titles for a number of TV programmes. 'Big Brother' is neatly named because it is prurient and voyeuristic. 'Room 101' is presumably flippant. In Orwell, Room 101 is the hell within hell. "The thing that is in Room 101," says O'Brien, "is the worst thing in the world", while Paul Merton invites celebrities to intellectualise about things they find inconvenient or simply don't like (such as parking tickets or automated telephone systems). 'Crimestoppers' comes from the Newspeak term crimestop, an exercise in 'doublethink' that, in theory, is a self-regulatory way of prevent-ing heretical anti-party thought.

However, by far the most Orwellian of current televised entertainment is 'The Apprentice', a grotesque tournament that showcases the Machiavellian technique of MBF pitted against a snake pit of aggressively narcissistic yuppies. The programme is characterised by bullying, backstabbing, lying, vanity and other negative human traits that Orwell attributed to the members of the Inner Party.

These yuppies compete in contrived (and often hopeless) commercial tasks in order to curry favour with business entrepreneur and former football club owner Alan Sugar, and hence earn their survival.

Sugar, whose job it is to fire one of the contestants every time the show airs, is probably best known in the electronics business as the man who bought the Amstrad PC1512 cheap personal computer to the consumer in 1986. He is the show's Big Brother in everything but name.

The winner of 'The Apprentice' is the last man or woman standing, and their prize is to become Sugar's apprentice with a six-figure salary (in effect, raise themselves from the Outer to the Inner Party). Sugar, who has never tried to shake off his 'barrow boy' image, makes a virtue of his confrontational management style and is surrounded by flunkies who are often visibly embarrassed by his barely coherent ranting, bullying and intimidation.

Big bully is watching

In the 21st century there can be little excuse for deliberately promoting MBF as entertain-ment. As the reconciliation service ACAS states: "Bullying and harassment of any kind are in no-one's interest and should not be tolerated in the workplace." Or as one of the (understandably anonymous) company directors I interviewed while researching this article says: "To manage others is a privilege. To use jackboot tactics of fear and intimidation is not acceptable. To imitate that loathsome idiot Alan Sugar is not to understand the first principle of how to get the best from your people."

At this point it is worth mentioning that 'The Apprentice' is only a TV show that has as its principal aim generating audience figures for the BBC (where Orwell worked, occasionally having to sit through tedious meetings in Room 101). We should also be prepared to accept that Sugar is 'in character', and take him on trust when he claims that the bits of the show where he might have been seen resembling a human being have been edited out. Sounds like well-meaning fun. The result, however, is 'reality television' at its absolute consumerist and desperate worst, and a programme that is allegedly having a negative influence on management in the business community.

Karen Bremner, a successful lawyer, stockbroker and former RAF officer, was a contestant on 'The Apprentice'. Despite unqualified success in her allotted task she was fired on episode three of the second series and has since developed her career further as a media commentator and after dinner speaker. She thinks that Sugar's management approach displays "many of the classic signs of Management by Fear".

She divides the characteristics of MBF into five broad categories:

  1. Use of Intimidation. According to Bremner the whole premise of 'The Apprentice' is "do exactly as I want or you will be humiliated and shown the door.";
  2. Team oppression. This is where the team's behaviour concentrates on avoiding being fired by resorting to underhand tactics such as truth manipulation, ducking responsibility and so on. "I don't think for a moment this was the natural behaviour of these people," says Bremner. "I believe that the management culture into which they were thrown developed these characteristics in a really short space of time. The message from the top is that anything goes so long as there is money to be made.";
  3. Disdain for peers. A classic sign of MBF is to hold in disdain the professional opinions of others such as lawyers and accountants, while ignoring the advice of your advisors when it comes to making decisions, the outcome of which may have far-reaching effects. Bremner says: "MBF practitioners operate by believing that their actions are beyond reproach.";
  4. Lack of communication. "Because candidates were fearful of reprisal they would constantly hide mistakes that had been made, leaving the manager in a state of ignorance. This lack of communication is extremely damaging for a company in the long-term," says Bremner;
  5. Questionable practice. Those who manage by fear tend to ignore best practice in crucial areas such as HR while surrounding themselves with people who think and act like them. (Long before 'The Apprentice' Sugar's acolytes, complete with cropped beards and jabbing fingers, were aping his confrontational style, earning the nickname 'Sugarcubes').

Understandably Bremner, who managed to leave the show with her professional integrity and dignity intact, was not impressed: "What came next was entirely unexpected. A 20 minute tirade that left everyone in the team in no doubt that, despite our success, we had been squashed like insects and that everyone had better get cracking or they would be the next in the firing line, regardless of results."

Monkey see, monkey do

Despite the temptation, we cannot dismiss 'The Apprentice' as pure entertainment. According to Scottish law firm Muir Myles Laverty (MML), Sugar's blunt approach is being copied in the workplace, leading to an increase in unfair dismissal cases. John Muir, employment law specialist at MML, says: "Since 'The Apprentice' came on the TV we've seen a massive rise in dismissals in which employers or bosses apparently emulate or copy Sir Alan Sugar's methods." The figures back up this claim, with Acas showing that in 2004-5 there were 86,181 registered employment tribunal claims - a figure that rose to some 115,000 in 2006-7.

Copying Sugar's approach may be more than simply bad management: it may be inefficient. According to Julia Brook of the Chartered Management Institute: "Clearly we would never advocate the use of fear as a motivational driver." She goes on to say that CMI research on what motivates managers to perform well revealed that the following were more effective drivers: a sense of purpose in their work (64 per cent), a sense of achievement from reaching goals (53 per cent) and helping others in the organisation to develop and grow (31 per cent).

Despite this research there are consultants who actually recommend the creation of high levels of anxiety as an effective method of management.

"Fear is making a comeback as a management tool", says Mortimer R Feinberg, international speaker, consultant and chair of BFS Psychological Associates. Feinberg condemns 'free-floating' or chronic fear, asserting that workers "toiling in a miasma of apprehension are always afraid of the boss whose moods are unpredictable but whose punishment may be swift".

The right kind of fear

However, Feinberg makes a case for what he terms 'pinpointed' fear, the right kind of fear, 'focused fear'. He cites three instances where the use of intimidation is acceptable: as a way of injecting an emergency boost to performance; as a performance review clincher; and as a method of modifying behaviour.

Basically, Feinberg advocates the short, sharp shock, and in each of the three cases the idea is that you make the threat, observe the reaction and retreat to the default 'nice guy' position with your authority intact. The only problem with this 'use it or lose it' position is that it has more to do with training dogs or horses than it does with having a sensible working relationship with adult humans.

In the academic world of behavioural psychology there is an area of study called Terror Management Theory (TMT) that has nothing to do with MBF. In fact, it deals with the concept that humans possess a survival instinct and that in order to preserve ourselves we regulate our behaviour with death-related thoughts ('don't go too near the edge of the cliff…'). By employing TMT we protect ourselves as best we can and for as long as we can from our inevitably mortality (this is in effect what O'Brien is trying to break when he tortures Winston Smith at the end of 'Nineteen Eighty-Four').

Transferred to the workplace however, the term takes on a sinister twist where we are not managing our terror, but in terror of management. Management by fear and its associated by-product 'fear in the workplace' are real phenomena and ones where most cases will go unreported, unchecked, endured for unacceptable periods of time.

Acas does not use the word 'fear' but prefers the term 'harassment', which it defines (in part) as 'unwanted conduct the violates people's dignity or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.'

It's hard to believe that we are currently watching television programmes that glorify such dysfunctional behaviour, and that ultimately feeds such behaviour back into our real life management structures. Perhaps it's not.

After all, 60 years ago George Orwell was warning us that this was going to happen. But then again, why should we pay any attention? 'Nineteen Eighty-Four' was only a book. Had it been a television programme, we might, just might, have listened.

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