There's a concept enshrined in law, and cleverly drawn in the film 'The Corporation' that describes how in the US in the mid-1800s corporations emerged as a legal "person." The film uses diagnostic criteria of the World Health Organization and some standard diagnostic tools (Hare, 2003) of psychiatrists and psychologists to assess the personality of a corporation revealing that the operational principles of the corporation give it a highly anti-social personality: "it is self-interested, inherently amoral, callous and deceitful; it breaches social and legal standards to get its way; it does not suffer from guilt, yet it can mimic the human qualities of empathy, caring and altruism." The conclusion is that the corporation is a psychopath. (Abott, 2004).
Whether all corporations are psychopathic, and whether this is an inevitability given the legal frameworks that they operate within is a matter of debate, opinion, and reflection.*
Tower Bridge, London is a physical entity. It was opened in 1894 having taken 8 years to build after a process that started in 1876 with a design competition in which there were 50 entries. I can just imagine the meetings, conflicts, agreements, pessimism, optimism and all the various ins and outs that finally brought the bridge into operation.
Tower Bridge is also an organisation or corporation. Think of a) the design competition b) the whole construction process c) the day-to-day running of it spanning 120 years. Getting it from paper to its iconic, yet practical state is no mean feat to orchestrate. I visited it for the first time last week – I was wearing my London tourist hat for the day – but seeing the exhibition and walking the walkways I wondered about the personality of the Bridge. It doesn't come across as psychopathic. In fact the opposite and it was a surprisingly energising visit: terrifying to step out on the glass walkway, amazing to look at the vast engines, glorious seeing the various views of London from the top span, and thought provoking in seeing the history of it.
As we were walking around being tourists and a propos of nothing my companion suggested I write a blog piece on 'advice to a young person entering the workforce'. This seems like an exercise fraught with cliche (be persistent, resilient, a life-long learner, etc) and anyway there are countless wonderful words and ideas on advice to a young person from those who give commencement speeches to ra up students in US universities.
In thinking about the topic a different tack came to mind. I could think of Tower Bridge as a quasi-person: 18 years in gestation – eagerly awaited by Londoners and Queen Victoria, finally 'born' in 1894 to great fanfare, and then adjusting over time to its environment – continuously learning to be in the world.
I wondered what advice Tower Bridge would give to a young person entering the workforce? I imagined, not the psychopath of 'The Corporation' but the opposite, a vibrant, wise, mentor-like figure telling its story: 'I have spanned many generations and many interests. I have bridged commerce and education. I have tied north and south. I have connected old technologies with new technologies over and over. I have my place. Many have supported me in my life and I am grateful to them for this. … '
It seemed to me that a young person entering the workforce could do well to listen to Tower Bridge speaking. They'd get realistic advice on being purposeful, bridging divides, staying connected to new ways of doing things, trying things out, managing multiple goals, getting on with it, not showing hubris, and being grounded.
TB on competition
When I opened the only competitor pedestrian bridge across the Thames in London was London Bridge. (There were some railway bridges). Now there are several bridges that people can walk across and another planned, but they still flock to me to see my exhibitions, bridge raising, and events.
TB Advice: stay aware of the competition for whatever it is you are aiming for – be nimble and innovative.
TB on construction techniques – It took eight years, five major contractors and the relentless labour of 432 construction workers to build me. There were no Health and Safety regulations at the time and 10 workers died – I don't remember the number of accidents.) Now, any work that needs doing to its fabric is done using all sorts of modern construction technologies and deaths and accidents in the course of construction are almost unheard of.
TB Advice: Learn new processes, develop better ways. Don't be afraid to try things out – the old ways aren't necessarily the best ways.
TB on fabric technology – the glass walkways recently installed on my upper level are only feasible now because glass technology has improved – they have replaced sections of my wooden walkways.
TB Advice: use the new technologies and be aware of their ability to reinvent the tried and tested.
TB on power technology – I am a 'bascule bridge' with two raising parts that lift to let boats through. When I opened the raising mechanism was steam powered but in 1976 the power source changed to oil and electricity rather than steam. But my original engines are gorgeously maintained in pristine condition.
TB Advice: be aware of your heritage, cherish it yet move on.
TB on role changes – 'stokers' used to lug the coal to fire up the steam engines. That role has disappeared now. Instead I have 'customer service' staff clutching i-pads showing people the view down from the glass walkway as the bridge opens. So if visitors are not actually on the walkway for an opening they can still visualise it via the i-pad.
TB Advice: what you trained as isn't what you'll stay doing. Keep re-investing in developing new skills.
TB on innovation; I don't know what Queen Victoria would have made of it but our main income generation comes from hiring out the walkways for events. One of my own guides hired it himself for his wedding reception and I gave him a very decent staff discount.
TB Advice: think differently – what other ways can you use your capabilities?
Is your organisation a psychopath or a wise mentor? What advice would it give a young person entering the workforce – or what would they learn if they observed it in action? Let me know.
*NOTE: these first two paragraphs are adapted from Chapter 5 of my book on Organisational Health.
Abott, M. (Director). (2004). The Corporation [Motion Picture]. Canada.
Bruhn, J. (2001). Trust and the health of organizations. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers.
Hare, R. (2003). Hare Psychopathy Checklist–Revised: . Retrieved April 28, 2012, from Multi-Health Systems
This is my penultimate blog. Last one next week.