When businesses put their people in cages

I ordered three phone upgrades from our mobile provider a few weeks ago. Usually a simple, straightforward process, somehow we fell out of their ‘business as usual’. We ended up receiving one phone seven days later, and I battled to get hold of the other two. In one week, I spent six hours (yes, you read that right, six hours) on the phone trying to get them to sort the problem out.

I’m patient, persistent and calm, but in the end I gave up because it seemed like our provider already had. We moved the account to a competitor.

Most of the individuals I spoke to during those six hours were great, doing their best to help.

But they were trapped in a cage of systems, processes and protocol. The best they could do was to try to find elaborate ways to circumvent the rules that their business had created for them. Their own frustration matched mine.

One of our (now ex-) provider’s staff members reacted to the system she was confined in with fury. Unable to direct that anger at the people (in her own company) who designed and maintained the systems, she took it out on me instead. ‘You’re just going to have to put up with it,’ she shouted before putting down the phone on me.

Agency is key to human fulfilment. The ability to decide, to act, to solve problems. ‘Battery cage’-style systems frustrate agency rather than facilitate it. You keep a hen in a cage and it won’t behave ‘naturally’; keeping a colleague in a cage of systems is unlikely to encourage natural human behaviour either.

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