The principles of punk rock at work

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAbout the time I was born, a new musical genre emerged. Disillusioned with the rock music scene of the ’70s, a new music was created in the garages of the Western world: punk rock.

What’s that got to do with work, or safety? With punk rock came an ideology that we could learn from. I recently read Seth Kahn-Egan’s distillation of the principles of punk rock, derived from his “own research into and experience with punk subcultures and ideologies“. Kahn-Egan was thinking about how to use punk ideology and energy in a composition course. Reading his views, and at the same time reading about large-scale system failures of hospitals, social services and broadcasting organisations, made me think how his principles might help in a work context. The themes seem in many ways an antidote to the powerlessness, conformity, fear and drudgery that collectively contribute to ineffective work at best and system collapse and loss of life at worst. His five principles are roughly re-conceptualised for a work context below.

(1) The Do-It-Yourself (DIY) ethic, which demands that we are involved in the design our own work because we understand it better than anyone.
Staff should have the power to be involved meaningfully and substantially as a partner in the design of their own work. Too often, work is designed by people far away from the front line, and self-proclaimed ‘experts’, instead of the real experts – the people who do the job. Trust is needed in the goodwill and competency of those who do the work to shape the design of the work.

(2) A sense of passion that drives us to say what’s really on our mind.
This translates to a willingness to communicate and relate transparently without acting or hiding behind a facade. This is reminiscent of Carl Rogers’ concept of congruence or genuineness, which formed part of his person-centred approach, and was one of the ‘six necessary and sufficient conditions required for therapeutic change’. Perhaps this is a necessary condition for organisational change. There is plenty of literature on authenticity in leadership, but what about everyone else? Achieving change means that people may have to, as Kahn-Ehan put it, “work within and against institutional constraints, to be critical of the…systems that surround them“. According to Kahn-Egan, this moves beyond criticism. It “interrogates and deconstructs texts/symbols/icons/cultures much like academic discourses do [and] provides alternatives to the problems identified“. In other words, people are not whinging; they are improving the system.

(3) A sense of purpose that calls for defending against anything that attacks effectiveness.
Workers usually know what makes for ineffective work. Often, it involves misguided attempts to increase efficiency which actually disrupt the flow of work and ultimately reduce effectiveness. Examples include silos, bad incentive systems, and performance targets, which suboptimise the system and make people focus on the wrong things. Because targets are usually imposed top-down, it can be very difficult to defend against them. Instead, people make adaptations to be seen to meet the target, while still trying to get the value work done.

(4) A willingness to endure pain to make oneself heard or noticed when the stakes are high.
Kahn-Egan talks of a “growing trend in all corners of society not to take action or responsibility for what happens in the world“. This can be seen in too many large-scale socio-technical system failures where something was going badly wrong. Usually, enough people knew, but nobody spoke up loud enough. To prevent such dire consequences, if people are not speaking up at the first signs of trouble, then some personal suffering may be inevitable for a greater good. At this point, courage is needed. It may mean ending relationships, perhaps with an organisation. This is one reason why whistleblowers are such a rare breed, and one that needs protecting. Some countries have done just this.

(5) A pursuit of joy in work.
Passion in work means that a willingness to endure pain must be accompanied by the pursuit of joy. While not a known punk, W. Edwards Deming insisted that “People are entitled to joy in work.” More than that, he said that “Innovation comes from people who take joy in their work.” If you think about your own experience of work, and when you have felt most innovative, chances are you experienced joy at work before and during innovation. This is also borne out in research on organisational culture, though this often uses the word ‘fun’ which does not have the same depth of meaning. If organisations value effective work, then joy at work should be a core value of organisations, and joy needs to be designed into work.

Kahn-Egan envisions a new classroom environment which could easily fit a work context.

I’m not advocating a full-blown, anarchistic, self-mutilating classroom where students scarify themselves. Instead, I’m advocating a classroom where students learn the passion, commitment, and energy that are available from and in writing; where they learn to be critical of themselves, their cultures, and their government-that is, of institutions in general; and, most importantly, where they learn to go beyond finding out what’s wrong with the world and begin making it better. The punk classroom helps them move from being passive consumers of ideology to active participants in their cultures. Along the way, they may have to deconstruct the realities they’ve brought with them, but the focus of the pedagogy is on constructing new realities of their own design.

So if you find yourself in a place where:

  • people are involved meaningfully and substantially as a partner in the design of their work
  • people have the passion to speak honestly and openly, to be critical of themselves, their culture and their institutions
  • people are committed to defend effectiveness and improve the system
  • people have the courage to take a risk in order to be to be heard when the stakes are high
  • people pursue joy in work

…then the principles of punk rock are at work.



Photo: Johnson Cameraface CC BY-NC-SA 2.0


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