Soft Despotism and the Modern Workplace

It isn’t easy creating a workplace culture that engages people. Between external regulations and accumulating power in human resource departments, large businesses fight an uphill battle daily. 

We try to find balance individual freedom and boundaries with our staff. And we often fail. On impulse, a policy will be implemented based on single scenarios that have come up. While we think it is a benefit, it actually can suffocate a workplace and create a poor culture at our jobs.

One of the things that I enjoy is looking at the comparisons between different social entities. Between the government, our business, our consumer personas, and our workplace culture, there are a lot of similarities. Identifying these similarities makes navigating and engaging them relatively simple.

One example that stands above the rest is Alexis de Tocqueville and his work Democracy in America, written in the mid 19th century. In it, he describes what he calls a “soft despotism,” and how it can consume and imprison a society.

The below description is so powerful because it can apply to other social institutions, including today’s workplace.

"It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd."

Alexis de Tocqueville

Tocqueville goes on to talk about how this type of despotism would be insufferable. Now, how does this apply to a workplace? Like government, the workplace is a collection of individuals organized into a structure of power and authority.

Check us out on LinkedIn

Our LInkedIn page is regularly updated with more information. Click the link below to check out the page and give us feedback.

Tocqueville's Soft Despotism Applied to the Workplace

"It covers the [business] with a network of small complicated [policies], minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd."

Workplace policies are there to enforce uniformity and equal treatment of all employees. Policies dictating breaks, overtime approvals, locations we have access to, etc, create a culture of distrust if used recklessly. When our policies reduce individual autonomy it has the effect of increasing disengagement. The employees that have entrepreneur and innovative tendencies are restricted in how they can operate.

All innovation involves risks and, to a degree, bending or breaking the rules. When the authority at the top has zero tolerance for this, they stifle the innovation and are restrained from making the decisions that would benefit their productivity and the outcome for those they serve.

"Such a [workplace] does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd."

While a soft despotic government has the added force of being a the government the similarities are worth consideration.

Anyone who has worked in an entry-level role can attest to the fact that the workplace can be suffocating if we aren’t given enough respect and autonomy to accomplish the job. 

What needs to be emphasized is that unlike the government, an employer doesn’t have an arsenal that can force servitude. Employees are free to walk at any point they want. And they do… in droves.

As employers, it is our moral obligation to keep the business running. And without keeping employees, the business will come to a grinding halt. High levels of overtime and a handful of high achievers will only last for so long until they burn out and turn to greener pastures. 

Share on facebook
Facebook
Share on twitter
Twitter
Share on linkedin
LinkedIn
Share on pinterest
Pinterest
Jake Gambino

Jake Gambino

Jake Gambino is the President and founder of Marketing Boon LLC. After ten years of experience working in the healthcare industry and seeing the same problems appear, he decided to do something about it and started his own business to bring new solutions to old problems.

View All Posts