Subversive craft workers: Why people break the rules to work better


by Dale Tweedie

Why work?

One influential idea, especially in economics, is that we mainly put up with the pain work causes in exchange for wages. On this view, a key task of management is to ensure that workers don’t avoid or ‘shirk’ their tasks.

An opposing view is that working is itself a human ‘good’. For example, in work we might express our abilities or be connected with others. If this is right, management is not necessary to good work in the same way. Indeed, management might sometimes get in the way.

Our research explores which view was most plausible in cleaning work. Cleaners are an important test case because economists would anticipate that they have compelling reasons to ‘shirk’. Their work is arduous and absolutely necessary. Yet in a peculiar paradox, cleaning is lowly paid and socially stigmatized. Barbara Ehrenreich once described cleaners as ‘the untouchables of a supposedly caste-free and democratic society’.

However, not only did the cleaners we studied not ‘shirk’, they broke management rules that prevented them from doing a good quality job. This commitment to working well under unlikely conditions suggests that influential views about why people work, and about what management does, can be misleading.

Rational work avoidance

The view of working as essentially undesirable is evident in the words economists have used to describe it: irksome, disutility, opportunity cost and effort.

Influential social theorists have viewed work in a similar light as economists, albeit not always intentionally. Stretching back to Aristotle, social theorists have often thought of work as what we must do to create space for ‘higher’ human activities like politics, art or literature. If the highest human faculties are exercised in shared reflection and discussion, then the ideal human life eschews work for more valuable social engagement.

Both views imply that management is critical to ensure work gets done. Economists are again the clearest on this point. For example, Edward Lazear describes work as undesirable effort. Since it is hard to tell how much effort people are putting in, he argues, the fundamental management problem is creating the incentives or controls that ensure people provide effort rather than ‘shirking’.

Work as craft

The phrase ‘craft work’ evokes images of the master artisan: Stradivarius in his workshop, perhaps, or a smith or glass-blower at the forge.

More recent social research takes a broader view. Sociologist Richard Sennett describes craft work as any work motivated by the desire to work well for its own sake.

We also link craft work to recognition. The idea that people want to be acknowledged for working well is simple and widely discussed. But both Axel Honneth’s philosophy and Christophe Dejours’ social theory entail that recognition is not just pleasurable, but has a fundamental role in developing a healthy and stable self-identity.

Work also matters for recognition more today than ever. The feudal lord and peasant were judged by a fixed social role. We are now socially weighed by the value of our work.

Our research distinguishes two kinds of recognition work might provide. The first, inspired by Honneth, is what we term community recognition: Being valued for how our job contributes to society.

Colleague esteem, which is inspired by Dejours, is recognition for our unique skills. Such recognition typically only comes from our colleagues, because only they really understand what we do. For example, even a mediocre surgeon is likely to have community recognition for performing a socially useful job. But other surgeons judge who the skilled ones are.

If people want to work well and be recognised for doing so, the task of management is less clear. Indeed, Dejours has argued that contemporary management practices tend to decrease work quality by breaking down the work communities that recognise work quality.

Undesirable or craft?

How plausible are each of these views?

While there can be no definitive answer, our case study found that work avoidance narratives can be misleading – and craft narratives plausible – even in work that seems to offer compelling reasons to shirk.

The cleaners in our study had hard and often unpleasant work cleaning school classrooms, halls and toilets. They were often maligned by their colleagues – a clear majority described being spoken down to or belittled by other non-cleaning staff.

There was little to stop them shirking if they so choose. Management closely controlled costs, but there were very few controls on cleaning quality. Other controls were also absent. The cleaners mostly worked alone and unsupervised with inspections of work quality a rare occurrence. The cleaners were also unionised, and enjoyed job security rather than fear of dismissal experienced by most cleaners.

Yet not only did they not shirk, they actually broke management rules to work better than the rules allowed. They often worked unpaid hours, even when explicitly told not to. One cleaner came in on the weekend to scrub toilets. Despite facing threat of fines, they also purchased their own cleaning chemicals, or ‘stole’ extra cleaning supplies from their managers when cleaning costs were cut.

Why bear such personal risks and costs for no obvious gain? Craft theories suggest three answers.

  1. Community recognition. Cleaners longed to be recognised by their community – even though the majority were spoken down to. This speaks to the power of recognition as a motivation even when it is denied.
  2. Colleague recognition. Cleaners took pride in professional skills: To be a cleaner is not just to clean, but to meet shared standards of skill
  3. Craft. Just like the skills of the surgeon’s scalpel, there was a whole world of skill in cleaning that is hidden to the untrained eye. Even when not observed, cleaners took pleasure in the exercise of these skills

Craft at work

Thinking of work as craft rather than ‘disutility’ has several implications for how we think of work and workplace organisation. First, the idea that workers are prone to shirking can justify all kinds of management controls, especially in arduous and lowly paid work like cleaning. Where this assumption is wrong, so too is the justification.

Second, a craft based account of work invites social theorists to think more seriously about how work contributes to the full or flourishing human life. This is not to disparage other activities. Rather, the point is that the attention some social theorists give to language and social engagement in a full human life can overshadow the value people place on their work.

Third and finally, the language of craft and recognition provides a way for us to reflect on the value and meaning we attach to our own work, and so why we experience work the way we do. Dejours has found that people suffer when forced to work badly. From this perspective, even arduous work need not be intrinsically painful. Rather, one way work becomes painful is when our working conditions do not enable us to express our craft aspirations.

Dale Tweedie is a Senior Research Fellow in the Faculty of Business and Economics at Macquarie University, Sydney. This article summarizes findings from “The subversive craft worker: Challening ‘disutility’ theories of management control in Human Relations.

Image: slayer via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)



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