‘The worst bosses are the leftist bosses,’ said Arthur Brault-Moreau’s father. After a very difficult experience as a parliamentary assistant, he conducted a detailed investigation into what he calls ‘left-wing’ management. His book, ‘Le syndrome du patron de gauche, manuel d’anti-management’, tries to explain how apparently evolved bosses can practise toxic management for their subordinates. This well-documented and highly relevant investigation deciphers the systemic aspect of mistreatment in some organisations and examines ways to remedy it.

As someone who is sensitive to suffering in the workplace and passionate about new management methods, the book impressed me with the thoroughness and strength of its analysis. It echoes a number of experiences I have heard and experienced in ‘purpose driven’ organisations and, more generally, the widespread attitude of shirking managerial responsibility. This article provides a summary of the main views and ideas that struck me, as well as some reflections that reading the book generated for me.

Left-wing management as a negation of the hierarchical relationship

“Leftist management acts like a cloud of smoke, a gaslight that makes it difficult to grasp problems, understand dangers and take steps to defend oneself. This attitude consists in taking refuge – consciously or unconsciously – behind a superior cause, in order to deny the hierarchical relationship and the resulting conflicts. This denial generates suffering.

In the ‘left-wing’ organisations analysed by the author, the employment relationship is not governed by the subordination laid down in the Labour Code. These structures place themselves above labour law, which is designed to protect employees weakened by an unbalanced relationship with their employer. Unable to operate within the usual framework, the employment relationship is placed in a different, often emotional register, with sometimes serious consequences. This ‘hidden’ management consists of taking advantage of the employee to serve a cause, without assuming one’s responsibilities as an employer. Denying boss status in order to maintain the role of ‘good object’ leads to a spoliation of the employment relationship. “Friendship”, “camaraderie”, “association”, are all terms used to describe a false relationship of equality that masks a real imbalance.

This attitude of rejection of management and hierarchy can be observed in many structures, far beyond the militant associations and political parties mentioned in the book. NGOs, cultural sector companies, start-ups, impact companies, ‘liberated’ organisations and the like are all places where suffering is regularly present behind a smiling façade. In these organisations there are often no employees. Instead, there are ‘activists’, ‘comrades’, ‘friends’, ‘collaborators’, ‘entrepreneurs’ and even ‘family members’. We often hear: ‘This is not a classic employee relationship’. In classic organisations, this may be due to ignorance or lack of interest in managerial issues. But ‘purpose driven’ organisations have a higher purpose: a political project, a cause to serve, a passion or a specific vision for the company.

This game of deception does not fundamentally alter the reality of the workforce. The power relationship exists because sanction and decision-making power persist. This avoidance of responsibility creates blind spots that turn into perverse effects. As Otto Sharmer says in ‘Theory U’, “Crises always arise from denial”.

Mechanisms for generating suffering

When labour relations are not named, they give rise to other forms of power that leave no room for challenge or even discussion: emotional blackmail, guilt, the scapegoat phenomenon. “How do you say no to a boss who proposes an aperitif ‘with friends’ after work, when you can’t stand it any longer?” asks one of the book’s witnesses. By personalising labour relations, ‘the leftist boss uses elements outside the salary relationship or not directly linked to the employment contract to guarantee subordination’.

Beyond the emotional register, the lack of clarification of power relations can give space to other forms of domination that structure society. Racism, sexism, homophobia… the people interviewed report numerous abuses in militant organisations that are in total contradiction to the rhetoric used. In short, when there are no rules or sanctions, discretionary power takes over.

This gap between rhetoric and reality creates cognitive dissonance, a source of mental and physical suffering. Paradoxical injunctions such as ‘there is no problem with us’ or ‘you are my friend, not my subordinate’ are paralysing. Ethical conflicts arise when certain practices are at odds with official discourse. Racist behaviour in an anti-discrimination association, for example. The author points out that value conflicts are listed as psychosocial risks, in the same way as burnout, which is also common in this type of environment. These situations of individual suffering are even more difficult to deal with or to stop when the employer absolves himself from his responsibilities, which include ensuring the good physical and psychological health of his employees.

In addition to an attitude of evasion, there is sometimes a sheer refusal to challenge and challenge authority. The boss may then turn against the recalcitrant employee, as happened to Arthur Brault-Moreau and many of the people he interviewed. The boss’s challenge then triggers an outburst of violence from him – or sometimes from the rest of the organisation – which can result in the scapegoat phenomenon. Employees are unable to react, as they do not have the tools to challenge power and its violence: the strike, the right to be warned, the prevention of psychosocial risks, the CSE (Social and Economic Council), etc. Workplace conflicts are not named and therefore not addressed as such, and it is usually the subordinate who pays the price.

In short, the greater the gap between management discourse and practice, the greater the risk of suffering in the workplace.

Getting out of denial

The main way to combat these perverse phenomena is to get out of denial and align theory and practice. To reposition the relationship within the framework of subordination, so that it can be questioned, discussed and developed. Without this framework, labour relations give rise to numerous paradoxes that make them difficult to deal with. Drawing on an objective and superior reality such as labour law allows conflicts to be dealt with clearly and to abandon the emotional register of friendship, family or passion.

  1. Using checks and balances to manage conflicts

Employees can push their employer to assume its responsibilities as boss, using the tools of union action and, more generally, employee action, as some of the witnesses in this book have done. The right to strike, the right to notice, employee representatives, union involvement, recourse to the labour inspectorate… these are all resources that are often underused in small organisations out of fear or ignorance of labour law. By making them their own, employees can make demands on their employers or simply force them to comply with the law.

Even on the employer’s side, the application and use of labour law helps to clarify relationships and clearly address conflicts. Prevention of psychosocial risks, management talks, and occupational medicine are all tools to clearly address work-related conflicts.

Interested employers can also go further by implementing provisions that do not necessarily apply to their facility: personnel representatives for companies with fewer than 11 employees, annual interviews, occupational medicine intervention on psychosocial risks, as I have observed in several facilities.

  1. Communicate and clarify operations

Unclear responsibilities and obligations foster misunderstanding, work overload and distress. Experience has shown that clarifying roles by means of job descriptions and organisational charts and specifying decision-making procedures helps to facilitate joint work. This clarification makes it possible to discuss the organisation of work and to confront each person with their responsibilities and obligations. In this way, inappropriate behaviour or repeated violations can be addressed and, if necessary, punished, thus preventing uncomfortable situations from persisting.

Arthur Brault-Moreau also suggests drawing up an operational charter to define the organisation’s rules and allow them to be discussed. This practice, which I have experimented with, is particularly beneficial for horizontal or ‘liberated’ organisations, in which relations are no longer based solely on a hierarchical conception of labour relations. It will also make it more difficult to backtrack in the event of a manager being replaced, making the rules less discretionary.

  1. Reflexivity and exemplarity: rethinking work organisation to align it with its principles.

For Arthur Brault Moreau, the observation of these managerial excesses should not lead us to give up questioning the employee-employer relationship. On the contrary, this reflection must pass through what he calls ‘concrete utopia’. With a reflexive attitude, organisations must be able to think about how they operate in the light of their objectives. And then regularly ensure that employees’ experiences are in line with the values they uphold. Checking, for example, that the human and financial resources are available to launch a project. If not, an association may abandon an event for which there are insufficient staff and budget, thus avoiding putting employees in an untenable situation.

This reflection implies clarifying the organisations objectives, which will then serve as a filter for important decisions, allowing a balance to be maintained and avoiding an overload of work. In an association, these objectives can be found in the association’s statute or project. In the case of a company, they can be defined in a statute or even in the articles of association for companies that have chosen to be ‘purpose driven’. In the spirit of ‘charity begins at home’, putting employee welfare at the heart of an organisation’s principles is a sure way to assess it regularly. At Kaplan, employee welfare is one of the three corporate mission objectives. The achievement of this goal is assessed annually by our Mission Committee.

The notion of ‘concrete utopia’ reminds me of the notion of maintenance, a concept derived from permaculture, which consists of regularly assessing the functioning of the ecosystem through its balance. By observing the resources and the evolution of the system, we can make changes to ensure that it remains in line with the initial design. Maintaining an organisation can be based on the control mechanisms (or checks and balances) put in place to assess the balance between (1) reality (employee experience, figures), (2) objectives and (3) operational rules.

In conclusion, Arthur Brault-Moreau believes that it is essential to question “the central place of work in our lives” if we want to fight the work crunch. Taking our eyes off the wheel helps us take a step back from the way we work. This idea echoes the working time reduction initiatives in many organisations, whose primary goal is to improve the well-being of employees. Looking at the time spent at work, these organisations are generally inclined to question their core objectives or mission.