FEW MANAGEMENT books genuinely shock. Those that do begin with a quote by Baudelaire, end with a graphic account of a post mortem, reference Spinoza and Cicero and can easily and profitably be read in an afternoon. They could only be the work of one person, whom aficionados will instantly recognise from the description as the Dutch writer Joep Schrijvers.
Schrijvers' world is The Office rewritten by Leonard Cohen - an annoying but addictive mixture of black humour and clammy pessimism that can't be removed from the mind. So far as I remember, his first book, The Way of the Rat: A Survival Guide to Office Politics , didn't actually contain corpses, but it did stick the knife into the body of many cheery writings on organisation. Proving that gloom is good, it also sold 150,000 copies. His latest, The Monday Morning Feeling , is another gloomily entertaining disquisition, this time on why so many people are so unenthusiastic about their work.
Of course, there is no shortage of books on employment and its discontents. But there's a curious stasis about them. The tone is always earnest and exhortatory: change, competition, globalisation are inevitable and we should meet them head on employers should promote the HR agenda and work/life balance out of enlightened self-interest we should all work for a more human workplace. In short, we all can and should do better.
Schrijvers pokes merciless fun at such simple-minded optimism. His position is simple. Every work day is Monday. The basic problem with work, particularly working with others, is that a lot involves suppressing the elementary drives we have inherited from our evolutionary past. However much we try to be rational, we are actually 'drive-driven': in a deep psychological sense, we don't want to be there or do what we are supposed to. Hence the malaise, headache, nausea or just inability to get out of bed.
This being the case, all the usual remedies for the condition are like trying to teach a pig to sing: pointless, and annoying to the pig. In a section called 'Ludicrous Therapies', Schrijvers skewers them one by one: the incantations of self-help guides that destroy people by assuming perfectibility and making them implicitly responsible for their own discomfort bureaucracy that promotes the illusion rather than the reality of control the 'fairytale' of the new spirituality and the attempt to humanise the company, which just makes matters worse by raising expectations that are impossible to meet.
Like eating nothing but marshmallows, an unalloyed diet of Schrijvers' almost parodic dark view would drive you mad. But fortunately the book is brief and in any case he has anticipated this objection. If you suddenly think 'Things aren't as bad as this' and throw the book across the room, that, he teases, is part of the diagnosis and purpose. 'For nothing comforts and revives better than the awareness that things can be a lot worse. That is the knowledge that this book offers.'
The blurb about Schrijvers says he has worked as, among other things, a consultant. Reading the book, I wondered at first what kind of consultancy that could be - assisted corporate suicide, perhaps? In the end, however, an injection of the relentlessly downbeat ends up being energising. By clearing out some obvious (and not so obvious) idiocies, Schrijvers obliges you to think about more promising avenues. Thus, if 'work is nothing more than work', forget about the 'culture change', 'people initiatives' and 'transformation programmes' that so enrage employees and eat up time and energy, and concentrate on the organisation of work. That's quite a positive thought.
At a different level, 'the Monday feeling' seems a more likely explanation for Britain's productivity shortcomings than the economic equations used by the Treasury. It's well known, for instance, that the results of the local football team have as much immediate effect on productivity as investment levels that UK workers notoriously lack 'voice' in the organisation of work and that British managers are highly prone to all the delusions that Schrijvers so diligently punctures.
If The Monday Feeling shocks, the effect comes not from the grisly ending on the mortuary slab but from the bleakness it dissects in the assumptions that underpin so much of corporate behaviour, and the way they play out not just in the workplace but in life. Lots of people will reject everything it stands for, at least in public. But that's a start. Because the other revelation is the triviality, tedium and numbing length of almost all other business books. That's a shock, too.
The Observer, 22 January 2006