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Danièle Linhart, La comédie humaine du travail. De la déshumanisation taylorienne à la sur-humanisation managériale

Marc-Antoine Pencolé
Traduction de Benjamin Busquet et Carla Melaco
Cet article est une traduction de :
Danièle Linhart, La comédie humaine du travail. De la déshumanisation taylorienne à la sur-humanisation managériale
La comédie humaine du travail
Danièle Linhart, La comédie humaine du travail. De la déshumanisation taylorienne à la sur-humanisation managériale, Paris, Erès, coll. « Sociologie clinique », 2015, 158 p., ISBN : 978-2-7492-4632-1.

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Notes de la rédaction

Review translated by Benjamin Busquet (ENS de Lyon) and Carla Melaco (Columbia University, Barnard College), as part of the Transatlantic Collaborative Translation Workshop between Barnard College-Columbia University and the École normale supérieure de Lyon. Supervised by Professors Laurie Postlewate (Barnard-Columbia) & Layla Roesler (ENS de Lyon).

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1In La comédie humaine du travail, Danièle Linhart follows up on her past research into the sociology of work, focusing on the “modernization” of businesses and the associated evolution in the organization of work. In this vein, Linhart addresses this time more specifically the new, so-called “humanist” management, which aims to respect individuals, be attentive to them, and to provide them the means to attain their own professional fulfilment. Over the course of a decade, the suffering endured in the workplace has been given more and more media coverage, and has become a public issue, particularly owing to documentary and film makers whose work has been quite successful. In their work, they use personal testimony or fictionalization to expose the profoundly alienating and dehumanizing working conditions that affect employees as well as executives. Yet, in a seemingly paradoxical manner, managers accused of being directly responsible for job-related suffering support this criticism and claim that they also want to take care of the human being behind the employee. The author sets out to demonstrate that it is precisely this “humanist” attention from management towards employees that negates their position as professionals and leaves them vulnerable. The perspective she adopts sees the ideology disseminated by management an integral part of productivity, one that has its own efficiency and one which contributes not only to shaping the experience and representations of employees, but also to the methods they use to resist domination at work. Danièle Linhart first recounts, in the first person, her unpleasant experience of “HR clubs” where the managers of today meet and acquire mutual training, and where she was often invited to speak (“by an error in casting”, she says); these situations provided the author with the opportunity to grasp the “pooled managerial know-how”, “the breeding ground for an ideology”, not only through the study of specialized literature on human resources management, but also through observing the places where a shared managerial ethos is conceived. The second and more historic part of the work is concerned with finding, in the organizational writing and practices of Taylor and Ford, principles that are still at work in the “humanist” management of today. The last section synthesizes numerous empirical studies (without bringing in new results) and proposes an attempt at theorizing the function and effects on employees of both this ideology and new organizational methods of work.

2The author firstly seeks to describe what appears to be a coherent ideological system put forward by the new managers: that of a ‘humanist revolution’. For that purpose, she uses specialized literature on human resources, as well as the account of her experience at colloquiums and seminars where executives reflect on their work, the problems that they encounter, and the examples that are supposed to serve them as benchmarks. The first section does not present such observations with the rigor and comprehensiveness of academic pieces, and thus renders the text incredibly lively and accessible. The discourse developed by the new management is appealing, since it deals with recognizing the individual within the employee, their experiences and emotions, but also speaks to autonomy, ethics, even, going beyond oneself, and fulfilment in total commitment to the job: these are so many buzzwords that contrast with the workplace dehumanization specific to the chain production lines of Taylorism and Fordism. By making itself more human, the business seeks to make itself loved, to “win over the confidence” of both its own staff and the rest of society. One could, as the author does, counter the champions of humanist businesses by saying that this does not seem to prevent the increasing number of workplace suicides, or even the declarations and observations of misery at work. But the executives that she met are aware of this and have anticipated the criticism. This ideology relies in fact upon a second pillar, that of accelerated change, of permanent reorganization –reconfiguration, even– of departments, responsiveness, versatility, and adaptability. Any criticism is immediately forestalled by attributing it to old styles of management that are always described as already outdated (accordingly, Danièle Linhart recounts with humor how three Orange executives came to thank her for her talk on the unhappiness induced by the precarity of their work, but explaining at the same time that all of this was no longer the case, as the management methods had already changed). Therefore, the criticism loses its grip, and the employees’ resistance to these developments appear as nothing more than the refusal to abandon archaisms.

3Managers justify the evolution of work, in their own eyes as in those of employees and the rest of society, by this humanist rhetoric, while in reality embarking on the implementation of techniques that are very successful in terms of management and human control. These techniques rest fundamentally–and this is the thesis that the author is defending–on the elimination of the professional register in work relations. This is not new and places modern day management in direct continuity with the Taylorism and Fordism of the early 20th century. The more the hierarchy considers people at work as human, the less it respects their status as professionals, their expertise and their right to influence the definition of their work, to take ownership of it. Moreover, establishing the humanity of employees short-circuits the workplace collective organization as mediator in the relationship between individuals and their work and between individuals and their hierarchy. Collective organizations can be a vector for cooperation and solidarity, common opposition, even, but the psychologization and individualization of problems–as well as pitting employees one against another–prevents them from considering conflicts from a collective basis. Once subject to this managerial regime, individuals are left exposed in the relationship of subordination. They are entirely dependent on their superiors to obtain some sort of recognition, and don’t have the resources available to live through their difficulties and failures other than within a personal model, as the sign of personal incompetence.

4This method of work–and the ideological instruments that justify it–constitute a partly new managerial model, but one founded upon the fundamental principles of Taylorism and Fordism, that it merely refines and implements with unprecedented efficiency. Thus, returning to the texts of Taylor and Ford and to the workplace transformations that resulted from the implementation of their precepts from the 1910s onwards, the author shows that both men contributed deliberately to undermining the professionalism of employees, their craft, and their knowledge, by putting them in a state of unprecedented dependence and disqualification.

5The mastery of workplace organization has been entirely transposed to the realm of management: it is there that executives truly appear, those engineers and technicians who are tasked with accumulating a mass of knowledge about work, sometimes with the aid of workers themselves, as well as defining and imposing the exact content of the work process, within the framework of “cooperation” between employees and management that is completely asymmetric. Employee performance evaluation has been systematized. As well as quantifiable measures, Taylor already advocated for individual interviews between each employee and management, with the goal of discovering his or her qualities and limits and helping them to improve, in addition to, obviously, individualizing salaries. Ford adds, in particular, the necessity to conceal control –authority, he explains, is better accepted when incorporated into the process, the infrastructure, organization, than when it comes out as a brutal order. He also suggests extending it beyond the factory, to the private lives of workers: for example, a pseudo-sociology department was created and attached to Ford factories. It would send inspectors into the home of workers to ensure their upkeep of the principals of “clean thinking, clean living, square dealing”.

6As early as the 1930s, the academic field of Human Relations emerged, backed by employers. Its function was to conceive the tools necessary for management to gain psychological control of employees. Taylor hoped to render superfluous all subjective implications and efforts of the worker in production, so that the employer would have to negotiate their adhesion as little as possible. It was this desire to eliminate the autonomy of the worker that constituted one of the greatest limits to his organizational model: real work goes far beyond prescribed work, and the strict enforcement of the latter generally leads to a jam in the assembly chain. Linhart proposes a historic interpretation able to make the contemporary “humanist” management intelligible. The latter furthers the organizational and ideological principles of Taylor and Ford, but goes beyond their limits by reintegrating and subordinating the humanity of employees into the production process.

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Marc-Antoine Pencolé, « Danièle Linhart, La comédie humaine du travail. De la déshumanisation taylorienne à la sur-humanisation managériale », Lectures [En ligne], Les comptes rendus, mis en ligne le 10 février 2021, consulté le 24 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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