The Stakhanovite Movement of the 1930s celebrated top performers in the Soviet Union with propaganda techniques, emphasizing the importance of fulfilling production quotas. This mentality has persisted, making its way into modern management systems and corporate cultures. The concept of forced distribution or “stack ranking” of employees according to their performance is one example of this mentality in action. However, such systems inevitably lead to exclusion and marginalization of those who fall into the lower categories, far from being humane or inclusive.
Stakhanovism’s influence on today’s corporate cultures is evident in the pursuit of endless possibilities and self-actualization that has become central to our everyday working lives. The human type created by Soviet ideology many decades ago now appears in mission statements, values, and commitments in meeting rooms, headquarters, and cafeterias, as well as websites and other public expressions of corporate identity.
“Normal days of work, normal shifts, no longer exist. Workers have to perform endlessly, gesturing so that they look committed, passionate and creative. These things are compulsory if employees are to retain some legitimacy in the workplace. So working life carries the weight of potentially determining a person’s sense of worth in every glance exchanged and in every inflection of seemingly insignificant interactions – whether in a board room, over a sandwich or a cup of coffee.”
The TV drama series Industry provides a glimpse into the world of modern Stakhanovism. The characters in the show, who are recent graduates joining a recognizable financial institution, quickly become ruthless neo-Stakhanovites. They understand that their success depends not on what they produce but on how they perform and appear on the corporate stage.
This pressure to continuously perform and appear extraordinary can lead to the erosion of personal integrity, trust, and sense of self. It also makes human connections and friendships difficult, as trust can be seen as a weakness that jeopardizes one’s chances of success. In the last episode of Industry, half of the remaining graduates face a final performance appraisal, where they must publicly argue their worthiness in a manner reminiscent of reality TV series The Apprentice.
Industry resonates with many viewers because it highlights the constant competition inherent in many workplaces and the negative effects this can have on mental health. The idea of continuous evaluation and judgment is taken to an extreme in an episode of the TV series Black Mirror, titled Nosedive. In this episode, everyone’s actions are constantly rated by others, emphasizing the harmful consequences of a society focused on continuous evaluation and judgment.
This constant pursuit of high performance and the pressure to appear extraordinary can have detrimental effects on personal integrity, trust, and mental health.