March 15th, 2010

Let them eat cake, Let us eat foie gras

I’d like to tell you two stories. Both of them are true.

As a Project Manager, I have come across many broken things in organizations. Regardless of your profession, I challenge you to look for the broken things in these two stories.

The first story involves a woman who lived in country where the people did not have enough bread to eat. This woman, however, did not have this problem. She had plenty of food, wine, and even…cake, (brioche, actually). When this woman heard of the plight of her people, she supposedly said “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche” or “Let them eat cake”. Considering that brioche is a luxury bread made with eggs and butter, it reflected the woman’s arrogant obliviousness to the nature of famine.

IMG_5931_edited-1 crop.jpg

Sometimes cake is a symbol. Sometimes it's just pretty and yummy.

We all think we know who this woman is: Marie Antoinette, Queen of France, wife of Louis XVI. In fact, it was Queen Marie-Thérèse, the wife of King Louis XIV, who uttered these infamous words.

Regardless of which Queen of France said these words, we all know how this story ends, and thus recognize the power and symbolism of this quote. Both the Queen of France, Mary Antoinette, and her husband, King Louis XVI were beheaded during the French Revolution, an epic transformation process resulting in centuries-old ideas about hierarchy and monarchy being replaced by new and “radical” notions of citizenship, rights, and democracy. It happened pretty quickly actually: three years to destroy notions held fast for centuries. The quote “Let them eat cake” thus eventually came to symbolize the selfishness of the French monarchy…well, any monarchy for that matter. For while France chose a rather bloody path towards democracy, every modern nation eventually chose democracy over monarchy. “Let them eat cake”: indeed, the people replied, we shall, thanks very much.

My second story involves a company trying to make its 2009 “numbers”. “Numbers” are revenue, profit and cash flow actuals against targets that companies post at the end of each quarter, presumably, in order to make shareholders happy. (“Presumably” because the reality has very little, if anything, to do with shareholders.) Knowing that they would have difficulty making its “numbers”, the management at this company “asked” their employees to reduce their work week from five days to four. Naturally, their pay was also reduced accordingly. There was no such sacrifice on the part of management.

A VP from this company traveled to a far away office in a far away city to thank his employees for their noble sacrifice. That evening, given that the VP was on an expense account, he went out to dinner in a very expensive restaurant, even though the far away city was (and is) world-renowned for the quality of their cuisine at all budgets. The VP invited a select few managers to dine with him and they all ordered foie gras: an expensive delicacy in an expensive restaurant for a select few. I wonder if the VP said something like: “We’ve had a tough year. Let us eat foie gras.”

Naturally, this company made their 2009 “numbers”. Naturally, because the company made its “numbers”, the VP and his management team received their bonuses. Naturally, they accomplished this on the backs of their employees, who were rewarded with…reduced pay.

The parallels between the two stories, I hope, are obvious. Both involve monarchs who are oblivious to the plight of their people: the Queen who can eat brioche when her peasants are starving and the VP-King who can still eat foie gras in an obscenely expensive restaurant even after he has cut the salary of his employees. Both involve people whose rights and needs are subjugated to those of “the hierarchy”: the peasants starve while the Queen eats brioche, the employees get less pay while the VP-King eats foie gras. Both involve a select few who “have” while the majority “have not”.

However, the similarities between our two stories end here. The first story ends with the peasants who say “enough is enough”. Paradigms shift: and monarchy gives way to democracy.

The second story…has yet to play out.

Don’t you think it’s about time that it finally did?

3 comments to Let them eat cake, Let us eat foie gras

  • It is a bitter truth that these things still happen till today, in politics and at work… The good thing is that movements and representations of employees in the work force are increasing, not enough probably, and not in all industries and countries… From my experience, such bodies who represent the employees, and who defend their rights against the unfair actions of their employers, are becoming more and more important these days. Employers are actually seeing this great importance, realizing they need to know what people think and how they react to management decisions… Hope this continues to grow… great piece Elisabeth…

  • Elisabeth Bucci

    Actually, Bassam, a more fundamental change is needed in the way we structure our organizations: that of “rule by democracy”. I will be revisiting this in many future posts: it takes a while to get your head wrapped around the notions, mainly because it challenges so many paradigms…much like the French did when they questioned rule by an absolute monarchy. Thanks for reading!

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