What Roman Slave Owners Can Teach Us about Managing Staff

(Photo: Pascal Radique)

Are you a modern, forward-thinking leader who inspires people in the workplace to follow you?

No? Then Jerry Toner, a classicist at the University of Cambridge, has advice for you. He's gathered together the wisdom of slave owners from ancient Rome in a thoughtful essay at Aeon. Roman slave management manuals and other surviving records of slave-master relationships offer a lot of insight into corporate leadership. Toner explains:

Most Romans, like Augustus, thought cruelty to slaves was shocking. They understood that slaves could not simply be terrified into being good at their job. Instead, the Romans used various techniques to encourage their slaves to work productively and willingly, from bonuses and long-term inducements, to acts designed to boost morale and generate team spirit. All of these say more than we might imagine about how employers manage people successfully in the modern world.

You have to start from the beginning. Don't count on your company's human resources department to get new slaves ready for work. You, the leader, must get them into the right frame of mind and keep them there:

Once he bought them, the Roman master tried to rebuild his slaves’ characters to suit his own needs. He made them forget their old gods and start worshipping at the household shrine instead, ridiculing their former beliefs. He might choose to brand them with his own mark. So, too (if less brutally), the modern manager ‘rebrands’ new recruits by teaching them their company’s mission. They must carry out rituals to publicly proclaim their faith in these new goals, such as attending away days (or off-sites) and taking part in humiliating group activities such as paint-balling or karaoke.

-via Spencer Haley

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