Charles Darwin’s 1859 theory of natural selection posited that camouflage evolved as a way of giving animals a reproductive advantage. Some years later, zoologist Edward Poulton broke camouflage down into different categories including “special protective resemblance” (looking like something else), or “general aggressive resemblance” (allowing a predator to obscure it’s presence while hunting) with experiments with moths and studies of pelagic fish such as mackerel whose dark upper surface and white underside mean that the fish is inconspicuous when viewed both from above and below. The advantages of camouflage had long been recognised in military circles. In the early years of the first millennium, Vegetius was reporting that Julius Caesar was using a blue/green wax to camouflage the reconnaissance boats he sent to gather intelligence along the British coast. Of course, since the advantages of camouflage have been recognised, much energy has been expended on overcoming that very advantage. In 1992, the Royal Society published a paper that explored the possibility that people suffering from a congenital form of red-green colour blindness might be able to “break” certain kinds of colour camouflage.
Employing camouflage at work to avoid visual detection is not commonplace, unless you work in the military or security services. We do however squirrel ourselves away when we need to work without interruption. Susan Cain’s “Quiet” and several other recent publications have turned against what has been dubbed the “extrovert ideal” that became common currency in business in the 20th century and has negatively impacted our ability to identify potential leaders, reward good performance and so on. Open-plan offices have long been thought to produce greater collaboration and creativity, the twin holy grail of modern business. Introverts in particular may find this an uncomfortable and over-stimulating environment in which to work. The same may very well hold true for extroverts. We are lately coming to a realisation that we need to provide choice and flexibility at work to allow both to flourish and realise creative potential.
Which is all very well for the built environment which can more readily be reconfigured to suit the changing needs of the workforce. More challenging though is the camouflaging of how that workforce actually feels about work. The, by now well-established, trend toward a demand for creativity, innovation and collaboration is putting pressure on people to conform to a “new normal” that might be just as uncomfortable for some as others found working under Taylorist command and control structure and hierarchy. Many people do not feel themselves to be of a creative bent. A pressure to be creative from management in pursuit of that next big idea does not sit well for people for whom work is a necessary evil to be got over with as quickly and as painlessly as possible between weekends and holidays. It can be especially damaging in businesses where the promotion of creative behaviours is not matched by a corporate forgiveness of failures. Organisations that want to ape the success of Facebook but do not hold true to their philosophy of “Move fast and break things” won’t.
Satisfaction surveys and “engagement” are an organisation’s efforts at de-cloaking what employees really feel about the business they work in. All too often these exercises are designed to reassure management and are structured in such a way that criticism is deflected or disguised. Corporate culture is often what happens when the management isn’t looking too closely. It cannot be enforced. It might be influenced. But it won’t be the force for good we’d really like it to be if we ignore the challenges hiding in plain sight.