The Swiss Cheese approach

Posted on | September 4, 2013 | No Comments

What is it about corporate strategy and cheese?

According to Louis C. Feuer, the ‘Swiss Cheese Approach to White-Collar Stress’ is a practice of ‘selective mingling’ that enables workers to navigate the corporate hierarchy and arrive in a better place. As he puts it:

Getting through to the other side of the cheese is easy, if you carefully pick the people you want to help you pass through the holes to professional success (137)

The careerist maneuvering Feuer endorses promotes the benefits of self-interest:

You are constantly looking for the holes to go through, never seeking to rock the entire organization and not wanting to make corporate headlines, but yet anxious to move to the winning side of the business. It is like moving through a piece of swiss cheese. You can pass through those holes and no one will know you have arrived to the other side until they see you there.

Professionals have been using the swiss cheese approach for years. Is it dishonest and unethical? You make your own judgment after you have read all about the tactics.

Selectively doing and acting in a particular way, for special people at a particular time: what’s wrong with that? Realizing that you cannot help everyone at the same time, you, as a social business climber, may find it necessary, because of short time, to help first, those who can help your career the most. (130)

Climbing the rungs of the corporate hierarchy includes participating in civic activity:

Successful people usually, no matter how busy they are, find some time to join civic and charitable organizations. Joining these organizations or committees where the “right people” attend will help you develop a network of professional contacts who can hopefully smooth any rough roads for you. Certain civic groups attract a particular type of professional and you may want to attend some of these meetings in your community to see who is there (132)

[…]

You are joining an organization not only because of what it stands for, but also because of the constituency of its membership. Does this sound like you are joining a group for selfish reasons? Well, to some degree you are. But the organization gains because of the energy you will devote to the group and you will gain, hopefully, by the people you will meet. It may not be a totally philanthropic reason for joining, but right or wrong, it is done all the time! (133)

Feuer’s Swiss Cheese analogy is not unique in name. A ‘Swiss Cheese’ approach is also mentioned in Alan Lakein’s (1973) How to Control Your Time and Your Life – a book that is credited (by Lakein!) as the inspiration for the field of time management.

In Lakein’s use, the Swiss Cheese approach is a tonic for procrastination. It is a way of getting started on an important goal ‘by poking some holes in it’. Applying Swiss Cheese turns large projects into smaller, ‘instant tasks’, knowing the difference 5 minutes can make. Even if you don’t have time to fully accomplish a pressing objective on a busy day, spare moments can be used to advance some tiny portion of the larger whole.

Lakein’s formula is partly a means to overcome feelings of helplessness, as in the following passage:

Admit to yourself: “I just cannot plan.” Then say to yourself, “But if I could plan, what would the plan be?” Now, set about to answer the if question. (136)

The following list of ‘holes’ offers simple tips to get started. They are cheese puncturing methods for generating mindfulness:

– get more information
– try a leading task (eg. sharpen your pencil)
– take advantage of your current mood
– give yourself a pep talk
– make a commitment to someone

By contrasting the two authors’ use of the same phrase, we can begin to recognize the particular mix of mythology and platitude that attends business self-help (‘professionals have been using the swiss cheese approach for years’). The Swiss Cheese method is clearly catchy as a title, but its application differs greatly with each author. This slippage in citation or method, and the lack of any authority that would ever establish such a flaw, remain mysteries to ponder. Meanwhile, following these phrases as they gain purchase illustrates the work they do in legitimating culturally and historically specific attitudes.

Compared with Feuer, Lakein’s philosophy of career survival appears almost selfless. It speaks from a time when diligence to career and service perhaps served broader ends. For Feuer, writing from the mid-80s, White Collar Stress is ‘worth it’ because of the satisfaction to be found in power, control, and ultimately money. On the latter, he concludes:

If this is your key ingredient for success, do not panic. If we were more often honest with ourselves, more people would openly admit the same incentive. What we need to accept is how important it may be to each of us and that working hard for it is OK! (143)

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