An arrogant boss, an overwhelmed manager, a botched valuation, and the exploitation of workers

In the so-called Zenon archive, a cache of some 2,000 papyri from Philadelphia (Fayyum), covering a time-span from 263 to 229 B. C., there is a complex deposit that starts with a letter from one Panakestor to Zenon, the Egyptian official from whom the archive derives its name (PSI V 502, translation from here):

Panakestor to Zenon greeting. If you are well, and other matters are turning out in a satisfactory way for you, that would be as we wish. We too are well. Please remember us, and when you find a suitable moment with Apollonios, remind him about the notes I gave you in Memphis, and you said that you would take care of it. Be sure to remind him that he should get instructions from the king, as he agreed with us; for I know that if you want, everything will be achieved for us. I have appended for you a copy of the letter sent to me by Apollonios, and also a copy of the letter I sent to him. Farewell. Year 29, Pachons 15.

Apollonius was the chief financial administrator of Egypt under king Ptolemy II. Philadelphus, who led Egypt, now the successor state to a province of the realm that Alexander the Great had created, to renewed cultural heights.

The aforementioned Panakestor worked in what one might call Apollonius’ middle management (as it has been presented in this excellent piece). And Apollonius, it turns out, was not happy with how Panakestor had handled his job:

From Apollonios to Panakestor. I was astounded at your negligence that you have written nothing, either about the estimation or about the harvest of the grain. Write to me now how each matter stands. Year 29, Artemisios 23, Pharmouthi 30.

Apollonius, as this piece suggests, in the best top-down managerialist tradition, was expecting constant reports and updates on unpredictable matters – including a forecast of the harvest(s) that could be expected.

Panakestor had passed Apollonius’ request on to the farmers, the experts in the field (quite literally) – and this is where Hellenistic Greek bureaucracy hit the brick wall of Egyptian farmers who were accustomed to a very different system.

Ancient Egyptian management (stock photo). (Image source: https://bilbosrandomthoughts.blogspot.de/2011/05/cartoon-saturday.html)

Here is what happened according to Panakestor, trying to suppress his indignation towards Apollonius’ original letter, and seeking a constructive solution:

From Panakestor to Apollonios. I received your letter on 14th of Pachons from Zoilos, in which you write that you are astonished that I have sent you nothing concerning the estimation or the harvest of the crop. I happened to be present in Philadelphia on the 16th of Phamenoth and wrote at once to Zoilos and Zopyrion and to the royal scribes to join me and help manage the operation. Now, Zoilos happened to be making the inspection rounds with Telestes; he was therefore unavailable, but the royal scribes and Pauēs, Zopyrion’s assistant, came twelve days later. Together we went out into the fields and spent five days measuring the land by farmer and by crop.

We completed this, sent for the farmers, and announced your order to them. We then thought it right to call on them to make an estimation, just as you directed, or to work with us and draw up plans for an alternative. They said that they would inform us when they had considered the matter. Four days later they sat down in the temple and said they would not make an estimation, justly or unjustly, but would rather abandon the crop, for there was already an agreement that they should give you a third of the produce. Damis and I said many things to them, but we accomplished nothing; so we went to Zoilos and asked him to come along with us, but he said he was busy with the dispatch of the sailors.

Therefore when we returned to Philadelphia after three days we decided that since, as is written for us in the memorandum, they would not allow us to conduct an assessment or make any progress, we should ask them to give us their own assessment of their liability, whatever seemed appropriate to each of them. They gave us the assessment, which we sent to you previously. After arranging this, we were occupied in measuring the land planted with sesame and trees, in the company of the royal scribes, who gave us their account on the 22nd of Pharmouthi. Therefore please do not charge us with any negligence, because it is not easy for anyone working for you to be negligent. That should be clear to you from the fact that the corn was brought in, even though there was not much supply in this area.

{Addressed}   To Zenon.

{Docketed}   From Panakestor, a copy of his letter to Apollonios. Year 29, Daisios 14, in Alexandria.

Pushed hard by his line manager, and trying to do the conscientious thing, Panakestor first tried to implement the required estimation or a workable alternative.

He tried to align the workers through multiple stages of conversation. They in turn considered the request and then rejected it, threatening a walk-out and strike action, potentially resulting in a major loss of crops, should they be required to co-operate. In order to work around that, Panakestor even tried to enlist the services of others – to no avail.

In the end, Panakestor obtained information structured in a traditional way, and this is what he passed on to his better. He even accomplished other tasks, and brought in the required shares, against all the odds – only to be charged with negligence.

Were the Egyptian workers insubordinate and resistant to change, refusing to take part in what modern-day division heads might call a review of efficiency and effectiveness?

One might spin it that way, but Panakestor’s version allows for a very different take on the matter.

It is quite clear from one statement in particular –

‘they sat down in the temple and said they would not make an estimation, justly or unjustly, but would rather abandon the crop, for there was already an agreement that they should give you a third of the produce

– that the workers’ concern was something else: the fear that collaboration with a system that required forecasts and targets would force them into an impossible situation. In this impossible situation, it is no longer reality and experience that determines the course of the world, but made-up, fictive managerial figures and planning charts, imposed not actually for planning purposes, but as a means to exercise power and control, shifting the risk from the employer to the employee.

This is confirmed by another, later phrase in the text –

‘we decided that since, as is written for us in the memorandum, they would not allow us to conduct an assessment or make any progress, we should ask them to give us their own assessment of their liability, whatever seemed appropriate to each of them.’

The eternal dilemma for the middle manager is that they have a decision to make: do they wish to be the head of the unit that has been entrusted to them (or for which they were elected), or do they wish to be the rear extension of the upper levels, from which they cannot expect any gratitude. Panakestor tried to be a bit of both, and it made his life miserable.

The quintessential message for those who do the work on the ground is: do not ever allow managers with knowledge of planning and no understanding of realities to take over your core business.

Once you do, a neverending misery of constantly shifting goalposts in the name of effectiveness, efficiency, and sustainability planning begins.

About Peter Kruschwitz

Berliner. Classicist. Scatterbrain.
This entry was posted in Labour disputes, Prose and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to An arrogant boss, an overwhelmed manager, a botched valuation, and the exploitation of workers

  1. Thank you for this wonderful series Peter! Your characterisation of the middle manager in this post made me laugh so much I almost woke up the kids.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Haha! Glad to provide some much needed cheer. 🙂 It’s an important decision to make, I think. And it sneaks up on you without warning.

    Like

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