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The outstanding mistake of the employer is his failure to realize he is dealing with human material. – Roger Ward Babson
Remember the good old days when the only thing you had to do to get a nonmotivated worker to push harder was to yell at him, “Shapeup, Riley, or ship out”? Remember when the Boss was a kind of fourth person in the Trinity in pinstripes, and managers were lords in their own domain, and the guys in blue collars were happy slaves? Remember when the word “authority” meant something, and you could get a lazy employee to be more productive just by kicking his ass, and you never had to worry about lip because as long as you gave them their paychecks, they’d shut up and do what you told them?
You don’t remember those days? Me either. In fact nobody remembers them, because they didn’t exist. Back in the nineteenth century maybe, when workers were treated like children because half of them were children; but not in your lifetime or mine. As far back as any of us can remember, the image of the manager as an omnipotent galley master whose job was to find out where the lashes ought to fall – that image has been nothing but a myth. And the dream that some managers still have of the docile, dim-bulb employee who just wants to be told what to do – forget it, that bears about as much relation to reality as Broadway does to a farm.
But there’s a funny thing about myths. Sometimes they last a lot longer than “realistic observers” give them credit for. That’s certainly the case with this one. In a lot of companies I see, there’s always a small group of managers who seem to think that, even if this is the year 2000, they ought to be able to behave as if Grover Cleveland was still in the White House. Even in “enlightened” businesses, you see the attitude hanging on: that the “good old days” had it right, and that the best way of getting people to put out more is to act tough and boss them around.
In some places I’ve visited, the management even goes so far as to say that this is the way workers want to be treated. “They want to be told what to do,” a first-line supervisor told me once. “They’re being paid to turn that damned screw, not to think.”
Since I’ve been talking a lot about involving your people in decision-making, you can guess what I think about this attitude. In deference to the memory of my preacher daddy, I’ll refrain from calling the spade a spade here, and just say that, as a way of motivating people to better performance, the galley-master mentality is completely useless.
A few years ago a private research firm called the Work in America Institute studied the conditions in society that were changing the way people thought about work. In a report that every manager in America ought to read, the institute’s president, Jerome Rosow, listed a number of conclusions that bear directly on the problem of motivation. Some of his findings:
1. Attitudes toward authority are changing. As the polls are always telling us, there’s been a steady decline over the past couple of decades in public confidence in institutions – whether you’re talking about government or educational institutions or business, people just don’t have the same knee-jerk respect for institutional power and authority that they used to have. In addition, the growth of permissiveness in society – starting with the so-called sexual revolution of the 1960s and proceeding into the current grab-bag of alternative “life styles” – has tied in with the general suspicion of all authority, all received ideas, all traditional ways of doing things. Therefore, the roles of authority figures, as well as of the people who are supposed to be “under” them, aren’t nearly as well defined as they were in Grandma and Grandpa’s day.
2. “Work” is no longer at the center of people’s lives. People still have to work, that’s true, but today more than ever before they feel they “have” to do a lot of other things as well. A hundred years ago, a young worker was satisfied with a steady paycheck and a roof for himself and his family. Today the average worker also wants a car, a color television, two-weeks’ paid vacation, weekends on the beach, and so on. The old Protestant work ethic is gradually dying, and being replaced by an attraction for the “good life,” with all the emphasis on pleasure and leisure that that implies.
This attitude has even entered the workplace itself. “Quality of Work Life” is now an agenda item in scores of companies around the country; a hundred years ago, “quality” of work life meant that you got to work by the light of a 40-watt bulb rather than a 20-watt one. Workers have discovered the revolutionary idea that it’s all right for them to enjoy their lives. Even from nine to five.
3. Workers expect to participate in decision-making. That doesn’t mean necessarily that they want to take over the factory and put the boss’s head on a spike; it does mean that, where they are performing tasks about which they know as much or more than their supervisors, they expect to be consulted about those tasks – to have their input sought, and listened to, and taken seriously.
Taken together, these three developments – a change in attitudes toward authority, a change in the relative importance of work, and a heightened expectation for participation in decisions – have dramatically altered the texture of the workplace, and have given today’s business managers an unprecedented challenge. That challenge is to see if we can incorporate into our working lives the same elements of cooperation and joint decision-making and democracy that we keep bragging about in our political lives.
I can tell you from working with businesses as diverse as finance, and textiles, and steel, that the solution to that challenge is found in Involvement.
You’ve heard about Involvement before, under other names. One of them is “participatory management,” and I like that term a lot because it links the two essential features of a viable (not just visionary) workplace democracy: full involvement, and a continued emphasis on management direction which is the only thing that can make involvement pay off.
A lot of our business leaders already understand that Involvement, or participatory management, has got to be the wave of the future. Take William Hewlett, whose company Hewlett-Packard was practicing participatory management about twenty years before the term was invented. In a speech entitled “The Human Side of Management,” Hewlett noted the following:
Productivity is the name of the game, and gains in productivity will only come when better understanding and better relationships exist between management and the work force. We must find better solutions to the adversary relationships that have so long dominated the American labor scene. Management is in a position to take the lead in such a new relationship. Managers have traditionally developed their skills in finance, planning, marketing and production techniques. Too often the relations with their people have been assigned a secondary role. This is too important a subject not to receive first-line attention.
That tells it like it is. Productivity is the name of the game, and as Hewlett rightly points out, the only way you’re going to get it is to get beyond the old garbage of bossman versus workers, them versus us. If you want to win ball games, this is no longer optional. Adopting a more participatory form of management has become a matter of business survival. It’s what’s going to make the difference, in the rest of this century, between industries that act like yoked oxen that hate each other’s guts and industries where management and labor pull together like a team. Only teamwork is going to get results.
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