What’s Wrong with Work Today: Management Part 2

I started talking about Management on Friday. More specifically, I said that the concept of management is at odds with freedom – a core human value. It sounds a bit over the top to consider employment under managers as a fundamental loss of freedom, especially if you like your job – then it’s a sacrifice you willingly make and you receive benefits in return. But I find it interesting to consider because I think it helps us pinpoint an underlying cause of so much of our frustration in the workplace today.

Joanne Cuilla writes in The Working Life that,

“Employees throughout the ages have struggled to maintain their personal autonomy and dignity at work. The principle of freedom is at the heart of this relationship and is fundamental to how we think about work – freedom to work, freedom at work, and freedom from work . . . Adam Smith said workers receive compensation for their loss of freedom at work, not for the product they make. Here loss of freedom means a restriction of their liberty to do or say or not to do and say certain things during the time they are working” (75,85).

She goes on to explain that back in the early 1800s, employment in America was viewed as a temporary necessity. The goal was to become self-sufficient through your own trade or craft. Essentially everyone planned on being entrepreneurs, one-man shops and small business owners. All of that changed with the Industrial Revolution.

Depending on what results you look at, Frederick Winslow Taylor, the Father of Scientific Management, is either a hero or a villain in this story. His legacy still positively and negatively influences work today (which is really a nice way of saying that while I’m glad for the technological advancements that have been achieved since then, he basically wrecked how we do work in the process).

Before the Industrial Revolution work was done by craftsmen. Owners and managers didn’t dictate how the work was done – the craftsman had control over how they did their work. Taylor noticed that some workers did tasks more slowly than others or weren’t truly skilled for the work they were doing. Some workers didn’t work to their full capacity. Skilled professionals each had their own methods. It was all very customized and inefficient – something Taylor couldn’t stand.

“As Taylor saw it, the balance of power was tipped towards workers because they knew more than the foreman. The key to gaining control over workers and the pace of production was to design work so that almost any person could do any job with maximum efficiency” (Cuilla, 93).

He wanted to reduce specialized skills down to a system in order to increase efficiency and profits. In effect, this ruined work. By breaking down complex processes into small actions that anyone could do, Taylor separated thinking and doing. Thinking was now going to be done by managers so that the employees would only have to focus on doing (Matthew Crawford’s book Shop Class as Soulcraft does an excellent analysis of this). It was all going to be much more efficient. And cost-effective. If people were no longer required to think, pay could be substantially reduced because the skill level required was so much lower.

It didn’t go over too well at first. Ford implemented the same principles that Taylor developed in his ground-breaking assembly lines and people initially revolted. Craftsmen walked off the job horrified and insulted (Crawford, 39). They didn’t believe it was possible to do quality work this way. Ford had to temporarily double his wages to get anyone to work the lines.

“Between October 1912 and October 1913 the Ford Motor Company, with its famous production line, hired a whopping fifty-four thousand men to maintain an average workforce of thirteen thousand employees” (Cuilla, 96).

And there was another consequence: Turns out when you stop asking people to think, you also ask them to stop taking personal responsibility for their work. Soon after the assembly lines were introduced managers began to complain about the “poor and lawless material” they had to hire instead of the “efficient, self-respecting craftsman” they had once had (Crawford, 101). Hard workers got harder to come by as work became less holistic and internally motivating. Careful supervision by managers became more and more necessary.

This is where the chicken-and-the-egg dilemma comes in. Were those people really inherently “poor and lawless” workers that had to be closely watched? Or was the close supervision and uninteresting work actually a contributing factor?

If we’re honest, I think most of us have some kind of basic unwillingness towards being managed (whether that’s at work or at home or wherever). While you could argue that we’re just rebellious creatures by nature, I think it indicates that we were built for freedom. We have an inherent understanding that simply being told what to do by a manager is not how we were made to live our lives. We are drawn to the idea of self-directed craftsman and professionals exactly because they have freedom to do work in their own way and they make self-disciplined use of their freedom in creating work of the highest calibre.

The problem is that while we romanticize the idea of working for ourselves, many of us don’t have hard skills, a specific craft or specialized profession that could make us a living. We’re sometimes not even sure where our interests lie. And even if we were, we often don’t have the focus and drive developed to pursue these interests as a career. We don’t know how to become self-directed and tap into internal motivation. We aren’t good at self-discipline because it’s so rarely been required. So managers remain necessary.

The question is: if we gave up the concept of management today would we fall apart or would we start digging out the craftsman mentality that I think is locked somewhere instead each of us?

2 thoughts on “What’s Wrong with Work Today: Management Part 2

  1. Wow, this is really interesting. I think one of the things I appreciated in my recent (otherwise somewhat less-than-incredible) job was that I had many opportunities to find projects for myself and to take a small task my boss had mentioned in passing to the next level. She, in turn, expressed a huge amount of appreciation for the fact that she could give me a task and I would actually carry it all the way to completion. If I could find this kind of ability to work independently in another job where I even cared about the business itself, that would be truly amazing.

    On another note, when you talk about crafts or trades or whatever, I immediately think of plumbers, carpenters, mechanics, those kinds of trades. These are all kind of “blue collar” jobs, nothing that I’ve ever been encouraged to aspire to. But maybe that is also a loss in our way of thinking about work – we don’t value people who work with their hands. We seem to have this cultural preference toward staying clean and working with our minds…even though this probably ends up putting us under management and limiting our potential for satisfaction at work.

    • Thanks for your thoughts Anna! You’re absolutely right that culturally we’ve made “white collar” work the goal and devalued “blue collar” work which is an unfortunate loss. I find Paul’s instructions to “work with our hands” fascinating in light of a lot of my research into meaningful work.

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