What’s Wrong with Work Today: Management Part 3

Ok – here are some final thoughts to wrap up the Management discussion in this series (see Part 1 and Part 2 here).

On Monday, I talked about the separation of thinking and doing. In the comments, Anna wrote:

“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.”

She highlights one of the big problems with our management culture today:

We have been taught to look down on blue collar “labor” and venerate using our minds – as if thinking and doing can be separated. We have made assumptions about intelligence and trades that are false. Anyone who works as a plumber, carpenter, dryer vent cleaner or dry wall installer can tell you about the difficult thinking required to diagnose, assess, prepare, install, correct and fix tangible things. Thinking and doing cannot be separated as much as we have tried. Even in the corporate world, where we’re supposedly all doing “thinking” jobs, much of the time you’re not supposed to think for yourself. Call any customer service center with a concern and if it’s not in the script, you’ll likely be told to either talk to a manager or that the representative can’t help you because of policies handed down by management.

This creates a hierarchy that pre-disposes managers to think poorly of their employees. (Again, for the record, I have had some excellent managers and believe it’s possible to be a good manager.) But let’s face it, it’s easy to think less of people when we’re in charge. Power tends to corrupt us. Trying to prove, maintain or enforce authority can involve belittling others, withholding necessary information or not providing resources, especially if we’re insecure or hungry for more control.

Much of our management theories of the past were based on the premise that people, “fundamentally disliked work and would avoid it if they could. These faceless minions feared taking responsibility, craved security, and badly needed direction” (Daniel Pink, Drive, p. 76). But is that really our fundamental nature? Pink thinks not, “Have you ever seen a six-month-old or a one-year-old who’s not curious and self-directed?” He argues that if we are passive workers later in life,

“Perhaps management isn’t responding to our supposedly natural state of passive inertia. Perhaps management is one of the forces that’s switching our default setting and producing that state” (89).

As much as we would like to think we’ve moved on from these premises by trying to “empower” employees, I think too often these assumptions are still part of the management mindset. While we often say we hire people for their skills, we then don’t act like they really have them or won’t use them properly. We micro-manage processes and procedures. We don’t give employees credit for being able to figure out how to do things on their own. We think everything is up to us and everyone should follow our plan exactly (I know I have these tendencies without ever having been a manager of people – how many of us try to manage our spouses?). Joanne Cuilla writes in The Working Life:

The other insight about work that management theorists keep discovering is that if you give people information and a say in how to improve their work, they can produce impressive results. The fact that managers are constantly amazed by this tells us something about the respect they have had for employees (p. 141).

When corporations start trying to reconnect thinking and doing by allowing front-lines people to make decisions usually reserved for managers, business suddenly booms, customer satisfaction goes up, loyalty increases and employee retention levels are more easily maintainted. Consider Zappos’ legendary customer service and what it does for their company.

Overall, I think a strict management culture makes it difficult for people to work effectively. It’s hard for managers to shake ingrained assumptions about those they manage, and it’s hard for employees to develop the internal motivation and self-direction when no one makes room for growth in these areas. The unfortunate reality is that people in power often abuse their power and end up hurting those who report to them. You don’t have to go far to hear a bad manager story which I think is really sad.

Thoughts? Stories? Counterpoints? What have I missed in this discussion? Please share!