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Managers Have Huge Blind Spots

One of the most distressing patterns in modern organizations is the apparent and long-standing view that managers fail to recognize that employees are human beings who may be suffering at their hands. Time after time, employees report in interviews and respond to surveys with essentially the same concern: People develop blind spots when they become managers.

Jaundiced Eyes

We've seen quite a bit of this yellow discoloration of the eyes in universities. When a faculty member is dragged, kicking and screaming, into the position of department chair, his or her initial understanding of problems is comfortably comparable with that of other faculty members. After being in the position for a few weeks or months, an alarming change occurs. The new chair seems to forget entirely what concerns he or she had as a faculty member. In only a short period of time, the new chair appears to exhibit a startling disregard for faculty concerns and a high regard for his or her new boss. Similarly, the move from worker to manager appears to short-circuit new managers' critical synapses so as to help them forget how little they really trusted their managers when they were workers. They forget how difficult it was to be listened to, much less how important it was to be rewarded and valued for their ideas.

How soon we forget that freedom is important in the lives of workers. Why do managers become consumed with the idea that they must direct and control the lives of others if they are to move up the corporate ladder?

After reviewing shifts occurring in business environments, Brandt observed that "unique events are increasingly the norm; at least they are common. And the correct responses are one-offs. All the control systems can do in most companies is hamper the development of appropriate replies by the members of the enterprise. Management heritage is aimed at order, not inventiveness or responsiveness." The painful emphasis on control by managers led Macleod to identify factors that make employees feel like they are prisoners of the firm. They have little or no choice in their work lives. The range of options is very limited and the workers have little control over the conditions under which they work. They thus feel trapped and imprisoned. Additionally, like prisoners, they are under the control of people in authority who make decisions at their own convenience and by their own choice. There are rigid and arbitrary rules. Infractions of the rules are punished severely. Employees quickly learn about the negative consequences of disobeying or even speaking up in opposition to the orders, rules, and norms of the corporate culture.

Employees are also regulated by imposed time schedules and unwavering routines. Specified starting times at work dictate when the individual rises, has breakfast, and leaves for work. The worker may also need to meet a fixed train, bus, or commuter schedule both before and after work. The employee's time may almost be completely regulated from rising on Monday morning to arriving home on Friday evening. At one prominent company, employees are asked to work at least 50 hours each week. Commuting time takes an hour to get to work and another hour to return home. The train schedule adds an additional hour, and lunchtime tacks on another hour. Employees devote about 70 hours to work each week. Incredibly, this company takes great pride in advancing family values and encouraging employees to spend more time with their families.

At work, employees may be deprived of their individuality, be separated from their family and friends, occupy offices and quarters that have a lack of privacy, and labor in unpleasant physical conditions in workstations with limited space. The temperature, humidity, and cleanliness of the air is carefully controlled for computer equipment rather than for employees. Finally, appraisal systems implemented by powerful people who have secondhand, sketchy, and often inaccurate information, but whose decisions are final, may have a decisive and highly negative effect on employees' futures.

No wonder employees watch the clock, daydream, and expect little stimulation from the workplace. On the job, they only do what seems absolutely necessary, stay out of trouble, and try not to rock the boat.

Old Management Logic

Despite all the rhetoric about new age management styles, managers, as well as too many others, are still locked into an elitist, outdated "management logic." The old management logic runs something like this: The ideal system for creating products and delivering services is to take human beings and coerce them into following a specific set of procedures that hopefully minimize the risk of failure. At the same time, managers can pursue other policies that mold, shape, change, and control workers on the misguided assumption that management is responsible for making decisions for them.

At first glance, this doesn't seem like a terribly bad approach, at least for managers. In practice, however, it is fraught with difficulties. The first difficulty stems from having employees perform the same procedures day in and day out, week after week. Employees become bored out of their minds because they are not able to use their minds. Soon morale declines, energy levels dip, and in fact workers begin to discover ways to impede the work and strike back at managers and the company to compensate for the mindless, insensitive ways in which they are being treated. They begin to feel frustrated, tired, and imprisoned. Isn't it interesting that managers trap themselves in this old management logic and then turn right around and trap their workers in the same mindset?

The second difficulty that comes from following traditional management logic is that the demands on management make it impossible for them to figure out new procedures for workers to follow when the market changes. Thus, changing customer needs, the development of new technologies, and widespread decentering can't be responded to in order to ensure maximum profits and implant a no-failure effort.

Managers have tried in the past to keep employees interested in their work by such practices as rotating them from one job to another. Rotation doesn't work very well, because each job quickly becomes boring and doesn't use the workers' potential any better than the first one. When rotating workers resulted in even more complexity and contradictions, managers were urged to add more variety and depth to the work. Unfortunately, the variety is limited and the depth is restricted to fit the company's already existing rules, regulations, and processes. So, that doesn't help very much. It leads again to the popular metaphor of the workplace as a prison.

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