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Mistaking What for How

Bosses who focus exclusively on the what of organizational change efforts, forgetting the how, are acting as if their employees are totally lazy and instrumental, caring solely about gains and costs, and seeking only ways of realizing the greatest personal financial gain with the least possible effort. Looking at their workforces through this lens, such bosses can easily conclude that improved job performance will be the product of a simple formula:

  • Prescribe the tasks that authorities have decided must be performed in order to reach desired company goals.

  • Prepare workers to perform those tasks.

  • Police their behavior while they are performing them.

  • Pay them for successful compliance.

  • Punish them for failure.

If employees are as lazy and instrumental as these bosses presume, then this straight-and-narrow, command-and-control, carrot-and-stick calculus should work well. In fact, it turns out to be a dark and self-fulfilling prophecy. Predominant focus on the what by bosses produces alienation among workers, prompting their apathy and antagonism. Witnessing this attitude, then, only reinforces the initial convictions of bosses, who reason that it's precisely such deficient work behavior that makes necessary such an iron grip on their employees' productivity. "Unlike us," they think, "all they really care about is getting the biggest reward for the least effort." And increasingly—as workers are made to care less and less about an uncaring company—it becomes true. The result, in the minds of both management and workers, is a boundary that divides the in-group of elite bosses from an out-group of lowly employees.

Evidence against the merits of this autocratic ideology comes from both historical and current scientific examples. Nearly a century ago, Frederick Taylor's carrot-and-stick, time-and-motion efforts reinforced management's tendency toward this approach when his methods increased both worker productivity and, as wages were linked to output, workers' wages as well. Yet despite this tangible benefit, workers' discontentment with time and motion approaches grew.

Guided by an engineering model, time and motion efforts reduced tasks into their component parts, permitting "experts" to prescribe the most efficient motions for workers to use, in a given period of time, in order to get a job done. On paper, the prescriptions promised improvements in efficiency. But humans are a pesky lot. In practice, there is often a costly psychological backlash stemming from workers' feelings of being controlled.

In fact, things became so bad at one point that Taylor was called to testify before a committee of the United States Senate about his methods and workers' responses to them.29 The employees' pain that offset Taylorism's gain was caused by workers' acute feeling of being done to rather than being part of. The case for workers' upset is undoubtedly puzzling to bosses who primarily focus on the what and disregard the how. There is evidently more to life than salary. No matter what the profits, if the rules of the game reduce workers to pawns, they will rankle employees as much today as they did a century ago.

In 1993, a New York Times headline alluded to a modern manifestation of that very rankling: "Strikers at American Airlines Say the Objective Is Respect." The article reported: "It is not so much the pay or benefits or sometimes grinding four- and five-city, one-day trips or the interminable, unpaid delays between some flights. It is the little things that striking flight attendants at American Airlines say grate on them and amount to a lack of respect. 'They treat us like we're disposable, a number,' said Helen Neuhoff, a 33-year-old flight attendant." Another attendant said: "I'd rather be on the planes. But I've got to stand up for what I believe. My self-respect is more important than my job."30 Nor did the issue go away. Four years later, when troubles at American Airlines brewed again, the theme remained the same. A disgruntled pilot complained, "As long as you treat your employees as merely 'unit costs,' like the Styrofoam coffee cups we throw out after every flight, morale will remain at rock bottom."31 Comments made by a disenchanted employee in the automobile industry capture the implication of these quotes—and serve to invalidate the all-too-common view that for employees, it's all about money.

We're a cost. That's it. In their [pointing upward] world we're not human beings who have thoughts, a life filled with ordinary joys and worries, feelings. Their focus is on the bottom line and to them we're simply lines on a budget that are labeled 'cost.'And they figure that about ninety-five percent of what gets me going in the morning is caring about how to get the most for the least—when, really, it's not even like one percent of what gets me going. What they believe, it's insulting.

Boss behavior that is based on a decidedly what-oriented image of employees is entirely inconsistent with overwhelming evidence showing that how people are treated, rather than the benefits they receive, best predicts their willingness to support organizational goals.32 A recent study involving 2,800 federal employees demonstrated that their views on the fairness of decision-making procedures were more than twice as powerful an indicator of their evaluations of management as their views about pay.33 Rewards and punishments certainly affect employees' work, but bosses' fair and respectful treatment of them is by far the most powerful tool to earn their commitment.

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