Powerful Leadership: How to Unleash the Potential in Others
- Jun 7, 2002
Chapter 1: HOUSTON, WE HAVE A PROBLEM!
For millions of workers around the world, the old gung-ho is gone. They talk and mutter and gripe about their frustrations at work. You don't even have to listen carefully to hear workers complain about managers, to hear managers complain about workers, and to hear both complain about the company. More than a decade of trying to run leaner and meaner has resulted mostly in meanness, making a shambles out of company loyalty of workers and throwing a blanket of distrust over every boss.
The complaints of most workers are usually about the boss, the infighting, the lack of support, and the boring tasks and restrictive rules and policies. A local beer-company employee expressed the pain, "It's just a job now, just a job. It used to be fun. When you made deliveries, you were the 'Pabst man or the Schlitz man,' and it made you proud. Now it's dog-eat-dog. The only things that anyone cares about are volume and money."
If you want loyalty, get a dog.
Corporate loyalty no longer exists, faith in the hierarchy and bureaucracy is dead, the distressed employee is replacing the company man, and most organizations are experiencing difficulty in implementing quality improvement programs, simultaneous engineering systems, teams, and an assortment of strategic planning initiatives. The challenge of the decade is how to lead an organization of people who feel abused, feel confused, and don't want to follow.
What's happening? Alan Wolfe, a contemporary philosopher, passionately asserts that America, and other cultures as well, have become "decentered." Not only is life changing, which makes once-appropriate theories and ideals less relevant, but also the changes themselves do not seem to fit any recognizable pattern. Decentering means, simply, that the world around us is losing the center that holds it together and makes sense of living. We are living in a quandary.
Sometimes it seems like the whole world of work is out of whack. The company has one agenda, the worker has another, and the manager usually can't figure out either one. Company policies and procedures get in the way of doing the work in the most efficient manner. Core competencies are not in accord with changing customer needs. Everyone except the worker is defining the way in which work is to be done. Someone always seems to be restructuring someone else. Quality improvement usually ends up meaning doing more, faster, instead of doing less, more profitably. And no one seems sure anymore about what kind of "self-direction" will be rewarded and what will be criticized.
Living in a Quandary
Diversity, complexity, and contradiction surround us on every side. We are in the continual predicament of trying to get organized. The consequence, especially in the workplace, is an uneasy state of perplexity and doubt. Quandaries lead to a quagmire of anxiety and confusion. Inside each of us is a gnawing concern about how to handle daily decisions. Rapidly changing conditions and repeated chaos undermine our confidence in what we should think and do. The toll on all of us is heavy, but on managers and administrators who are supposed to be clarifying the situation and pointing the way, the burden is exceptionally damaging.
Confusion at Work
The number one difficulty of effective management today is confusion in the workplace. Following Wolfe's analysis, it is clear that the complexities of living in organizations mean that old patterns of social life and old expectations about how one will live one's life at work are replaced, not by new patterns and expectations, but by incoherence and ambiguity. This grappling with puzzling, bewildering, and knotty situations is illustrated perceptively by conversations with a wide range of managers. Listen in on one such discussion:
"How are things going here at Wonderful American Products International?" (Any similarity between this name and an actual company is a one-in-a-million long shot.) "Pretty good, thanks." "What's the mission of this company?" "PEP, PEP, and more PEP!" "What does PEP mean?" "PEP stands for Productivity, Efficiency, and Profits." "One of the PEP boys, huh?" (Bad comment, no laughter; in fact, not even a smile.) "Those sound like fairly mainstream goals. So what's the problem?" (Asked in a redeeming tone of voice.) "The people I manage are dumber than dirtat least they act like it. They couldn't care less about productivity, efficiency, and profits, especially profits." (This particular comment seemed to be quite amusing to the other managers.) "Frankly, our be-nice-to-employees-and-they-will-be-nice-to-you management approach hasn't been very effective. They don't trust us, and, truthfully, I don't trust them." "Empowering first-line managers to make decisions and develop a few strategic planning initiatives has led to almost total chaos and was a huge and costly mistake."
Wishing to change the subject a little, we asked, "How is employee morale?" A manager in the midst (or should that be mist?) said, "They are good people. They do their work and get their jobs done." Over his shoulder another manager commented, "You know, I really don't know how they feel. All right, I guess." Leaning against a machine, a third manager urged, "Why don't you go and ask them?"
As a matter of fact, we did act on the suggestion and talked to quite a large number of employees. We were not surprised to find that they, indeed, weren't too happy about their circumstances, but they needed the jobs and were not anxious to quit. Strangely enough, when we asked them what they thought of their bosses, almost unanimously and without much hesitation, they said that their bosses were "JERKS!" In a recent survey, employees of a high-tech aerospace manufacturer were asked, "What is keeping you from achieving your goals at work?" The clear-cut majority of respondents said that it was "management and team leaders" who were the source of their problems, and the company had too many chiefs.
Adding Misery to Confusion at Work
As part of his introduction to Working, Studs Terkel characterized a second fierce problem plaguing modern organizations. He said, "This book, being about work, is, by its very nature, about violenceto the spirit as well as to the body." Workers sing both the blue-collar blues and the white-collar moan. The two factors that contribute most to the blues and the moans are the work itself and the manager.
As Komarovsky so poignantly describes in her account of the Blue-Collar Marriage, the kind of work one is allowed to do serves as the foundation of economic deprivations, anxiety about the future, a sense of defeat, and a bleak existence: "The low status of the job, in addition to low pay and unfavorable working conditions, is a frequent source of dis-satisfaction.... Daily life is a constant struggle to meet the bills for rent, groceries, a pair of shoes, a winter coat, and the TV set and the washing machine." For the white-collar worker, Freudenberger, a prominent psychiatrist, has captured the dread of work in his impelling treatment of Burn Out: "Many men and women who come to me in pain report that life seems to have lost its meaning. Their enthusiasm is gone. They feel uninvolved, even in the midst of family and friends. Their jobs, which used to mean so much, have become drudgery with no associated feeling of reward." Exhaustion from intense mental concentration, long hours in routine and repetitive tasks, and constant changes in tasks already completed lead to cynicism, irritability, paranoia, and mistrust of others. The demand to achieve more with less and less catapults us into voids of anguish and precipitates sudden outbursts of emotional energy designed to relieve us of the pressure of work, work, work.
Ripping Faces Off People
Scott and Hart, prominent authors in organizational theory and philosophy, place this malaise in the context of the "insignificant people." They argue that organization members are ruled by a managerial elite who, in order to maintain their place as rulers, must convince members of the work-force that, in relationship to the organization, the individual is insignificant. Workers are told how valuable they are, but they are then treated as invaluable and told to "quit if you don't like it here." The goal of managers seems to be to indoctrinate the workforce to understand and accept their insignificance in relation, particularly, to the superior goals of the system.
Further, misery and confusion arise because of the need in modern organizations to educate more members of the workforce to handle the increasingly more sophisticated demands of their jobs. Thus, even though the training may be simply technical, it encourages people to think. Thinking tends to lead people to reflect on the nature of their jobs. As they increase in technical expertise, they may recognize how dull, routine, and monotonous their work is and how antiquated the mindset of their bosses really is in this modern era.
The first rule of holes is when you're in one, stop digging!