Welcome to the Era of the Empowered Employee

Managers (too often) see their employees as things to be controlled

“Now one of the very first requirements for a man who is fit to handle pig iron as a regular occupation is that he shall be so stupid and so phlegmatic that he more nearly resembles in his mental make-up the ox than any other type. The man who is mentally alert and intelligent is for this very reason entirely unsuited to what would, for him, be the grinding monotony of work of this character. Therefore the workman who is best suited to handling pig iron is unable to understand the real science of doing this class of work.”
– Frederick Taylor

“We don’t think for ourselves, maybe they don’t trust us to think for ourselves as human beings, I don’t know.”

That quote was from an undercover reporter, in 2013, at one of Amazon’s fulfillment centers. More than 100 years after Frederick Taylor.

“We are machines, we are robots, we plug our scanner in, we’re holding it, but we might as well be plugging it into ourselves”he said.

Beasts of burden, cogs inside machines, robots performing tasks. Our metaphors might shift, but management’s apathy (and at times, outright contempt) for their workers remains largely fixed. In most companies, management is not so much a gained responsibility, but an act of social and economic escape – leaving behind the Morlocks in the relative dark.

I remember one particular orientation session on my first day at a big (supposedly creative) company. We spent 8 solid hours filling out paperwork and being pre-scolded for not following HR and Accounting’s rules. Specifically, I recall an exhausted controller telling us that she made her 7-year old daughter come in and do her expenses in front of a group of colleagues just to show that the SAP system wasn’t as bad or as difficult to use as everyone lamented. This story turned out to be true. At the end of the day, I suggested to my new boss that from now on they take everyone’s shoelaces and belts away before orientation began.

Later, at that same job, when I was granted an ‘S’ in front of my ‘VP’ title, I was told I couldn’t waste my time on that SAP system anymore – instead, I would be given an administrative assistant for that task. When I pushed back in favor of just getting a simpler system (and saving the company money in terms of software and labor), my suggestion was utterly avoided. So, I was given an admin. Whom, of course, was far too intelligent for the tasks that were given to her and whom, of course, ultimately felt increasingly disengaged at work (she was fed the standard HR lie that admins routinely and quickly move up in the company, meanwhile we invested no resources in training her). And yes, these kinds of soulless jobs too often fall to women – and yes, I firmly believe if men were forced into these “housekeeping” roles, we would see mountains moved to make them extinct.

Meanwhile, I also challenged all of our execs in the firm to spend just one week managing their own calendars, meetings, travel, and expenses just to expose how poor our systems were and what we were forcing on our workers and support staff. That little experiment didn’t gain much traction (and it didn’t curry me much favor).

In 2008, in response to the Great Recession, I began researching complex adaptive systems. I studied everything from market economies, to human immune systems, to ant colonies and beehives. Yet, I never generalized those systems as stand-ins for systems composed of interacting human agents. But plenty of management theorists do.

As we explore new models at NOBL to graft into our client organizations, we far too often find processes and operating models that seek to reduce the humanity of human beings, even as they espouse the values of human agency (see Holacracy). Partly, I blame the environments which birthed these models. Young white men manipulating software tend to see the world as algorithms and lines of code and then devise management systems that seek to turn people into algorithms and lines of code. In Holacracy, you’re reduced to a sensor, waiting for your turn to act in the most efficient manner possible.

Managers (too often) mistakenly see their employees as things to be controlled, hence they use metaphors of things they can control. In Taylor’s era, workers were oxen. Today, workers are code (or swarming robots, or ants in a colony). Great managers (even outside of pure knowledge economies) don’t optimize for control, they optimize for the absence of control – creativity. They make explicit certain operating guidelines, but then they let their people flourish, each in their own unique way.

“The problem is that at a lot of big companies, process becomes a substitute for thinking. You’re encouraged to behave like a little gear in a complex machine. Frankly, it allows you to keep people who aren’t that smart, who aren’t that creative.”
– Elon Musk

When we counsel managers and executives, we try to keep these truths front and center in the conversation:

  1. Process must have a distinct purpose. Process is good at reducing errors, but too often process is introduced without an understanding of the contextual errors needing to be corrected – so process tends to over-solve problems and over burden workers. Holacracy has some great underlying ideas, but the system in its entirety can suck the oxygen (and creativity) out of a room. The same is usually true for yearly planning cycles in most organizations.
  2. Homogeneity is the opposite of progress. Everyone marching in lock-step looks great until you realize that everyone is marching off a cliff. The more crowded and competitive a market, the more variety and spontaneity you want in your own workers. Don’t mistake an orderly meeting for a productive one.
  3. Don’t hire people that can do the work, hire people that can do more with the work. Google, Tesla, REI, Airbnb, Pixar – these companies aren’t disrupting multiple categories at once because they’ve hired the absolute best worker bees. Quit debating the talent chicken and the egg (which comes first, a stellar organization or stellar talent) and challenge your every operating rule by hiring only the best candidates you can find. They’ll reshape you because that’s the only way they know to work.
  4. Remember the resource that matters most (that you have direct access to) – your people. Schools don’t train people to be creative workers, capable of generating inspired insights and taking ingenious action. Most organizations don’t either – but yours can. Training should be a persistent activity in your organization, and it should involve more than how to use SAP products.
  5. Remember the resource that matters second most – your customer. When I played basketball, a coach once taught me that the best way to know where the ball was heading was to watch where the ball handler’s belly button was pointing. Holacracy (and other such models) forces your gaze on the wrong belly button – your own. Management processes tend to insulate the organization from the market, when they should really strip away abstractions and distractions in order to knit the customer directly to each employee.

“I believe the best managers acknowledge and make room for what they do not know—not just because humility is a virtue but because until one adopts that mindset, the most striking breakthroughs cannot occur. I believe that managers must loosen the controls, not tighten them. They must accept risk; they must trust the people they work with and strive to clear the path for them; and always, they must pay attention to and engage with anything that creates fear. Moreover, successful leaders embrace the reality that their models may be wrong or incomplete. Only when we admit what we don’t know can we ever hope to learn it.”
– Ed Catmull

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