Taylorism: alive & well in corporate America

Maybe you remember reading–in one of your Introduction to Organizations texts–about Frederick Taylor and his focus on productivity. And even if you don’t, you may recognize his management theories as alive and well in your workplace today!

Taylor’s life work was productivity studies, his beginnings at Bethlehem Steel. Among his first jobs was designing a more efficient shovel.

Taylor's productivity study

Taylor's productivity study

By measuring pounds per shovelful and total daily pounds shoveled, he determined that a shovel designed to hold 21.5 pounds was exactly right to keep the men working efficiently all day. His redesigned shovel allowed the company to reduce it’s coal shovelers from 500 to 140, an early 20th century version of “doing more with less.”

Taylor went further than just shovel redesign; he also applied the same approach to the people who used the shovels. He called his approach “Scientific Management,” and managers (who found the human side of productivity improvement highly resistant) jumped on Taylor’s approach and roamed factory floors armed with clipboards and stop watches, in the interests of hightened productivity.

So it was Taylor’s work that redefined the role of a manager: it was the manager who became the “brains” in an organization, determining how everything would be done. The results? The more the manager did, the less workers had to do. Workers became like robots; managers made decisions and were in charge. Without having to think, workers’ jobs became brainless and closer supervision was required to make sure that slackers didn’t get away with it! Taylor, intent on machine-like productivity, actually said “I care not a whit for the thinking of the working man.” While his work dates to the early 1900s, Taylor’s Scientific Management is alive and well in organizations today.

Ineffective management tools

Ineffective management tools

Managers love the alpha status and don’t want to give it up.

Even when it doesn’t work, and especially when it does more harm than good…like in the current non-Industrial non-machine economy.

Behavioral and neuroscientists have overwhelmingly shown the ineffectiveness of typical management behaviors. Giving feedback in the same old way is not productive, and providing rewards and punishment is counterintuitive to the way the human mind works. Managers who provide rewards and corrective action are automatically putting workers in a subordinate role. Our minds rebel and see this as control and manipulation. The more responsibility a manager has, the less employees take on. As long as what is considered to be motivation comes from the outside, it will be counter-productive…because we literally have minds of our own.

So managers who do less managing and who increase their expectations and support of workers are the ones who will get the best results. Rather than telling, a manager needs to do more asking. Rather than exerting control, a manager must engage the employee in taking responsibility.

Partnership = Responsibility

Partnership = Responsibility

How? By asking questions and supporting the expectation that the employee is a partner in the business. Not a subordinate to be coddled or pulled along like a rebellious adolescent, but a partner expected to hold up his/her part of the business by achieving objectives that contribute to and align with the organization’s direction.

As a manager, you can diminish the Taylorisms you practice by:

1. providing information consistently and in a number of ways to connect employees with the business of the organization: strategic direction, financial indicators, business lines, what competitors are doing, etc. The more workers understand the business and its direction, the more they can define their own contributions.

2. knowing how they contribute to a greater good enables workers to step up to the intrinsic desire to belong. Querying (rather than telling) workers to set their objectives, their productivity and quality metrics, and their customer service practices enables workers to make an emotional commitment to their work, to their customers, to the business.

3. asking workers to assess themselves and their work: how they are meeting metrics and objectives; how they make mid-course corrections; how they improve their own sub-par performance; how they support team members in achieving goals and customer needs.

4. providing objective sources of feedback, such as business indicators that make it very plain whether employee efforts are moving the business forward or back. If the business is successfully meeting its goals, then employee efforts are recognized through these measures, customer surveys and even peer reviews.

Tapping in to the “brains” in your organization is not difficult, but it is different than “traditional” management practices. Interactive practices that build relationships and responsibilities are the only way to engage the head and heart and hands of workers in an economy that requires all these things for an organization’s success.

Why not shift your management approach and let me know how it goes?

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