Roland Dürre
Sunday April 27th, 2008

What View of Humanity is Held by Modern Management?

Considering companies of all sizes, I have the impression that their bosses seem to have very strange basic beliefs. I consider here 8 assumptions that I have come across in my wanderings through the business world, which seem to be generally accepted.

Hypothesis 1:

Employees can be motivated by “Championing”, (best in class)!

If you ask, “how can you motivate employees these days”, this is the commonest answer. At meetings aimed to motivate staff, one hears phrases such as “We are the best – we are number 1”, or “Our aim is first place!”, or “We can survive in the market only as number 1 or 2 in the world”. Firms chase each other like this, whether in the computer or car industry. But watch out if one gets to first place; at once the grumbles start in the direction that it will be really hard to defend this status.

My Advice:

I am sceptical – perhaps it sometimes helps, but please don’t use it too often.

Hypothesis 2:

Employees can be influenced by style und marketing.

When a firm wants to invade new markets, the first thing is to find a new logo, a new company colour, a new elevator speech. The firm tries to get the employees to identify with the firm through an attractive new corporate identity. I think such methods give only a very superficial identification. There is a danger of producing a “fan culture” oscillating according to the situation between enthusiasm and depression. A healthy identification needs a functioning honest business culture.

My Advice:

Style does no harm, but is not much use.

Style is no substitute for business culture.

Hypothesis 3:

Employees can be influenced by clever slogans.

In elevators and corridors at big firms, we see placards with wise sayings. At the entrance, we are greeted by the company calendar with the motivating saying-of-the-month, (sometimes better, sometimes worse).

Certainly intelligent metaphors often sound good:

To get a ship built, don’t recruit men to find wood, prepare tools, plan the work and allocate tasks, but rather inculcate in the men the yearning for the wide open sea“. (Antoine de Saint-Exupéry)

Nobody is perfect, but a team can be”. (McKinsey)

“It’s not because it’s difficult that we don’t dare, it’s difficult because we don’t dare“. (Seneca)

or instead

Train the fish to jump into the boat” (currently my favourite saying regarding sales).

Good sayings – in homeopathic doses – can aid motivation and orientation.

Bad saying can lead to considerable cynicism. One sees in the elevator:

With us, humans are central” (translated from German).

But the employees complete this with

so they constantly get in the way!

Is such wit desirable?

So please don’t hang wise sayings about the company culture on the wall!

My Advice:

Only use clever sayings in conversation or lectures.

Hypothesis 4:

Employees have no opinions.

Companies seem to see their employees as disfranchised people. Various bodies concern themselves with the beloved workers without asking them; not only management and the law makers, but also works-councils, works-security (particularly the modern outsourced variety) and even system administration, (password and email rules).

Often enough absurdities result. E.g. password rules (at least one capital letter and one special character) assist password breaking, since such rules of course reduce the password-space. Sure, that is a harmless example. Much worse for the company culture are cases such as when the works-council persecutes a worker who stamps out at 17:00, but then works till 19:00 (to avoid conflict with employment laws).

My Advice:

Encourage individual responsibility. Try to establish clear observed rules, by mutual agreement.

Hypothesis 5:

Employees are potential swindlers, corrupt and venal!

That hurts, but many firms really seem to believe that the world and particularly its inhabitants are very bad.

One can argue that time is a reasonable measure of work done. There may be no alternative. But must an intelligent adult with mature character really be required to stamp in and out in the morning and evening? Now, biometric access-controls and extensive identity management are coming too. Not only shops and supermarkets want total video-control, assuming that customers, employees and delivery people are thieves.

I know firms where managers are instructed to discuss with workers any time lost due to illness. In particular, a doctor’s certificate is often required, (whether or not that is legal), for one day’s absence, when the day is a Friday or Monday.

And the questionnaires for middle management concerning compliance remind one forcibly of the cold war, or of the fight against terrorisms.

My Advice:

Step back; let’s start to build a culture of trust.

Hypothesis 6:

Employees can be controlled using planned bonuses.

That is another belief that seems to be widespread in companies throughout the world. Companies are horribly top-down planned-through, as if the planner can really judge in advance what is going to happen in the course of the year. This gives extrinsic motivation that is defined in detailed (but still simplified) form. Naturally, it is very unlikely that achieving the personal goal will really benefit the company. But then, at least one has a business plan that would have done credit to an East-German communist business. Sometimes the targets will be achieved, usually not, but afterwards enough reasons can always be found.

My Advice:

Go for clarity, distribute profits fairly.

Hypothesis 7:

Employees are interchangeable and entirely mobile

This too is a belief of the post-modern age. The catchword is “industrialisation of the working environment”. Experience of simple processes in the industrial world, suggest that the requirements of people can be standardised. Then one needs just the right “skill-profile” to fit the “skill requirements”. The person at work is reduced to a collection of technical and social skills. This sins against the principle of human value. Management is reduced to the bringing together of the demands of the process and the corresponding supply of suitable humans. One speaks cynically of “body shopping”.

The requirement that the right skill must be in the right place at the right time, if possible from Sunday evening to Saturday morning, brings about the “modern nomad life”.

My Advice:

Don’t forget that people are humans and not machines. Lead, rather than boss and administer.

Hypothesis 8:

Employees can be infinitely loaded und have no families.

To be fair, this must hold for all, the management as well as the technicians. All must be permanently available and must react at once. No secretaries, to give us a bit of protection. Everything rains down on us, with no roof, important emails and spam, calendar queries without end. The mobile rings when we are already telephoning. And chat and SMS come in too. The bureaucracy envelopes us, we must deliver numbers and reports. And much of what we have to do seems to make no sense; but we do it anyway.

The company is our first priority. That hurts most those living with their families. We all really should have no families Personnel departments using “newspeak” refer to single mothers as “female employees with family background”.

My Advice: Remember that the families of employees are important stakeholders of the company.

But now enough of hypotheses.…

I miss the conservative (old fashioned) motivation factors!

There is, for instance, the pride in the work done, the satisfaction with good results. Was it not a great motivation for a railway worker, to work in an organisation, where he could help to provide a punctual and reliable infrastructure as basis for a functioning economy?

How was the solidarity among employees of major German companies, with common aims and a feeling of welfare within the company? There were apartments and kindergartens for the employees. At year end, as well as the business results, a social balance was produced. Today there are share-options in place of pensions, a few winners and many losers.

We need enthusiasm for the job. This coupled with healthy common sense, which still these days keeps things from getting even worse.

My Advice:

Use intrinsic motivation, organise small-business structures.

How to go about it?

The basis of all communication and social life in a company is freedom from fear. There is a clear framework, which the employees fill by their responsible actions. There is enough freedom and clarity that everybody can decide what to do. There develops a constructive pleasure in bringing things forwards. The employees themselves decide how dedicated they want to be and choose the tasks that they then perform independently.

My Utopia – Freedom, Clarity and Team-structures!

So function Open Source Projects

The participants themselves choose the themes that seem best to fit their skills and abilities.

They seek challenges in a field that fascinates them and that they want to learn about.

The motivation of every participant is thus intrinsic in nature.

The team member is simultaneously developer and user (customer) of the product, so usability cannot be avoided!

The organisation structure is simple und clear.

The project work follows clear rules.

The objectives are obvious.

The returns on successful work are fairly distributed.

That is surely the secret of success of many Open Source Systems – they function more or less within this utopia.

P.S. 1

I gave this talk (in German) on 22nd April at Augsburg University for AFW (Alumni, Friends, and Supporters of business lawyers) and on 23rd April in Munich at the Munich Technical University for Manage&More in “unternehmerTUM”. Through lively discussion, the listeners contributed greatly to the clarity of my views. For this I thank them gratefully!

P.S. 2

I shall be happy to give this talk (or another) in an academic context to more young people.

1 Kommentar zu “What View of Humanity is Held by Modern Management?”

  1. Chris Wood (Thursday May 22nd, 2008)

    The following comments are based on the original (German) version. It was entertaining and thought-provoking, but should not be taken as Gospel.

    These 1:Mitarbeiter können über „Championing“ motiviert werden (”best in class”)!
    In itself, this is OK; the “Katzenjammer” (grumble) is not really relevant. Developers and production are happy to think their product is excellent, and that this is an aim of management. With sales, it is a bit more problematic. One might think that the sign of a good sales force is that they can sell expensive rubbish. The company does not want to trumpet this! (Anyway salesmen are usually motivated by targets and related bonuses).
    Perhaps the answer is to have an independent sales organisation that sells whatever they want. Then the production can say that the best sales force has chosen their product, and the sales force can say that the best producers have chosen to work (exclusively?) with this sales force.
    Of course there is no motivation if the workers do not think management is being honest.
    These 2:Mitarbeiter sind durch Design und Marketing beeinflussbar.
    Yes, workers tend to be de-motivated by expenditure due to an attempted new style in terms of colour or logo. They realise the irrelevance of this.
    These 3:Mitarbeiter kann man mit klugen Sprüchen beeindrucken.
    Saint-Exupéry’s ship and the trained fish are nice motivation for creative dreaming. The perfect team is just silly (de-motivating).
    “Bei uns steht der Mensch/Kunde im Mittelpunkt” is OK. It does not matter if workers make cynical jokes about it, as long as they believe it is (at least partly) honestly meant
    My opinion: avoid obvious dishonesty and stupidity.
    These 4:Mitarbeiter sind unmündig.
    A firm cannot afford to have its workers spend a lot of their energies considering whether the bosses are getting things right. Division of labour is needed, with the managers doing the management. Of course it is wrong not to use good ideas that come from workers. It is wasteful and breeds resentment. An IT firm should not be nearly as hierarchical as an army. The right balance is needed and many firms get it wrong.
    These 5:Mitarbeiter sind potentielle Betrüger, korrupt oder bestechlich!
    Again the right balance is needed. People do swindle firms. Higher up in the management, there are bigger opportunities and perhaps stronger tendencies. Power corrupts! Perhaps that makes bosses more suspicious than they need be. They are judging by their own standards. Checks and controls are needed, but should not be more than is cost-effective.
    These 6:Mitarbeiter können über materielle Anreize gesteuert werden.
    This is generally true. A more widespread, better known example of pecuniary motivation is bonus according to a salesman’s annual sales. I am sure this helps. Another example is promotion leading to better wages. Who would spend his life boring teeth if it were badly paid?
    Piece-work functions in simple contexts, but fails where flexibility is needed. It is little use paying a programmer according to lines-of-code, as the code may be rubbish, or at least much more bulky than was needed.
    These 7:Mitarbeiter sind austauschbar und beliebig mobil
    The view that workers are interchangeable is not post-modern. It stems from old hierarchical societies with much simple work. One sees the German context of this talk. In other countries work is done on Saturdays and Sundays too!
    These 8:Mitarbeiter sind beliebig belastbar und haben keine Familie.
    The word “stakeholder” seems to come from the “SCRUM” method of system development. But there it surely did not include families!
    Should the firm bother about families? Some in Germany seem too careful in this respect. I regard it as my decision whether I want to work on a Saturday or Sunday. I object to meddling by lawmakers (who do not themselves follow these rules).
    Roland’s (Utopie – Freiheit, Klarheit und Teamstrukturen!
    I want to see how this will work, but I have my doubts about whether it could or should generally replace the current work culture.

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