Why Best Intentions Fall Short

He means well, but he means well feebly."--Theodore Roosevelt (speaking about a political rival)
"He means well, but he means well feebly

"He means well, but he means well feebly."

- - Theodore Roosevelt (speaking about a political rival)

Recently, I was asked by a senior manager what I would do to improve service in an organization. Among other things, I described the importance and impact job enrichment and employee involvement have on process improvement, motivation, and retention. "Wait a minute," said the brash young executive. "Everyone knows that." When I asked him to list a few companies that have demonstrated success based primarily on their philosophy of broad corporate commitment to employees, he couldn''t name any.

Actually, quite a few companies have discovered that making jobs more rewarding is the best way to influence motivation and job satisfaction. By introducing variety into the workplace in terms of skill and responsibilities, emphasizing the importance and significance of the job employees have, providing a degree of autonomy, and sharing regular feedback, they have given employees more control over the processes they are involved in and have nurtured real empowerment.

This isn''t rocket science. If we involve employees in improving the business, if we ask their opinion and use it, if we realize management''s job is to support employees (and not vice versa), then job enrichment and its benefits are a natural outcome.

But all this takes, as W. Edwards Deming used to say, "a transformation in management thinking." And sadly, though many may profess to know and understand the concepts, few companies follow through and implement job enrichment and empowerment as a foundation of their management philosophy. What stands in their way to follow through on their good intentions?

Managers Don''t Have the Requisite Knowledge And Skills

Over the years, I have heard many reasons why best intentions fall short. Many managers say that there are some jobs that are just so rote it is too difficult to add value. But that''s a cop-out - a reason not to take on a difficult challenge. In reality, many managers don''t know what it involves to implement job enrichment or they don''t think it''s important to ask employees how they would like to change and improve their work. A front line supervisor may have no knowledge of Maslow''s Hierarchy of Needs, and even if they do they may be under pressure from a boss who''s view is, "If it ain''t broke, don''t fix it."

Even those who do understand the need to involve employees in changing processes may have a knowledge gap and simply lack the facilitation skills to draw ideas out of individuals or groups. Some managers see clearly what needs to be done, but they don''t know how to do it. Management and teamwork are trained skills. Once anointed with the responsibility to lead and motivate employees, a manager doesn''t receive leadership ability through divine inspiration. He or she must be trained to use tools like brainstorming, root cause analysis, process mapping and other skills to change and improve jobs and processes.

Lack of training and knowledge in practical work activities for managers isn''t surprising. Even for those who attended business schools, their scholastic emphasis was on conceptual frameworks, decision-making processes, and analysis of financials. The basis of a business degree lies in making better decisions, designing effective organizations, and allocating resources, not the psychology of human relations and tools of process analysis.

At one company I was told, "We''re not interested in management theory. We''re too smart to waste time on training for teamwork and management. We hire managers who already know all that stuff." It''s difficult to convince people in the heat of battle, as Stephen Covey says, to stop and sharpen the saw. Too many managers miss the fact that you can''t implement effective change without theory and structural skills. Structure changes behavior and behavior changes attitudes. You can''t do job enrichment and process improvement on the fly with just good intentions. Deming used to say, "We are being ruined by the best efforts of people who are doing the wrong thing."

Bad Psychology In The Management Paradigm Works Against Good Practice

But the deeper reasons why many companies fail to motivate and retain employees, even knowing the right thing to do and having the best intentions to do them, lies in the psychology of management, and is based on the conflicting dichotomy in the current American corporation. In his book, Stewardship; Choosing Service Over Self-Interest, Peter Block explains: "The traditional role of management is to be in charge of patriarchy, their primitive statement to employees being, ''We own you.'' To balance this, human resources has been put in charge of paternalism. Their primitive statement to employees is, ''Don''t worry so much about the fact that they own you, because we will take care of you.''"

The standard management paradigm stresses that leaders make decisions and motivate employees to do the job. I was once asked by a management colleague, "But if we implement this empowerment stuff, what will we do?" It''s the fear factor. If I don''t tell people what to do, I won''t have a job or self-worth.

The psychology must be turned on its head. Employees are not in place to support management. Management must see its role as a support function for employees and do everything in their power to make them happy and successful in their role of satisfying customers.

Why Smart Organizations Sometimes Do Dumb Things

So much about good people management is just common sense. How difficult can it be to increase training, act on employee input, share information and plans, encourage teamwork, and improve business processes? Even with the best intentions, sometimes it''s harder than seems logical. In The Human Equation; Building Profits by Putting People First, Jeffrey Pfeffer identifies "Ten reasons why smart organizations sometimes do dumb things."

  1. "The desire to do what everyone else is doing and to follow the crowd." Consultants sell fads, and for a time, everyone jumps on the bandwagon. Whatever is popular today will be replaced by something new tomorrow. Victor Hugo once said, "You can resist an invading army but you cannot resist an idea whose time has come."
  2. "Managerial career pressures, derived from the need to ''make the numbers'' creates an emphasis on short-term, financial results." A colleague of mine in a manufacturing organization calls his weekly financial review with upper management the "Mexican hat dance." Everyone tries to make themselves look good and covers up weaknesses in the process. The best approach is a balanced scorecard that takes into consideration, not only financial data, but also measures of customers, employees, and other organizational indicators that provide broad input and focus.
  3. "A belief in leadership and a tendency to overvalue things we have helped to produce, making delegation difficult." It is a characteristic of the human ego to believe because we have managerial responsibility for something it will be more successful.
  4. "Demands for accountability and reproducibility in results and decisions that destroy the benefits of expertise." Repeatable processes are important, but if we as managers think we know everything we miss the opportunity to get input for improvement from those doing the real work.
  5. "Career trajectories - who gets promoted - that seemingly reward financial rather than human resource or people management." Some managers burn out employees just to get the numbers wanted up the line. "His people may hate him," an executive once said to me about a colleague, "but he gets things done." After the ruthless superstar moves up the ladder, someone must step in to clean up the human resource nightmare they left behind.
  6. "Excessive focus on measuring costs - often short-term costs, at that - and neglecting to assess the returns to those costs and investments." Employees and training are always on the cost side of the balance sheet. When times get tough, first we cut training, then we reduce staff. Both are seen as expendable items, instead of long-term investments and company assets.
  7. "Press and management education veneration of or obsession with ''mean'' or ''tough'' management." If I''m not mean and tough like so-and-so, then I may not be perceived as a good manager.
  8. "A management education and training focus on finance and accounting rather than on human resources or organizational behavior." What business school ever taught teamwork skills, the use of fishbone diagrams, or force-field analysis?
  9. "The Normative and economic value placed on being a skilled analyst - on knowing - compared to the value placed on being able to manage people." A boss once told me that too often I asked for input from my staff. I should be telling them what to do instead of asking their opinion.
  10. "Capital market primacy over other stakeholders and demands for short-term performance that make long-term investments in people more difficult." It is risky to change something if the payoff will be beyond the time for which you will be measured on your performance.

Why You Should Care And What You Need To Do

With all this working against us, why even care about job enrichment, employee satisfaction, teamwork, and process change? Because your job depends on it. Any manager can be successful in an expanding market. But when times get tough, quality products and service differentiate the successful company from the closed plant. How you treat employees is how they will treat the customer. In The Customer Comes Second, Hal Rosnbluth explains, "Happiness in the workplace is a strategic advantage. Service comes from the heart, and people who feel cared for will care more. Unhappiness results in error, turnover, and other evils."

We know the right thing to do. Too often, we just lack the will to do it because of the paradigm of management and the barriers we face. But the good news is, if you want to, you can make a difference. This is an area where you don''t need broad management approval or corporate pronouncements. Each of us can, in our own way, demonstrate the courage to be different. Where skills are lacking, classes are available to provide the knowledge to facilitate teams, improve processes, and make jobs more enjoyable. Everyone can make their own path to implement high performance management practices by first resisting the forces that push behavior in nonproductive directions. For inspiration and guidance, read one or more of the books mentioned in this commentary.

James Belasco, in Flight Of The Buffalo; Soaring To Excellence, Learning to Let Employees Lead, asks and answers the key question for us all, "How must I be different to be an effective leader? I have to understand that I am the problem. Accepting that enables me to be the solution." Once you have that epiphany, that transformation in thought that Deming spoke of, that realization that you could be more successful and productive if you become a servant leader, you will never be able to turn back.

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