Ellen was a clerk working for a large insurance company. One day, she spotted a glaring discrepancy in a form she was typing.
Through a simple error, two figures had been transposed in a store owner's policy. In consequence, his store was insured for $165,000 against vandalism but only for $5 000 against fire.
instinct was to reach for the phone to inform her supervisor of the error, for the sake of the unfortunate store owner.
"But wait a minute," she then thought to herself. "I'm not supposed to read these forms. I'm just supposed to check one column against another...If they're gonna give me a robot's job to do, I'm
gonna do it like a robot."
Author Barbara Garson describes this incident in a book called All the Livelong Day: The Meaning and Demeaning of Routine Work. The kind of phenomenon illustrated by this story is also
vividly depicted by Chicago folklorist Studs Terkel in his book about work life in contemporary America Working. After interviewing 133 people about their jobs and their feelings about work,
"The blue-collar blues is no more bitterly sung than the white-collar moan. 'I'm a machine,' says the spot-welder. 'I'm caged,' says the bank teller, and echoes the hotel clerk. 'I'm a mule, says
the steelworker. 'A monkey can do what I do,' says the receptionist. 'I'm less than a farm implement,' says the migrant worker. "I'm an object,' says the high-fashion model. Blue-collar and white
call upon the identical phrase: 'I'm a robot.' "
Labor reporter Robert Levering cites these two authors in his A Great Place To Work.
Brains left at the factory door
The president of a large industrial corporation summed up the problem well when he confessed in a radio interview: "Most companies assume you should check your brains every morning at the factory
Incidentally, when people feel stifled by this "robot" syndrome, their health often suffers.
The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health in the US has cited lack of control over one's work as a major factor in work-related stress, which contributes to hypertension, heart disease and ulcers. And one researcher has put a price tag to American industry of $150 billion in annual losses because of stress-related absenteeism, reduced productivity, and medical fees.
But we have not finished Ellen's story.
When author Garson checked later with Ellen, she discovered that the young clerk had told her supervisor about the error after all. This highlights one undeniable fact, says the author. "For most people, it is hard and uncomfortable to do a bad job. "
For Garson, work itself is a human need, "following right after the need for food and the need for love." Similarly,Henri de Man, who interviewed countless industrial workers in pre-Nazi Germany, concluded that despite the monotony of their working lives,"every worker aims at joy in work, just as every human being aims at happiness."
Whether all this is true or not, people have a sense of dignity that often refuses to let them play the roles they are given.
Leaving brains at the factory door is hardly a physically feasible operation in any case. Since a worker has to bring them inside anyhow, he'll put them to use in one way or another. De Man cites
a woman who wrapped an average of thirteen thousand filament lamps in paper every day. Yet even she could find meaning in her work by frequently changing the way in which she wrapped them.
Other workers are not so fortunate. Try as they may, they just cannot find constructive outlets for their creative and intellectual energies. They may feel compelled to channel their talents along
At worst, they are perpetually on the lookout for "creative" ways to cheat the boss - or the system. At best, they daydream on the job or indulge in all sorts of pastimes to take their minds off
their frustration. They'll do anything to maintain some semblance of self-worth.
But if you are an employer of labor, what do you do to give such workers the self-respect and job satisfaction they need so badly?
Let's say you are an entrepreneur, or a manager, with hundreds of factory workers or office clerks under your control. You would like to think of yourself as a benevolent boss. What can you do to
make your employees' association with you a happier experience, to ensure that their days will be more fulfilling?
The truth is this is an area dotted with more minefields than you would ever imagine.
In his book, Robert Levering talks about a Chicago-based insurance company, considered an enlightened employer, which in the 1970s embarked upon what was called in those days a "job-enrichment
This technique was popularized by Frederick Herzberg, a management consultant who believed that things that make a job satisfying are the biggest "motivators". Herzberg urged managers to
concentrate on "enriching" workers' jobs, rather than on factors - like pay and working conditions - that don't have much impact on motivating people.
The insurance company's job-enrichment program was aimed at making people's jobs more "interesting and challenging". It was based on three principles: that workers "want to do a complete job and
not an isolated task," that they need "regular feedback on their performance," and that "they want more control over their work..instead of simply being ordered from above."
A key objective of the enrichment program was "to increase worker happiness." But one wonders whether the company confided in its workers that the project had three other goals as well: to "reduce
absenteeism, decrease turnover, and increase productivity."
At any rate, the personnel officer in charge of the project later conceded that it had not succeeded in any of these four areas. The question is: why ?
Neither naive nor fools
Levering compares the Chicago company's experiment with another reorganization of human resources that took place about the same time - in the corridors of another midwestern insurance
In 1979, company executives at Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company noticed an increase in complaints from both agents and policy owners about the quality of service rendered by the
Milwaukee head office. A consulting firm called in to study the problem recommended that the work flow should be reorganized, rather than more staff added, as had been done in the past.
Northwestern management then made a crucial decision - to include the workers in all the decisions about reorganization.
Executives set about convening meetings with all the clerical workers. They discussed the consultant's findings and outlined a mechanism for change. A number of task forces - which included
members from upper management, middle management and the clerical workers - were set up to look at every aspect of the work flow.
From the outset, company officials emphasized that the goals of the reorganization were to improve service and increase productivity. But they explicitly assured everyone that productivity
improvements would not result in anyone's being laid off or fired. The management took pains to show how they valued the input of each and very employee.
The result of the exercise? Complaints were sharply reduced while productivity improved dramatically. The value of Northwestern's insurance policies shot up, while it only had to increase its
But the process also had an intersting spinoff: a happier band of workers, who generally felt much better about their jobs.
The irony is that Northwestern Mutual was more successful at achieving worker happiness than was the Chicago insurance company, whose specific aim was to make the workers happy. At Northwestern,
worker happiness was not even on the agenda. How do we explain this paradox?
Workers at the Chicago company were neither naive nor fools. Would a big company spend thousands of dollars to help workers feel better about their jobs? Well...they might - if they believed that
self-actualized workers would be more highly motivated and would work harder.
The Chicago people did not take long to see through the rhetoric and understand the real goals of job enrichment. A company that uses subterfuge to get people to work harder won't retain its
credibility for long.
Northwestern Mutual, on the other hand, told people honestly from the outset what it intended to do - and why. It wanted people to work smarter, if not harder. It wanted them to share their
knowledge and experience to help improve service. As part of the process, employees could help to redesign their jobs to make optimum uses of their talents and their interests.
This straightforward approach enabled employees to concentrate on their jobs without having to worry about the machinations of the company's top brass. Honesty and trust, it seems, go a long
Obviously, trust is not a cure-all for every organizational ill. Even a well-coordinated company couldn't survive selling obsolete or inferior products.
But as one top executive has said, "trust
is the real grease that makes an organization run."
Azriel Winnett is creator of Hodu.com - Your Communication Skills Portal. This popular free website helps you improve your communication and relationship skills in your business or professional life, in the family unit and on the social scene. New articles added almost daily.