How Employees Lost Empathy for their Work, for the Customer, and for the Final Product

“In most cases being a good boss means hiring talented people and then getting out of their way.” -- Tina Fey

The Digital Revolution marked the beginning of the Information Age.

The Information Age, or Digital Age, or New Media Age, is a shift away from the industrial revolution to an economy based on information computerization.  Some would say, along with this shift, we are now in a Knowledge Economy or a Digital Economy. 

This opens the door to new ways of working and a new world of work to generate new business value and customer impact.

But what did the Industrial Age do to employees and what paradigms could limit us in this new world?

In the book The Future of Management, Gary Hamel walks through how industrialization and large Enterprises have created a disconnect between employees and their customers, their final product, and the big financial picture.  And in the process, he argues, this had led to disengaged employees, crippled innovation, and inflexible organizations.

If you don’t know Gary Hamel, he’s been ranked the #1 influential business thinker by the Wall Street Journal.

According to Hamel, what we traded for scale and efficiencies created gaps between workers and employees and gaps between employees and their customers, the product, the financial impact, and … a diminished sense of responsibility for quality and efficiency.

Maybe We Have Managers Because We Have Employees

Do managers exist because employees do?

Via The Future of Management:

“Here's a thought.  Maybe we need 'managers' because we have 'employees.'  (Be patient, this is not as tautological as it sounds.)  Think about the way computers are dependent on software.  PCs aren't smart enough to write their own operating instructions, and they sit idle until a user sets them to work.  Perhaps the same is true for employees.”

Did We Manufacture a Need for Managers?

When we manufactured employees, did we manufacture a need for managers?

Via The Future of Management:

“Earlier, I talked about the invention of 'the employee.' What happened in this process, at the dawn of the 20th century?  How did work life change as individuals left their farms and workshops to be absorbed into large-scale organizations?  In manufacturing employees, did we manufacture a need for managers as well?  I think so.  If we understood how this came about, we will gain clues into how we might learn to manage without managers -- or, at least, with a lot fewer of them.”

Disconnected from the Customer

As the size and scale of industrial organizations grew, so did the disconnect between employees and their final customers.

Via The Future of Management:

“In pre-industrial times, farmers and artisans enjoyed an intimate relationship with their customers.  The feedback they received each day from their patrons was timely and unfiltered.  Yet as industrial organizations grew in size and scale, millions of employees found themselves disconnected from the final customer.  Robbed of direct feedback, they were compelled to rely on others who were closer to the customer to calibrate the effectiveness of their efforts and to tell them how they could better please their clients.”

A Diminished Sense of Responsibility for Producer Quality and Efficiency

Without a connection to the customer, employees lose empathy for their work, for the customer, and for the final product.

Via The Future of Management:

“As companies divided themselves into departments and functions, employees also became disconnected from the final product.  As tasks became narrower and more specialized, employees lost their emotional bond with the end product.  The result? A diminished sense of responsibility for producer quality and efficiency.  No longer were workers product craftsmen, now they were cogs in an industrial machine over which they had little control.”

Employees No Longer Have a System Wide View of the Production Process

It’s hard to make changes to the system when you no longer have a system wide view.

Via The Future of Management:

“Size and scale also separate employees from their coworkers.  Working in semi-isolated departments, they no longer had a system wide view of the production process.  If that system was suboptimal, they had no way of knowing it and now way of correcting it.”

The Gap Widens Between Workers and Owners

People at the top don’t hear from the people at the bottom.

Via The Future of Management:

“Industrialization also enlarged the gulf between workers and owners.  While a 19th-century apprentice would have had the ear of the proprietor, most 20th-century employees reported to low-level supervisors.  In a large enterprise a junior employee could work for decades and never have the chance to speak one-on-one with someone empowered to make important policy decisions.”

The Scoreboard is Contrived

Scoreboards tell employees how they are doing their jobs, but not how the company is doing overall.

Via The Future of Management:

“In addition, growing operational complexity fractured the information that was available to employees.  In a small proprietorship, the financial scoreboard was simple and real time; there was little mystery about how the firm was doing.  In a big industrial company, employees had a scoreboard but it was contrived.  It told workers how they were doing their jobs, but little about how the company was doing overall.  With no more than a knothole view of the company's financial model, and only a sliver of responsibility for results, it was difficult for an employee to feel a genuine burden for the company's performance.”

Industrialization Disconnects Employees from Their Own Creativity

Standardizing jobs and processes limits innovation in the jobs and processes.  They are at odds.

Via The Future of Management:

“Finally, and worst of all, industrialization disconnected employees from their own creativity.  In the industrial world, work methods and procedures were defined by experts and, once defined, were not easily altered.  No matter how creative an employee might be, the scope for exercising that gift was severely truncated.”

The Pursuit of Scale and Efficiency Advantages Disconnected Workers from Their Essential Inputs

With the disconnect between employees and their inputs, there was a natural need for the management class.

Via The Future of Management:

“To put it simply, the pursuit of scale and efficiency advantages disconnected workers from the essential inputs that had, in earlier times, allowed them to be (largely) self-managing -- and in so doing, it made the growth on an expansive managerial class inevitable.”

Employees Don’t Lack Wisdom and Experience

Employees don’t lack wisdom and experience.  They just lack information and context.

Via The Future of Management:

“To a large extent, employees need managers for the same reason 13-year-olds need parents: they are incapable of self-regulation.  Adolescents, with their hormone-addled brains and limited lie experience, lack the discernment to make consistently wise choices.  Employees on the other hand, aren't short of wisdom and experience, but they do lack information and context -- since they are so often disconnected from customers, associates, end products, owners, and the big financial picture.  Deprived of the ability to exercise control from within, employees must accept control from above.  The result: disaffection.  It turns out that employees enjoy being treated like 13-year-olds even less than 13-year-olds.”

Disengaged Employees, Hamstrung Innovation, and Inflexible Organizations

What is the result of all this disconnect?   Stifled innovation, rigid organizations, and disinterested employees.

Via The Future of Management:

“Disengaged employees.  Hamstrung innovation.  Inflexible organizations.  Although we are living in a new century, we are still plagued by the side effects of a management model that invented roughly a hundred years ago.  Yet history doesn't have to be destiny -- not if you are willing to go back and reassess the time-forgotten choices that so many others still take for granted.  With the benefit of hindsight, you can ask: How have circumstances changed? Are new approaches possible? Must we be bound by the shackles of the past?  These are essential questions for every management innovator.”

Does history have to be destiny?

We’re writing new chapters of history each and every day.

In all of my experience, where I’ve seen productivity thrive, people shine, and innovation unleashed, it’s when employees are connected with customers, they are empowered and encouraged to make changes to processes and products, and they are part of a learning organization with rapid feedback loops.

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Comments (6)

  1. Paul Topping says:

    Always amuses me when someone like Tina Fey or a Google manager say that all that is needed is to hire good people and get out of their way. It might be true for them but not for many small companies. I'm sure good people line up to work for Tina Fey or Google. Their biggest problem is figuring out which ones are the most brilliant and best workers. For small companies we can only wish we get so much talent waiting for a chance to work for us.

  2. Dragan Radovac says:

    @J.D Meier…You said you were going big this year and this is big !!!

    As a manager, you are responsible to convey to your super-ordinates (That's what the people who work under you are) the importance of their role and impact to both the business and the customer.

    If the employees are not aware of customer requirements and satisfaction then blame can be solely placed on management or whoever is defined as the "customer". This is if your employees are getting out of line due to their concern of customer satisfaction.

    From my experience though, most employees don't care. As long as they don't lose their job and can still take home a pay check. In reality, most people would not work if they could afford not to.

    Be it as a programmer, project manager, tester, architect, CIO or what ever it's really no difference because there is always a customer involved. For the programmer the customer is the project manager. For the project manager the customer is the CIO. for the CIO the customer is the "actual customer". If that chain can be respected then customer satisfaction will always be the No. 1 priority and the chain of customer satisfaction will always remain in tact.

  3. Dragan Radovac says:

    BTW: this post has really lit a fire up under my back side…I'm going to be thinking about this all week

  4. J.D. Meier says:

    @ Paul — I find that among smart people, you always need a visionary and a great vision, and you need orchestration/integration, otherwise, greatness fans out in all directions, and ultimately fizzles or burns out.

    But I do see the point that it can be really easy for management to get in the way vs. get out of the way, especially when it comes to micro-management.  

    The best managers I know are actually great coaches and are great at removing roadblocks as well as providing motivation and deep, insightful feedback.

    @ Dragan — Work will always be one of your greatest opportunities to showcase your talents, grow your capabilities, and impact the lives of others … whether it's customers, your peers, or your fellow colleagues.

    So while many people would rather not work, the reality is most people work for a living.

    And as long as they do, a great strategy is to embrace it as an opportunity to test what your capable of and expand what you're capable of.

    I'm a fan of connecting people with their real "actual customers" whenever possible.   It's the only way I've found to get to the source of truth, create empathy, and create a rapid learning loop, where people really do care about their work and the impact it creates.

    Also I find more people care once they decide to care.   And the trigger to care either comes from waking up to the chance to operate at a higher-level or from getting beat up by customers in a more direct way.

    We spend way, way, way too many hours of our waking life at work, not to use it as our best platform and best chance for meaningful impact and doing great work.

  5. jel888 says:

    I'll just use a simple analogy.  Most animals, in particular mammals (and though "I" don't believe humans are animals, but we do share similar social organisation structures) form hierarchies.  There's a reason why this happens (we could debate it all day), but I'd sum it up as they do it to survive as a group, a species.  Same for companies.  Call them what you want, managers, "alpha" persons, whatever, a company will ALWAYS need a few (note I did say a "few" because as in nature you shouldn't need too many leader types or you have fighting, which is counterproductive to the group) of these type of people to keep the cohesion and focus for the group.  That's how the company survives.

  6. Dragan Radovac says:

    @jel888 – That's a great analogy but unlike the beautiful animals of this planet our sense of worth is defined a bit differently. I'll try an analogy of my own

    Say your a coal miner going into the mines everyday shoveling 5 tones of coal by hand and your superiors are only concerned with your productivity and if you don't shovel 5 tonnes a day then your going to lose your job

    Sure, you can look at this as "That's how the company survives"…But, what if everyday you came to work you were told how important it was that you shoveled 5 tones of coal today because that would ensure that a large population would have electricity and that was important because people could cook food, have lights, keep warm, have hot showers and be entertained by the T.V

    They told you that a large population had you to thank for this and because the population could not thank you personally they were thanking you for it. Or, if the company advertised to the population that if they meet a coal miner on the street they should thank them for their hard word. Would this not inspire you to be a better coal miner and have better sense of worth…It would inspire me.

    It's probably a bad example as burning coal to generate electricity pollutes the earth but I hope you can see my point.

    That's why I really like this post…It really makes me think.  

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