Another blog on people and work, and the concept of collateral gains

by Isabel Wu

It’s already a crowded space, the many articles and writings available, full of ideas and opinions on what makes the intersection of employment and people successful.  Amongst them all is there room for yet another blog?  The fact that employment continues to be plagued with difficulties: disengagement, unemployment, underemployment, skills shortages and bullying, for instance, would suggest that the conversations should continue; that many more ideas need to be proposed, tested, debated and learned.  And so I hope this blog can add to this.

My interest in this area was piqued many years ago when I first began working in management.  The approach of human resources was so different from that of marketing, the field of study I first completed.  In marketing, activities start with understanding the target market and how to cater to them; in human resources it starts by telling the target market what’s good for them and how they can be part of it.  This interest was mostly academic until one day, sitting in the city traffic, I saw a body of staff of the major metropolitan newspaper, The Age, sitting outside their workplace (a building nicknamed ‘The Spencer Street Soviet’ for its stark façade) on makeshift stools on the street in the cold, protesting management decisions to reduce staff following the establishment of a new print facility in Tullamarine.  The set of their expressions communicated their determination to have their views heard by management.  It was easy to imagine how these – the news stories would suggest – semi-skilled workers, many  in their fifties and older, would find getting their next job a struggle.  Two thoughts struck me in quick succession.  First was how much stress these people would be under: going home each night to discuss with their spouses the possibility that the next paycheck could be the last for a while.  This was overtaken by the second thought – why a company that employed thousands of people could not have found a way to benefit from the single-mindedness shown by this group joined by their common predicament, just one of the many attributes they could no doubt offer beyond their labour.

From this point – unconsciously at first – I became increasingly aware of the impact of management on the lives of workers. Job security and job prospects can affect workers at the most fundamental levels from their ability to care for themselves and their families to the quality of education their children will receive.  No one’s child/parent/sibling/partner should be demeaned at work either by the workplace structure or from their treatment.  Yet no statutory minimum standards exist for managers; there is no specific responsibility imposed on managers to the people whose livelihoods depend on them.

The term ‘collateral damage’ – the incidental costs that occur as a consequence of the pursuit of another objective – is used often to refer to the job losses or other pain inflicted on members of a workforce.  Yet in my work with organisations large and small I see many incidences of ‘collateral gain’ and even more untapped opportunities to build them from the daily efforts of people .  These potential gains covered all ground from new ideas, to new solutions for old problems, to feelings of camaraderie within a work unit, to knowledge shared, to fresh enthusiasm for a task, to awareness of new problems yet to be fully understood.

The industrial model that still dominates despite massive changes in the types of, and how, we work since it was initially devised in the early 1900s is no longer relevant for today.  This method, born of FW Taylor’s Principles of Scientific Management, is based on the assumption that division of labour and time and motion efficiencies (finding ‘one best way’ to complete a task) will produce maximum productivity returns for the employer.  This was true when most job were comprised mostly of manual tasks, but even then it was only so long before the gains were eroded by boredom, mistakes, employee turnover and accidents that resulted from work that was mundane and routine.  Unfortunately, the initial gains to industry were so significant, the conviction that dividing work into specialisations, supervising inputs (such as time and skills) and quantifying performance is the ‘one best way’ continues to this day.  Even as we are in the full swing of the knowledge economy we continue to apply the rules of the production era.

The other mantle that persists is the ‘science’ of performance management.  An industry worth billions thrives on the ‘sciences’ developed for selecting and managing people.  Despite the emergence of actual scientific studies on how people behave (usually not rationally), neuroscience, the influence of environments and networks on performance and much more, outmoded notions such as, “If you don’t measure performance how can you improve it?” are still treated as valid.  However, as some wise person (most people believe Albert Einstein, but wise nonetheless) once said, “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”  Oddly, what most employers say they want to foster in their people are emotional connections: caring about the job they do, committing to the organisation’s goals and values, building relationships with customers, a sense of pride in their work, and so on.  At the individual level however, their discussions are about the rational: career steps, targets, competencies, KPIs (key performance indicators), KRAs (key result areas).  One thing science has clearly proven is that cognitive reasoning instantly displaces emotional engagement.

This blog intends to explore these and similar issues.  In the years since watching the determined workers from The Age, I have had the benefit of working with many organisations and their hundreds of employees.  I have met and spoken to many people doing amazing work and breaking new ground in understanding.  I have read about new things we are learning about work and motivation and found new apprp://isabelwudotcom.wordpress.commportant to my client organisations.  I look forward to sharing these with you.

Isabel Wu