Who Blinked First?


It is well woven in the fabric of our thinking in this country that loyalty between employer and employee has completely eroded.  The question this post seeks to explore is, “Who blinked first?”

In The World’s Newest Profession, Christopher McKenna provides a comprehensive look at management consulting over the past 100+ years.  It is in this account that I became deeply acquainted with Frederick Taylor (1856 – 1915) and the notion of Scientific Management – also referred to as Taylorism[1].

In short, Mr. Taylor postulates that managing human beings is not so remarkably different from managing the parts of a machine. Even more incredulous, Burrhus Frederic (B.F.) Skinner (1904-1990) promoted Radical Behaviorism and his Stimulus-Response theories of Operant Conditioning – the idea that human behavior can indefinitely be manipulated through deliberately deployed reward and punishment mechanisms. (Think about experiments where laboratory rodents and primates are subjected to external stimuli to coerce their behavior.)

Examining these two approaches to people management[2], we can quickly identify flaws. First, Mr. Taylor might have come close to something in the Industrial Age (which began about one hundred years before his birth).  During this time, the contribution from each individual was quantitative, easily assessed and therefore highly objective. There was little room for argument – you either produced that which was asked of you or you didn’t.  In the age of information and the knowledge worker, evaluations of output are qualitative and making such assessments has become extremely subjective.[3]

Where other aspects of evaluation are routine – such as predefined feedback scores – the selection of a score is at its root a matter of individual opinion.  For example, have we not all either heard of, or experienced for ourselves, situations where an employee receives negative feedback from one manager only to earn high accolades from another manager after having changed nothing about themselves or they way they work.  The criteria by which we evaluate one another are perilously subjective. For more on this idea, see The Myth of Performance Metrics by Dick Grote.

I will further assert that even in the days of “you either produced the prerequisite number of widgets or you didn’t” that subjectivity in evaluations occurred.  There were certainly times when individual targets were missed yet a human-to-human connection – even (or especially) at a subconscious level – evoked a more lenient or harsh assessment for some over others.

Looking at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, we see an interesting parallel between what Abraham Maslow put forth and what we can easily imagine as the evolution of needs in society as we transition from mechanical and analytical production (left-brained work) to creative and cognitive production (right-brained work).

In years long gone by, the needs of the proletariat were akin to the lower parts of Maslow’s Hierarchy.  We were myopic on our primal survival needs and behavior manipulation, while morally arguable, was effective as the desired ends were immediate for all parties involved.  As we evolved socially, so have our needs.  We, as humans are in no way comparable to lab rodents and primates. We are now much more attentive to the dynamic nature of our existence.  As a result, addressing our needs has become much more of an ontological exercise.

Ok, time to ask, “What does this have to do with loyalty between employee and employer?  Good question! Let’s explore an answer.  Both Sir Ken Robinson and Dan Pink have become rather prolific with the idea that we are holding onto a mentality for optimizing productivity suitable for the industrial age and applying it to an age that long ago has come to rely on our cognitive abilities for progress.  The consequences of this are disastrous.

When our cognitive and creative abilities are recruited, we become somewhat more emotionally attached to that which we create.  And, the assessments of others are much more subjective leaving ample likelihood for incongruence between our evaluation of our work and the evaluations of others.  This leads to an erosion of relationships as doubt in motives takes root.  Employees, for their part, are generally not prepared to deal with this mismatch in assessment and employers still operate with a mindset that operant conditioning will yield output that will meet their criteria. What is even more remarkable is such criteria is too often in flux making it even more difficult hit the target.  At the time of evaluation it comes down to trust and the relationship between the evaluator and the person being evaluated.  You can’t get more subjective than that.

Furthermore, since such assessments of output are so qualitative, a reliable and agreed upon compensation model for right-brain work does not, and maybe cannot, exist opening yet further the door for exploring alternate employment opportunities.

The needs of today’s knowledge worker no longer reside at the level of simply income and security.  Instead, we want a healthy relationship where that which we create, and thereby have attachment to, shows up for others as having commensurate value. It is my opinion that businesses – having indirectly helped usher in the environment that necessitated the knowledge worker – was ill equipped, both culturally and procedurally, to adjust to this needs-evolution.  The result was an abrupt misstep in tending to the new emergent relationship with employees.

This post is meant to explore thoughts on who blinked first, not necessarily provide my own definitive answer – one does not exist. I will say that I believe that a confluence of poorly sequenced circumstances gave rise to evocations of questioning the long-standing loyalty among both sides. Who blinked first? It is still hard for me assess but I know this – both sides did. And both sides are still in the dark about how to recapture what was unintentionally lost.

Closing note: As I began to draft this post, I received in the mail the periodic magazine from my alma-mater.  Inside is an article about a recent business leaders forum where there is a quote from one of the panelists assessing “Employees are returning to a 1950’s mentality where there is a desire to stay with the same organization for many years instead of jumping from firm to firm throughout a career.”  I wonder if the person who made this quote has missed a key point. I don’t think there was ever a time when jumping from firm to firm was desired for its own sake. There did emerge a desire to be acknowledged, validated and appreciated, as well as become exposed to a variety of experiences, as we moved up the proverbial hierarchy of needs.  The only way to achieve that – even if only perceptually – was to change employers until we found the relationships and values that felt right to us.

Comments as always, are welcome.

Thank you for reading and have a great day!

Matt G.


[1] Taylorism and Scientific Management are commonly presented as theories.  To uphold the integrity of the word “theory” as I have come to know its meaning, I emphatically refrain from referring to either of these terms as theories.

[2] Personally, I abhor the notion of managing people.  It is my deep belief that things and situations are what we manage and people are those we either lead or support.

[3] Some numbers based metrics such as sales number targets are either achieved or missed.  Yet, there are some aspects of a sales cycle that remain highly subjective such as earning credibility with a prospect. As I am not a salesperson, I concede my limits in full understanding of the benefit of sales metrics.  The July-August 2012 issue of the Harvard Business Review offers some interesting articles in this area.

About Matt Gorman

Life-long learner. Collaboration enthusiast. Avid cyclist.
This entry was posted in Behavioral Influence, Business Relationships, Management, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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