Hell is Other People – Workplace Conflict between Managers and the Managed

Little birds and big bird on wire
The boss and the bossed …

Throughout the history of industry, there has been a constant conflict between managers and subordinates. For some reason, we just don’t get along well with each other. Or, as philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre phrased it, “Hell is other people.” In fact, large advances in mechanization and automation were due to managers wanting to take power away from workers or to get rid of workers altogether.

Examples for Technical Innovation to reduce Workers Influence

There are numerous examples in industry, where conflicts led to more automation and organization to de-power or eliminate workers:

  • Honoré Blanc (1736–1801) developed the first interchangeable parts for musket production in France. While this would have significant benefits for repairing weapons in battle, the primary reason was to take power away from strong-minded independent weapon smiths.
  • Louis-Nicolas Robert (1761–1828) developed the first continuous paper-making machine (the Fourdrinier machine) primarily to get rid of annoying workers.
  • Frederick Winslow Taylor (1856–1915) stated that “it would be possible to train an intelligent-gorilla so as to become a more efficient [worker] than any man can be.
  • Henry Ford (1863–1947) complained, “Why is it every time I ask for a pair of hands, they come with a brain attached?
  • Management in the chemical industry was faced with a wave of strikes during the 1950s. They were absolutely thrilled when they found that their computers and automated systems allowed them to run at near full capacity without any workers but only the managers.
  • CNC machines during the 1950s and 1960s also lured many customers with the dream of becoming independent of headstrong specialists.
  • The CEO of General Motors, Roger Smith (1925–2007), invested the insane amount of $45 billion in robotics to reduce labor cost. The press voted him to be CEO of the Year 1984. After his endeavor failed spectacularly, he was soon voted to be one of the Top 10 Worst CEOs.
  • Foxconn in China wants to buy one million robots from 2013 onward. The official cause is cost savings, but robots also have the advantage that they do not jump to their death from the factory roof, as many Foxconn workers did.

In sum, management is frequently upset and unhappy about the quality of their workers. While it is not politically correct to say so, many managers dream of a lights-out factory, where machines work on their own and no workers are needed at all. They envision that “no worker” also means “no trouble.

Lack of Communication between Management and Employees

Of course, in the same way managers are unhappy, workers are also unhappy and upset about their management. As some workers are difficult to handle and may have a lack of social skills, so do the managers. There is a tendency in Western management to mismanage people, ignore their needs, and show them little or no respect. There always needs to be two to fight.

People as an Asset

Workers can also be a great asset. The skill and experience a worker brings to the firm can greatly benefit the company. Toyota manages to values workers opinions and uses their knowledge for the company’s benefit (at least until recently, see my post “Internal Threat to the Toyota Production System Due to New Hiring Practices“).

When I am working on a project to improve some operations, I always have extensive talks with the people who do these operations. In my experience, white-collar workers have been asked about such issues before but blue-collar workers have rarely or never been asked about these problems. Yet, it is the blue collar workers who often have some of the best ideas on how to fix things. A lot of expensive consulting could be avoided if managers would just ask their people for ideas. Even so, for some reason, it rarely happens.

Yellow Gummy Bear Closeup
Small rewards can go a long way!

If you work in industry, trying to improve a process or operation, go to your people now and ask them for their opinion. Not only will you probably get some good ideas (mixed with some not-so-good ones, of course), but you will also earn more respect from your people for simply asking them their opinion. Also, if the project works out, don’t forget to thank them. And, if you really want to leave an impression, award them with a big bucket of gummy bears! No go out and improve your industry!



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