Frederick Taylor or Employee Engagement – Choose One

May 27, 2011 § Leave a comment

There is a saying that seems to explain how our subconscious beliefs can influence us.  It states something like this:  “Fish don’t know they are in water.”  Similarly, most people don’t know who Frederick Taylor was even though he remains today one of the most influential people in history.  His theory and practices surround us like “invisible water.”

He developed something called Scientific Management and he influenced everyone’s belief system about management.  His beliefs about people and work are still embraced today and we can see examples in our school systems and organizations.  Unfortunately, his beliefs, and the policies that follow from them, have reached their limit in their ability to improve productivity and performance in the knowledge age.  Taylor methods do not create employee engagement and that is one reason why we are doing so poorly on that front.   

What is Taylor Theory?

Taylor believed work could be compartmentalized and then ‘broken down’ into individual tasks.  These tasks could be studied (scientifically) to identify one best method.  Once that method is known workers must do it that way.  It’s management’s job to identify that method using scientific motion studies.  In other words, management knows best.

Taylor theory puts the minds of worker’s on the back burner while putting management on the pedestal of knowledge.   For Taylor, employees don’t need their brains if the one best method has already been identified by management.  They merely need to be controlled to perform the tasks that way.

This way of thinking was very useful during the industrial age because it accelerated the productivity of workers who tended to be less educated and in ample supply.    In the knowledge age this way of thinking is extremely limiting.  Today we need everyone’s brains working to solve problems and looking for better methods.  We need every worker to solve their own problems.  Relying solely on management to solve problems slows down productivity and creates a bureaucracy making us much less competitive (especially when the developing world has low wages and an ample supply of workers).

Thanks to Taylor we have most of our organizations with management dependent decision making.  The best examples of the “invisible Taylor water” are the Management by Objective policies which include the typical performance appraisal and pay-for-performance processes.  These policies attempt to control individual behavior and are completely consistent with the Taylor view of people.  The subliminal messages sent by these policies include: employees do not want to work; they must be prodded with pay or threat; they can’t be totally trusted.

What to do instead

We need employee engagement in the knowledge age.   We need engagement because we are no longer able to compete with the global marketplace with “manager dependent” decision making.  We are not moving quickly enough and the speed of change has accelerated.  We are being left in the “economic dust” of globalization.  This is proven by the numerous studies about employee engagement (the voluntary exertion of discretionary effort) that show we somehow cannot exceed the 31% level.  I believe we are doing poorly with engagement because we continue to embrace Taylor.

We can’t have both Taylor thinking and policies and achieve optimum employee engagement.  We need another set of beliefs about people and problems.  New policies will follow from the new set of beliefs.

Instead of thinking there is only one best method and management knows that method, we need to give employees the tools and opportunities to develop their own methods and solve their own problems.

Instead of attempting to improve individuals we need environments that enable the improvement of the interactions between the individuals.

Instead of management attempting to control employee behavior we need managers to become facilitators who trust employees.

Summary

We have been immersed in the Taylor theory of Scientific Management for about 100 years and for many of us it is all we know.  We continue to unknowingly embrace these beliefs and policies to our detriment.  It is time we embrace alternative beliefs and start improving employee engagement before it is too late.

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