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Mutual incomprehension

Over the last couple of weeks we’ve been referring to a central military maxim, fundamentally relevant to our purposes as well, which states that the commander’s first responsibility is to his mission, and only his second is to his troops. We noted that military organizations are characterized by the organizational reconciliation of these two instincts which, on the face of it, seem inherently irreconcilable.

As we turn to this topic, let’s begin by acknowledging that much of what passes for “enlightened” human resources theory in the modern era consists of, or has its genesis in, the awakening of management to the significance of the presence of workers in the organization as an important factor influencing its operation. As plain as this might seem today, it in fact was a long, difficult, lumbering emergence from somnolence. It can be traced from the Hawthorne Experiments of the late 1920s to the publication of Douglas McGregor’s “The Human Side of Enterprise” in 1960.

This period began with a kind of bemused astonishment to discover that workers even existed as a separate, sentient group with its own interests and stakes in the welfare of the organization. It ended with McGregor’s plea for management to involve the workforce in the fate of the organization, which unleashed the modern age of thinking about how best to do that. It must be recalled, though, that McGregor also thought that, in pursuing this effort, management would (and should) be helping raise the level of workers both intellectually and morally.

That element of his thinking – on the one hand a product of the age in which he conceived it and, on the other hand, peculiarly out of touch with reality even then – has attained an unfortunate prominence in much of the work which followed. The twin pillars of its decidedly unhelpful influence consist in its presumption of the inherent superiority (intellectually, morally – generally) of management over the worker “class” and the patronizing approach it supposes is appropriate for the former to adopt toward the later.

Is there a relation of some unpleasant sort between this presumption of superiority and “noblesse oblige” on the part of management over workers, and the military maxim’s consignment of troops to the leftover attention commanders might be able to spare them after looking after the mission? McGregor’s thinking suggests that managers should be evangelically solicitous of the welfare of workers, and the military maxim argues that commanders should only even consider them after more important matters have been attended to. But both appear to place the workers/troops in a secondary category, passively subject to the whim of management/command to even deign to acknowledge their existence.

Yet, as we noted last week, the widely recognized standard for military units is that they are genuinely and exceptionally concerned with the welfare of their troops, even as they (troops included) acknowledge that the mission comes first.

Is there a connection between these apparently opposing ideas that actually strengthens both – the mission and the welfare of the troops? Is there something in that connection that might speak to the often condescending concern for workers conspicuously verbalized by civilian management in the post-Hawthorne/McGregor era?

Indeed there is. And that’s next week’s topic – see you then!


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