Essays on Management: Managing people

Most organisations say people are their strongest resource, however many act as if employees need the organisation more than the other way round.  Managing individuals must first start with designing jobs for them. Rigid job descriptions inhibit team work while loose ones blur the job focus.  A balance must be achieved.  All jobs should stretch and challenge.  Job boundaries need to be elastic enough to let people grow.  Otherwise, people become disaffected and cynical.

It is also important to “un-design” jobs and let go of the past.  The public service in the past carried essentially redundant staff whose jobs were retained long after their purpose disappeared.  This destroys opportunities for others and erodes organisational morale and performance.  Whenever someone leaves a job, consider abolishing the position.

Jobs should not be created “to build capability” or “inject new thinking” but should rather deliver specific outputs into which new capability and thinking can be injected or be oblique by-products.  Every job should have integrity and a standing of its own.  Assistant and deputy positions can define a job in relation to someone else’s.  This can imply the job itself has no stand-alone purpose and self-definition and rather exists in relation to another’s role.

Jobs should be designed to encourage connections with others, flexibility and growth.  This relates to organisational core as opposed to individual competencies.  Core competencies match the external market with the internal strength.  It is essential to build core competencies and foster the ability to cross cut and cover for others.  For an individual this can be like team sport where you have to cover your position but also back up your teammates.   For managers, the focus should not be on individual product divisions but the cross-cutting ties that bind.

Superior people management must start with making the right recruitment decisions so people are matched to jobs they can do and be motivated in. A job created must be rewarding in itself, and appointments to it must be made through a visible and fair system.  The authority and power in a job should be clearly stated and incumbents should be able to exercise it.

Recruitment processes should cast a wide net because there is always more talent outside than inside ones’ social circle.  Never appoint nasty people to positions that can impact on others.  However it is important to tolerate contrarians and eccentrics because these may be the most creative, especially in a team.

Once recruited to a job, a manager needs to understand and respect the employee as a person.  It is important to set high expectations for new employees from the beginning rather than accept low quality work and try and retrieve it later.  It is important to respect people’s work and what has gone into it, for example by reading and critiquing it.  Accept people’s limitations, let people make mistakes and learn from them.

Unlike a customer, an employee can’t easily walk away so a manager has a pastoral care role.  Everybody should be treated with dignity, and behaviour and performance should always be distinct from a person’s inner being.  Little things, such as knowing peoples’ names and calling them by their first names matter.

External results are what ultimately matters, rather than internal harmony, however results require individuals’ motivations being harnessed for an external purpose.  Managers have to make hard decisions, however they must consider individuals’ emotions when doing so.  This means management style has to be customised to individuals and yet it also has to be systematised.  There is a delicate balance between people-centred and more scientific management models.

Scientific management as promoted by Frederick Taylor, W. Edwards Deming and others is often contrasted with more people-focused management promoted by such as Mary Follett and Charles Handy.  Both are needed.  People used shovels and laid bricks for hundreds of years before Frederick Taylor and Frank Gilbreth applied scientific management to improving productivity in such basic tasks.

Taylorist scientific management can deliver huge productivity gains.  It can also destroy people in the process, as Foxcomm has done.  Scientific management deprives people of autonomy and discretion and reduces them to machines.  It can reduce productivity by discouraging innovation and failing to realise peoples’ human potential.

Scientific management can assume away business uncertainties and consumer irrationality and above all human psychology.  It aims for productivity as an output metric, however people have inner lives and how they see and feel about the circumstances they face impacts on their productivity.  The analogy is to ask, how might it feel to be a bat?  Of course, it is impossible to see inside a bat’s mind.  Scientific management sees only the outside of people and the products they produce, not the inside and how it can be harnessed for productivity.

Scientific management ‘s weaknesses were obvious to creative artists before managers.   In George Eliot’s Felix Holt, a thought experiment plays out when someone looks at a chess set and wonders what would happen if the pieces had minds and emotions of their own:

“Fancy what a game of chess would be if all the chessmen had passions and intellects, more or less small and cunning; if you were not only uncertain about your adversary’s men, but a little uncertain also about your own . . . You would be especially likely to be beaten if you depended arrogantly on your mathematical imagination, and regarded your passionate pieces with contempt. Yet this imaginary chess is easy compared with a game man has to play against his fellow-men with other fellow-men for instruments.”

Dickens knew there was more to learning than Gradgrindian facts, and Charlie Chaplin lampooned Frederick Taylor in Modern Times. 

Ford’s automated production lines lifted productivity enormously, however it also deskilled workers and caused high turnover.  In 1914 Ford announced a minimum wage of five dollars an hour for an eight hour day – more than doubling wages, and he also introduced a profit-sharing plan.  This dramatically reduced turnover and associated training costs and increased Ford’s profitability.  As Ford said, “The payment of five dollars a day for an eight hour day was one of the finest cost-cutting moves we ever made”.  The five dollars a day impacted positively on the US labour market, expanded buying power and productivity.  It turned industrial workers into future customers.

Ford’s move was revolutionary however his business later struggled for two basic reasons.  He applied automation and standardisation to producing a common product rather than focusing on common parts that could be combined in different ways to produce different products.  He also failed to decentralise management and give managers the necessary devolved powers to run the business effectively and in ways adaptive to change.

Some balance between scientific and human-centred management was achieved through the work of Joseph Juran and W. Edwards Deming.  Juran brought the human dimension into quality management and Deming’s quality management triad included employee involvement as well as Just in Time and statistical operations control.

Failure to take an interest in staff and find out about them and their abilities is a sure sign of poor people management.  No resource, human, physical or financial can be managed unless it is understood.  It is important to know what others know and what they can and might wish to do.

One of the first tasks for a new manager must be to do a human capital stock-take and learn staff abilities, knowledge and competencies and how they might be marshalled for an organisation’s purposes.  Such a human capital stocktake will uncover languages, technical expertise, historical perspectives, market insights, new connections, pent-up passions and energies that can be marshalled.  If abilities, interests and motivations are aligned it is possible to make work “a paid hobby”.

People come to work for their daily meaning as well as their daily bread.  They innately want to work.  A key task is ensuring peoples’ jobs are meaningful and fulfilling, as well as ensuring their talents can be unlocked and made productive.

Often people who are top performers in their younger days go stale in the job and end up perceived as “sticks in the mud”. They may have stayed in the one job or organisation, mastered their roles and turned them into routine.  They have not been continuously stretched in the job and challenged to do better or do differently.  In the same way you can lose the use of a limb if it is not exercised, when people’s abilities to stretch and grow are not used they lose self-development.

An organisation hires the whole person but does not take delivery of or control the whole person – this is an important distinction.  The whole person should be employed, but only while at work.  People like a mix of stability and challenge, and most people respond to safety and security fostered by management consistency and predictability.  People like to grow and so it is possible to systematically expand job size and invest in the training and people development needed to enable people to build from this.

Few organisations are crude enough to term their staff “the articulate cost base,” however people management language often sends the wrong signals.  People are resourceful humans rather than human resources.  The term “people skills” can imply instrumentalism where skills are used to manipulate people to act in management rather than customer or other external interests.  It is important staff are working with their managers not for them.

As much as possible should be delegated to individuals.  Delegation should be to the level where the person has the required knowledge and must be within the delegating manager’s domain.  Devolution should be far enough down in an organisation to give people discretion and the motivation that comes with it.

If you are a manager leading a team, it is important to share what you know, show you understand others’ viewpoints and keep learning.  Managing teams means setting realistic targets and organising to meet them.  Standards must be set, and people must know what is expected.  Boundaries must be set and enforced.

You should aim to get a team emotionally involved and make your team better than the individuals within it, including yourself. This means adapting your style to each team member and respecting individual differences.   Performance measurement should encourage team work.  Division of labour if taken too far destroys people’s ability to cross-learn, see the overall picture and initiate micro-innovation.  Rigid job descriptions can make individuals easier to manage, however they make it more difficult to build and manage teams and organisational core competencies.  Japanese firms often keep job descriptions ambiguous to encourage groups to work together.  Objectives should measure the team not just the individual result.

How you manage a team depends on the task at hand.  In some cases you should be leading a rugby or netball team, in other cases a band of Vikings, pirates or Cossacks who have a rough comradely and a “share the spoils” ethos.  Sometimes it’s possible to think of team management in Ricardian comparative advantage terms.  Don’t ask who is best at a job but rather who is best at a job in relation to the productivity of other jobs and of other people who could be in those jobs.

An important part of team work is managing meetingsMeetings are not always necessary for people to communicate, make decisions and work well together.  Sometimes it is more important to have more conversations that stretch thinking and seed new ideas than it is to have more meetings.

Meetings can create or destroy productivity.  A key question is, what do we want to get out of this meeting?  The person chairing the meeting should chair it only – it is difficult to both chair a meeting and contribute to it.  Meetings should always start on time.  People should not fiddle with their cell phones or other electronic devices, unless they want to show contempt for others.  Minutes should be kept and action points recorded and acted on, unless of course it was intended that a meeting should lead to inaction.


About Peter Winsley

I’ve worked in policy and economics-related fields in New Zealand for many years. With qualifications and publications in economics, management and literature, I take a multidisciplinary perspective to how people’s lives can be enhanced. I love nature, literature, music, tramping, boating and my family.
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1 Response to Essays on Management: Managing people

  1. ashokbhatia says:

    A very comprehensive post. Thanks!

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