The Employee Assumption

I've had a beautiful range of jobs in my lifetime, including a paper run, sealing bags of pork crackle, working on a kiwifruit orchard and recruiting students for a local university. Each of these roles required a different group of skill-sets and on the face of it, appear to be quite different from each other.

Yet there is a few similarities between most jobs in the West - with one particular feature I want to highlight today. These different student jobs that I worked used a different part of my body. The paper-run was all about my deft 12 year old cycling skills, the sealing job required my hand-eye co-ordination to be on target, and the recruiting role made use of my voice and ability to engage with a large group of people.

Yet none of these roles ever required much use of my biggest resource - my brain.

Now, the truth is all of us must use our cognitive skills throughout all of our working life, but often this is viewed as a necessity, rather than as an amazing resource that is valued by our organisation.

Henry Ford, the popular figure head of American industry and early management theory, once famously quipped, "Why is it every time I ask for a pair of hands, they come with a brain attached?". This highlights a latent yet pervasive assumption that much management theory communicates - employees need to be controlled, lest they become too independent and do not fulfill their obligations.

We all know examples of employees who have embodied this assumption, and have lived up to this low expectation of humanity - that we are rebellious creatures who need constant monitoring and direction to help an organisation.

However, is is my experience that most employees yearn for more than simply working to earn their salary, and desire to make a meaningful contribution to their organisation that goes beyond the scope of their role.

Peter Drucker was a constant campaigner for raising an organisation's view of their employees, saying "One has to assume, first, that the individual human being at work knows better than anyone else what makes him or her more productive."

Sadly, many organisations pay mere lip service to this wisdom, and refuse to engage employees in meaningful discussions about their own role and creative possibilities for the future of their organisation.

An hourly worker at DuPont captured this sentiment perfectly during a review, stating, "For 20 years you have paid for my hands and you could have had my head for free - but you never asked". This employee was itching to offer advice and participate in the growth of the company but the opportunity was never given.

I am not suggesting a total free-form work place with no positions, job descriptions, or responsibilities (however, for an interesting case study on this, read this review on Semco - a Brazilian organisation that thrives on total autonomy), but I do believe that employees tend to live up to the assumptions we place on them.

If that assumption is that employees are simply labour to help make a profit - that is what you will receive. If, however, you see employees as valuable contributors to the entire value-creation process, with innovative ideas, experience and wisdom, then these are the employees you will hire and create.

How have you seen organisations challenge this assumption?