Employee Involvement... What I Wish I Knew 20 Years Ago (Part I)

by Peter Grazier


When I began working with employee involvement concepts in 1980, I was unbelievably ignorant of the human dimension of organization performance. As a degreed engineer, most of my training had been in the "hard" sciences and left little time for other subjects. I did attend some of the required courses in the humanities such as History of Art, but never in six years of higher education did I receive training in what I call Human Dynamics.

I've thought about this a lot in recent years, particularly as I watch people struggle each day with the very real difficulties of human interaction, communication, conflict, belief systems, leadership, motivation, human potential, resistance to change, creativity, and so forth. Why, in what amounted to eighteen years of formal education, was I not taught about these things?

My education finally came with my entrance into the world of employee involvement. And, to say the least, my beliefs about how organizations operate (or should operate) have changed significantly.

What I would like to discuss in this article, and two subsequent articles, is what I call my "Key Learning Points," or things I wish I knew when I started this work in employee involvement. These lessons have changed the way I approach my work…and live my life.

Key Learning Points

1. Everyone has something to contribute…and will if the environment is right. This learning point was a direct result of working with employee involvement concepts over the years. I'm not very proud to say that there was once a time when I used to place limitations on other people's knowledge, which was more a subconscious act than a conscious one. Perhaps it was the eighteen years of formal education, but I usually felt my solutions to problems were best.

But when I began to work more closely with people, particularly on the front lines, I began to see knowledge, talent, skills, and ingenuity that surprised me. The most unlikely (I thought) people were coming up with brilliantly simple solutions to complex problems.

As the years went by, and I had hundreds of opportunities to observe this "phenomenon," my own belief system began to change. As a result, I no longer place limitations on others, but rather see them as true reservoirs of knowledge and wisdom. This belief has been reinforced over and over as I have learned new insights, literally, from the people pushing the brooms on third shift.To demonstrate this to doubting managers, I invite them to walk with me through their organizations and randomly stop to talk with their people. Within minutes most workers are discussing work-related problems and possible solutions.

On one such tour, I spoke with an elderly machine operator at a Fortune 500 food company. Within minutes, he was discussing a solution for quickly clearing bulk food material from a clogged hopper (which, he said, happened regularly). When I asked him if he had ever told this idea to his supervisor he just smiled and said "Nobody ever asks for these kinds of ideas around here," at which point I could feel the manager melting behind me. This worker had spent 42 years in the plant and would be retiring in six months. I wondered how many other ideas would be leaving with him?

A few years ago I was performing assessments in a mid-western manufacturing plant. To perform the assessments I spoke with groups of employees at all levels. At one session with front-line operators, a young fellow showed up looking one step removed from a street person. He had long hair and a long beard, a torn teeshirt, and looked as though he had not washed in days.

During the session, however, he participated with great interest and just before leaving gave me a 4-page typewritten letter that he had written the night before, discussing critical issues in his plant and what he thought could be done about them. He was truly concerned about the future of his plant and wanted to help.

In another case, I conducted a one-day training session for a distribution center of another large company. In attendance was a Hell's Angel look-alike that would spark trepidation in the bravest of trainers. I had to fight my impulse of seeing this person as "non-value added" to his organization, not to mention trouble for my session. Nevertheless, and true to form, during the day he proved himself to be, perhaps, the brightest person in the room, contributing one excellent insight after another.

So what is the point of this discussion? The point is that most people have a great deal more to offer than we realize. And if we can just create an environment that is safe, reassuring, and encourages contribution, more of that talent will be directed toward the organization. When a leader finally understands this, employee involvement becomes less of a task that one must do and more of a philosophy that one does naturally.

2. The human element of performance is more important than the technical element.As an engineer, this one was hard for me to get. Organizations spend a great deal of time concentrating on the technical features of business: technology, administrative systems, financial controls, scheduling, research, inspection, equipment, maintenance, sales, inventory, legal, and so on.

We have even relegated Human Resources to an administrative science by developing and administering policies and procedures for staffing and recruiting, compensation, benefits, career development, regulatory compliance, health and safety, employee assistance, organization development, industrial relations, and so forth.

We, in our structured, logical workplace seem more comfortable with technical and administrative tasks than the psychological principles of performance. Why don't we have departments called Motivation, Creativity, Maximum Potential, Recognition, Empowerment, Involvement, Self-Esteem, or Trust? Maybe we have just assumed that these important elements of performance are embodied in the manager's role.

Unfortunately, this is not the case. For the years I have been asking two critical questions during management training seminars: "How many of you have been exposed to the motivational concepts of Abraham Maslow?" and "How many of you practice these concepts in your day-to-day leadership of your workforce?" To the first question, without fail, all hands go up. To the second question, no hands are raised (with the notable exception of a nun at a Catholic university who stated emphatically that she used these concepts with her people).

As we discuss the implications of these two questions in classes, it becomes obvious to everyone that, even though motivational principles have been taught to nearly every manager, seldom has there been an expectation that they would use these principles! Their rewards come from excelling at the technical aspects of work rather than the human.

Yet in my experience, whenever performance in a work group or organization soared or slumped, it could almost always be traced back to issues that impacted motivation…not technical issues.

The libraries are full of evidence relating to the relationship between psychological concepts and work performance. But why must we resort to statistical analysis to confirm what most of us already know intuitively. Each of us has worked with or for someone who could excite and energize us, or, conversely, blow out our candle. When executive management finally understands the link between these two extremes and the bottom line, training in human dynamics will take on a whole new importance.

3. Most decisions can be significantly improved through collaboration.

Of all the key learning points, this concept has contributed the most to improving my personal decision-making process. It is also the underlying principle behind participative management and team-based problem solving.

Even though the principle is simple, it is difficult for us in the American business culture to actualize. Almost all of our training from childhood on has reinforced individual thinking and decision-making, making it harder for us to move to a collaborative approach in the 1990's.

Our system of education not only forced us to work alone, but actually punished collaboration in most instances. An article in Business Week magazine a few years ago discussed innovation being attempted in our school systems. During a discussion on teamwork, Gabriel Cortina, Assistant Superintendent for the Los Angeles Unified School System commented that "In business, when people get together and work on a project, it's called teamwork. In our school system, the way we are teaching today, it's called cheating." She went on to say that they are now finding that "two or three students working on a problem are able to solve problems that none of them could solve individually." Having spent the larger part of my adult life attempting to understand team concepts, these words really hit home as to why we, in the American business culture, have difficulty with team-based work.

Another form of conditioning came from our role models and heroes, who tended to be strong, independent decision makers. For example, when did we ever see John Wayne collaborating with his troops prior to taking a hill? Generally, he did the thinking, made the decisions, and gave the orders. These mental images, when played over and over, become indelibly etched in our memories and belief systems. When we finally entered the workforce, we walked into a system that again reinforced individual thinking and decision-making. People tended to be promoted into higher management positions as they demonstrated an ability to make hard, unilateral decisions.

Even the formal reward system discourages collaboration. When have we ever seen on a performance review that "The person collaborates well on decisions" or "The person has strong team building characteristics"?

I have even been told by several supervisors that they were reprimanded and passed over for promotions because they exhibited a participative management style. It just was not the sign of a "strong leader."

With all of this programming it is only natural, then, that most managers have great difficulty in moving to a participative style of leadership. And it is also natural that the people at the top of our organizations have the greatest difficulty, in that, they have received the greatest rewards for their previous management style. Why would they want to change something that gave them so much success?

With all this prior conditioning, my own decision-making process tended to be unilateral. But when I entered the world of employee involvement, and was forced to collaborate and involve others in work-related problem solving, it slowly became clearer that the ultimate decisions resulting from this process were better. And today we have training exercises that statistically prove it.

It took a few years of working intensively with involvement concepts before I finally "got it." Today I rarely solve a problem or make a decision, either professional or personal, without first seeking out the knowledge and opinions of others.

This seems so obvious and simple. Perhaps this is why most senior managers, after implementing team-based problem solving or other involvement concepts, delude themselves into thinking that their organizations have become participative. But one has only to look at how the "important" decisions are made in an organization to see the principles of participation being violated. Most employees, for example, have had little or no input in organization downsizing or restructuring decisions that affect them directly.

True collaboration will take time, perhaps as long as it takes the next generation to move into senior management positions. But those managers who persist should see their decisions improving steadily, both at work and at home.

Mr. Grazier continues with his discussion of Key Learning Points in the following two articles. 

Part II - Key Learning Points 

  • People need leaders. Good leaders build trust, a higher sense of mission, and a sense of worth.
  • Employee Involvement is NOT a program, but rather a leadership philosophy. 
Part III - Key Learning Points

  • Continuous Improvement is beautifully simple.