Employee Involvement – 10 Years of Learning

by Peter B. Grazier
Originally published in EI Network on April 1, 1997

This issue of Employee Involvement Network marks the 60th time—10 years—that I have put my thoughts into words in this newsletter. Over the last month I have found myself reflecting on this, seriously contemplating what I have learned in the process. Perhaps it is appropriate in this time of rapid change to look back and appreciate the journey we have all been taking.

When we published our first issue of Employee Involvement Network in April of 1987, it was apparent that there needed to be more dialogue on the issue of employee involvement. By then, I had been learning and practicing involvement concepts for about 6 years and found that I needed to know more. And those I spoke with said that serious issues were being discussed at the water coolers, but little was being said publicly about the problems being encountered.

We had few resources back then to help us. The Association for Quality and Participation1 (then called the International Association of Quality Circles) was a wonderful resource for this work. Pioneers Jeff Beardsley and Don Dewar made a major contribution when they launched the IAQC to fill a void in our understanding of participative concepts.

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor-Management Relations and Cooperative Programs (disbanded later under the Bush administration) was also an excellent conveyer of emerging information regarding employee involvement. Stephen Schlossberg, then Deputy Undersecretary of labor, was a strong proponent who championed a number of initial studies that shed new light on the power of participation.

A few universities were also studying participation and consultants were beginning to focus on it as well.

A major concern among involvement practitioners, however, was the significant “failure’ rate of new programs. Data at the time showed that three-fourths of all participation efforts “failed” within a year of implementation. The term “quality circles” was shunned in many organizations because the quick rise-and-fall experience had left such a bad taste. Of course, it wasn’t the concept that was bad, but the shock to the established command-and-control culture that destroyed the circles. Our management system was not yet ready for this kind of empowerment of workers.

What was pushing the trend toward participation, however, was world competition. The U.S. was losing major industries, and businesses were looking for strategies to compete. So the interest in employee involvement continued to grow despite the failures.

By 1987, Teambuilding, Inc. was two years old. With precious little funds, we made a conscious decision not to advertise our company, but rather put that money into something that would serve a larger purpose. We would attempt to provide a forum for employee involvement issues. There was no “grand plan” to mass mail this newsletter to America—we simply hoped that those who saw value in it would copy it and share it with others, thereby enlarging the network. To a great extent, that has happened—and what I have personally gained from this experience has far exceeded my expectations.

People have shared stories with us to pass along. Some have written their own stories for us. Authors and publishers have sent us early editions of their books to preview. And we have had the opportunity to meet new people whose ideas have expanded our scope of understanding.

We followed the trail of studies that continually proved that employee involvement, when implemented properly, translated into improved performance for organizations:

  • 1984 – U.S. Department of Labor Economic Policy Council
  • 1988 – U.S. General Accounting Office
  • 1989 – Brookings Institution
  • 1990 – U.S. General Accounting Office
  • 1991 – Columbia University School of Business
  • 1991 – Manufacturers’ Alliance for Productivity and Innovation
  • 1993 – Work in America Institute, Inc.

We watched America win back previously lost market share as companies such as Intel, Motorola, Ford, Microsoft, Xerox, Harley-Davidson, and others began to implement quality and innovation strategies based on employee involvement concepts, adding additional impetus to the participation trend.

We watched employee involvement move to empowerment, and then to self-direction. Many of us questioned the notion that a group of workers could “manage” themselves without direct supervision—we doubted, and we were wrong. The movement from an adult-to-child to an adult-to-adult work environment was underway.

But we also watched as “re-engineering” and “re-structuring” snapped us back to the command-and-control mentality that has dominated this century. The brutal downsizings of some organizations left employees asking where the involvement went.

As with all powerful trends, however, the movement has continued. The last year has seen a renewed interest in moving participation forward, reminding me of the age-old truth “There is nothing so powerful as an idea whose time has come.”

Change on a Personal Level

Focusing on the 10 years of Employee Involvement Network made me also contemplate the personal journey I have been on since beginning this work in 1980. Perhaps some of you have had a similar journey.

When I began, I thought worker participation was an interesting technique for improving work—just another tool in the manager’s toolbox to be used when needed. But as time went on it became apparent that this was far more than “just another tool.”

My wake-up call was in 1982, during my first employee involvement “program,” when the wife of one of our workers commented to me that her husband’s behavior at home had changed. She said that “he was calmer, didn’t yell as much, and didn’t complain about his work anymore.” Life at home had improved.

I was so ignorant of the psychological benefits of involvement in those early years that it took some time before I connected her statement to the program we had implemented. And it would be a while longer before I went to the library to finally link theory with practice.

Industrial psychologists Abraham Maslow and Frederick Herzberg had told us for years what would happen if we involved people in this manner at work—and now we were seeing it first-hand.

I found my work shifting naturally from technically driven improvement concepts to human driven concepts. It was obvious that real improvement resulted when the people became energized.

So little by little I began to learn more about the human side of performance. My passion was to understand the factors that drive behavior, especially those that result in high or low performance. Some of what I learned included:

  • Our childhood determines a great deal of the triumphs and tragedies of our adulthood. Moving on leads to improvement.
  • Our personality is genetically determined and is a gift. Rather than lament our differences, successful people celebrate and use them.
  • Our belief system is acquired after birth and is totally unique to each of us. Values strongly held are a primary source of conflict.
  • Our intuition is almost always right, but our intellect usually overrules it.
  • We define ourselves by the limits of our thinking, and this boundary is a major barrier to our success.
  • There is a spiritual element to each of us waiting to be released. Releasing it brings peace.
  • The need to be recognized is one of our greatest needs, however, a sincere "thank you" is seldom forthcoming.
  • Everyone has something to contribute and will if we just ask. The need to feel valued is powerful.

As I look over this list I realize that these are simply age-old philosophies of life. Would I have learned them without my journey through employee involvement? Maybe, but I don’t think so.

In eighteen years of formal schooling I didn’t learn these principles, and so moved into adulthood without ample preparation for life, relationships, and an understanding of my own potential. From the responses I get during my seminars, I don’t think I’m alone.

So the beauty of the involvement movement has not only been its contribution to the performance of the workplace, but also a greater understanding of who we are and what makes us better.

Schools today are beginning to teach these conceptsalong with the regular curriculum, so perhaps there is hope that tomorrow’s adults will be better prepared.

But for now we can be thankful that we had an opportunity to learn something greater than simply how to do work better. We’ve had an opportunity to learn something about life that makes each day worth living.

1. The Association for Quality and Participation was affiliated with the American Society for Quality (ASQ) in 2000, and now operates under the banner of the ASQ.