Do We Treat Employees Like Machines?

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(Part 3 of our series, “Why Do People Hate Their Boss”)

Do we treat employees like machines?  It’s a question on some employees’ minds these days.  What motivates people and how they think is the passion of one of today’s great American business management visionaries, Systems Scientist and Senior Lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management, Peter Senge.  An engineer and philosopher, Senge is most known for his important and recommended read (a keeper for any academic library) The Fifth Discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization, published in 1990 and soon after named by the Harvard Business Review as one of the seminal management books of the century.  When Peter Senge weighs in on any topic-such as whether we have really crossed over into the Information Age yet – it’s well worth anyone’s time to follow his train of thought.

Understanding that even though much of today’s workforce is part of the Network information culture that’s connected on a global scale, Senge believes that most business thinking is still stuck in an Industrial Age “bubble” that’s about to burst.  Senge describes Industrial Age philosophies of standardization, bureaucratic organizations, and centralized control in what he calls The Machine Metaphor, which he believes illustrates a surprising amount of core assumptions within management and organizations today.

Through Senge’s eyes, the question of whether we treat employees like machines goes something like this:

An organization is like a machine, either owned by someone or by a group of shareholders. The machine exists for the purpose of making money for its builders and owners-and, like any machine, can only be operational when controlled by its owners.  Management exists to help owners control the machine. The mechanical systems and procedures are created outside by its builders and imposed on the organization.  Consequently, if anything needs to be changed, someone from the outside has to come in and change things.  A machine doesn’t have living parts.  Therefore, the organization’s members are mechanical parts in which human resources are just humans standing in reserve, waiting to be used.  The machine’s identity and brand is given to it by its owners and builders.

Most likely either you or someone you know have experienced this metaphor-or parts of it-in your business career.  What Senge recognizes is that most people want to go to work and feel like they are a member of a community of human beings.  People want to work together for a common purpose and learn as an entity, like a professional sports team, or a jazz ensemble can learn as an entity.

Senge believes that most people have an aversion to their work environments’ because they have consciously or unconsciously formed a deep resentment towards being a slave to the machine and forced to be ‘machine-like’ in order to fit in.  Hence why some people feel we treat employees like machines.

Human beings can’t be controlled and mass produced like machines because we are complex.  We can only be influenced or inspired for optimal performance.  To influence is to motivate and inspire through complex interactive processes.  Instead, we are treated on a ‘need to know’ basis and the verdict usually is that we don’t need to know.  But overwhelming evidence shows that people who are respected, cared for, and motivated will be the most productive with the most output. So far, no machine has solved the productivity gap that is currently costing U.S. companies half-a- trillion dollars in losses of missed work and productivity.

Ironically, what new technology has created, according to Harvard professor and University librarian Robert Darnton, is a global interdependency that is reinforcing, not undermining, old modes of communication.  New technology is compelling us to understand how we humans affect each other around the world.  We are far more aware of what is going on around us at multiple levels, ushering in a new awareness of environmental changes, the agility to change with it and social cooperation.

Consider advances in psychology and the human mind that have pinpointed Emotional Intelligence (EQ) as the single most important factor in successful social negotiation, business careers, and earnings – more than IQ and more than personality.  Emotional Intelligence means managing emotions which come from sensory input that happens 300 times faster than the intellect can process.  Call it human software. No matter how fast a machine or AI can process, it does not have the potential agility of, nor can it replace, EQ.  This is one of the main reasons why we can’t treat employees like machines.

The other irony is that people more at risk are top leadership and management who are the most disposable parts of the machine.  After they have served their usefulness they can be discarded into early retirement and replaced with newer parts.  Sadly, in the process of machinelike management it’s easy to lose feelings, empathy and compassion, not trusting emotions anymore.  If we can’t manage our emotions we become like the machine, bypassing what evidence has proven to be the single most success-indicating factor in business today.

So now when people ask if we treat employees like machines, we can all have better insight as to why some feel this way.  To understand the profound impact that the Machine Metaphor has had on society, we need to look at where it came from which will be the continuing topic in Part 4 of this series.

From Peter M Senge’s Forward to Arie De Geus The Living Company  (Boston, MA Harvard Business School Press 2002)

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