by Andy Hoffman
This blog entry is cross-posted on Zikkir.
In business school, we teach that all the aspects of an organization are connected. This includes, among other things, the structure, rewards, socialization, selection, culture and leadership. Change to one aspect results in change to the whole. Of these, rewards are often the most important. Steven Kerr wrote about the importance of rewards quite effectively in his paper “The Folly of Rewarding A While Hoping for B.” In fact, most organizational psychologists will analyze rewards first when diagnosing organizational problems. But very often, it is hard to see the mistakes we are making with rewards until after their effect has been felt through the rest of the organization, when things have started to break down. It’s like replacing the water hose on an old car and then finding that you have to replace the water pump. (I learned this the hard way.)
One morning, I arrived at work to find the Colorado guys waiting for me. (This was a group of five very experienced, migrant carpenters from Colorado; out of my crew of 15, these guys lived together and acted as a group). One of them, Riley, approached with a request. “Andy, the guys have been talking. We’ve been working here for over a year and we’re makin’ good money. But, our weekends are wasted. We don’t wanna go out and find other jobs, so we’d like to know if we can work weekends.”
I wanted to help if it would raise morale and keep productivity and commitment up. But I explained that by asking for approval for this, I’d be sticking my neck out for them. Jack (my boss) was predictably resistant to the idea. But after I pressed, he agreed with the following stipulation: “They’re your responsibility, Andy. You’ll need to keep an eye on them.” I was prepared for that, but didn’t like it. I looked forward to my weekends off, and I didn’t want to have to worry about the job when I wasn’t looking. But I wanted to trust the Colorado guys and give this new arrangement a try.
The guys were pleased. Riley thanked me for talking to Jack and we worked out a plan under which we would meet on Friday to discuss specific projects for the weekend and results that I could expect to see on Monday. These quickly became negotiation sessions with me laying out what I wanted, and the crew either agreeing, or more often, trying to scale back my expectations.
And not long into this, Monday morning began to reveal unmet results. There would always be excuses. We ran into complications. We got a late start. We ran out of materials. We underestimated how hard the job would be. It was frustrating, and began to drive a wedge between us.
Weeks after I agreed to the weekend work, I arrived on the site to find the crew waiting for me again. “We want Jack to pay us on a contract basis,” Riley announced. Under contract, they felt that they could have more control over their hours and schedule, and possibly make more money.
“I know how Jack’s gonna respond,” I said. “You remember how he reacted when you first brought this idea up six months ago? He didn’t trust you and was dead set against it.” Deep inside, I wanted to help them. I wanted to increase their motivation and commitment to the job, and thought some form of partnership arrangement might do it.
Which is what I told Jack. But he was adamant, “No way! They’re employees, not subcontractors and not partners. If we get into this, everything’ll change. They will compete with us, trying to make more money with little concern for the job.”
“Don’t you think I can work with them? Maybe with a contractual relationship, they’ll work harder,” I said.
“Bullshit! No way!” he said. “Once money comes into the picture, people change. These guys don’t have any allegiance to you or to me. They just wanna make money. Think about it. If this is so good for us, why do they want it? I’ll tell you why, because they smell an opportunity.”
This was a fundamental tension between Jack and me. He was a hardnosed builder, having worked in the trades for decades. He was hesitant to trust anyone. I, on the other hand, had a strong desire to trust people and build a culture of inclusiveness and camaraderie. This tension represents two positions on managing people, what is referred to as “theory x” and “theory y” or “process” and “content” theory. In the former case, you tell people what they want, laying out the contract in specific terms. In the latter case, you give people what they want, seeking to appeal to their intrinsic motivations. When do you use one versus the other? It depends on the context in which you are working, the specific types of employees you have, and your own personal management style.
In this case, I had to learn that among carpenters (particularly with these migrant carpenters), it was going to be a challenge to develop a theory y type of work environment. And, in fact, my attempts failed. With a change in the rewards, the terms of the relationship had been changed and that meant that everything had changed.
The distance between us grew. We had now become, in a small way, adversaries. I was “management” and they were “labor.” I wanted more production and they wanted less. I lamented a loss in the camaraderie that I thought we had. I felt that I was on an unavoidable path toward a clash with the crew. Or more accurately, this part of the crew, as the job was increasingly dividing the Colorado guys who worked continuously from everyone else who worked only during the week.
We were soon on an unavoidable path toward a clash that eventually resulted in more firings.
Then I began to seek people who were driven by the intrinsic pleasures of building as much as the necessary pay for that work. I canceled weekend work, which brought the crew back into a cohesive whole. The camaraderie returned and, with it, a stronger sense of community and work ethic. Structure, rewards, selection, culture and leadership were once again aligned.
Which theory do you use with those you manage? Is it working?