In the early 1900s, Frederick Taylor, used “Scientific Management” principles to make the new production lines more efficient. Workers became cogs in the machine; shut off their minds, shut their mouths, and did what engineers and managers told them to do. The factory scene from Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 movie, Modern Times satirizes that dehumanizing tyranny of mechanization.
Over the next few decades, leading companies and human performance researchers found that empowering workers to use their heads, hearts, and hands significantly boosted morale and productivity. This human relations movement focused on the psychological and social needs of workers. When workers felt they and their work mattered, and were involved in workplace decisions, performance skyrocketed.
In 1960, MIT management professor, Douglas McGregor’s book, The Human Side of Enterprise, outlined the opposing motivational approaches of Theory X and Theory Y. While he didn’t say it this way, the essence of Theory X beliefs is that people are lazy, will rip you off, need to be “snoopervised,” and must be threatened and coerced. Theory Y approaches are based on opposing beliefs; people are self-motivated and self-controlled, want to take pride in their work, be on a winning team, and can be trusted.
We now have decades of evidence that treating people like humans, not technology — so-called soft skills — builds a much healthier, safer, engaged, service-oriented, higher quality, and profitable culture. BUT…many of today’s fastest growing tech firms have regressed to using artificial intelligence, algorithms, and machine-learning optimization to throw us back to those dehumanizing times.
Last year, I facilitated a planning retreat with a back-to-the-future technology colossus. The company was growing so rapidly they were having big problems finding people to staff their production facilities. They had a massive turnover problem. Costs were soaring and projected to get worse.
The planning session centered on processes, metrics, and systems. Plans to reduce their horrendous engagement and retention problem focused on better hiring/orientation practices and HR systems. The division leader who hired me woke up a few months prior and realized their management-leadership balance was way out of whack. After seeing me deliver an industry conference keynote on leadership and culture, he brought me in to help rebalance their leadership practices and organizational culture with stronger people principles.
The division leader’s new boss came from head office to join our session. After our discussion on providing more effective people leadership, the boss got up and strongly denounced the discussion. He said technical and analytical skills were the key to career advancement at their company. He went so far as to state, “you can be a complete a-hole as long as you’re the smartest person in the room.”
Throughout the session, it became very clear he was a quintessential bully boss. The division leader confirmed this in follow up conversations with me after the retreat. He quit after a few more months of dealing with autocratic and tyrannical behavior. He said, “Life’s too short to live in such a toxic culture no matter how much money they throw at me.”
In the 1950s, American writer, Kurt Vonnegut’s first novel, Player Piano: America in the Coming Age of Electronics, showed the negative impact technology can have on quality of life. His depiction of how automation can dehumanize is both a look back and a look forward. He writes, “If it weren’t for the people, the god-damn people always getting tangled up in the machinery…the world would be an engineer’s paradise.”
Many tech firms are succeeding — for now. We’ll see what happens when they lose their technological edge.