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Exposing the Great American Myth

Thursday, January 24, 2019
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I would hate for rain to fall on the prosperity parade, but from my vantage point I can see storm clouds forming on the horizon. A booming economy and plenty of jobs are not true measures of what is really going on inside our workplaces. Hidden beneath the blankets of rapid growth and low unemployment lies a burgeoning problem: The demanding nature of the modern workplace, where employees are frequently pressured to change quickly and still respond accurately, is putting a strain on the workforce.

This mounting pressure to do more in a shorter timeframe has created a rift between management and employees. And, as a result, there is an unhealthy atmosphere of negativity creeping into the workplace.

My conclusions are drawn from over 30 years of training and consulting in change-driven organizations. I have covered a lot of ground, from public service to the private sector, including Fortune 500 companies, healthcare institutions, traditional governmental agencies, and classic small businesses alike.

What I have discovered time and again throughout America is that the traditional way in which people look at their role in the workforce creates problems, the most serious of which is that labor and management think and act independently of each other until something goes wrong. Motivated by the fear of failure, these two forces reluctantly get together—not to address the issue, but to engage in finger-pointing, faultfinding, and face-saving. Meanwhile, the problem festers and their working relationship suffers as a result.

I believe that the whole point behind organizing a workforce is to create a place where individuals can achieve collectively what they cannot accomplish alone. And, in a good and positive working environment, people can achieve great things when they truly want to. Sadly, I do not see this happening very often these days; at least, not to the extent that it needs to happen for America to remain globally competitive.

And that is not all. I see an even bigger, more critical issue that we need to face up to: Corporate America is not about taking care of people—it is about taking care of business.

For far too long we have raised our children to believe that if they are good in school, get good grades, get a good education, and get a good job with a good company, they will have a good life. As a result, we have a significant number of people in today’s workforce who view the corporation as their extended family, a place that will take care of them and provide a secure job until they reach retirement age and the pension kicks in.

Depending on corporate America to look after the financial needs of our “children” long after they have grown up is not only outmoded and unreasonable, but it also conflicts with the dynamics of the modern economy.

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Managers tell me they want subordinates who can think for themselves and do not have to be closely supervised. They do not want to be disciplinarians either. And, above all, they do not want the responsibility for an employee’s personal growth.

In today’s customer-driven marketplace, a company must continually add quality and value to its products and services. If it cannot reduce costs, attract customers, and make a profit, it will cease to exist. Consequently, employees cannot expect to keep their jobs unless they take a more proactive role in the betterment of their company.

Whenever I talk to the hourly employees in a struggling organization, I hear two recurring themes: “Whatever is wrong is not our fault,” and “If there is a problem, go talk to management.” Sadly, these same employees feel entitled to their jobs regardless of how much, if anything, they contribute to the firm’s bottom line.

What really troubles me is that most workers I talk to fret too much about losing their job. Instead, they should be looking for answers to the only question that matters: What am I doing to make this company profitable?

The life of any organization—its principles, ethics, style, values, and morality—is shaped by the interactions between labor and management. Each has a responsibility to convey factual information to the other in a timely manner and to work cooperatively toward the same purpose.

What we need is less soul-selling and more soul-searching. In other words, we must change the way corporate America works.

But, you may ask, can something be done that will make a difference and not cost a ton of money? And, more importantly, can a change of this magnitude be brought about without disrupting the workflow?

The answer to both concerns is yes. I believe there is a lot we can do that will not take a long time or require a heavy cash investment either. All it requires is for us to stop pitting management and labor against each other. By bringing spirit and commitment to the workplace, we can create a we-ness that is not there now.

It would please me greatly if labor and management were to see themselves less as opposing forces and more as corporate citizens working as a team. As corporate citizens, their wants and needs would be the same: to do good work and to prosper as a result.

About the Author

Tom Jones has studied organizations and the people they employ long enough to have a keen sense of what it takes for both to prosper. He writes and speaks about those leadership challenges and management perplexities that ultimately determine the success or failure of today’s customer-sensitive workplace.

In his new book, Doers: The Vital Few Who Get Things Done, Tom shows employers how to create a workplace where doers flourish. He also shows doers how to seek out an organization where their eagerness to succeed is recognized and rewarded.

Tom holds a doctoral degree in organization and leadership from the University of San Francisco. He has lectured at six universities and currently teaches Principles of Management for the College of Business at California State University, Monterey Bay.

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