Now Hiring: Stupid Employees Wanted

Two Swedish professors proposed in the Journal of Management Studies that companies with too many smart people risk having their workflow disrupted by workers who overanalyze everything and make repeated suggestions for alternatives. They conclude that the best team players are people who carry out their work without constantly questioning the processes or their bosses (Star Tribune, 6/2/13).

I don’t think so.

Frederick Taylor, an American engineer and the first organizational consultant, created “scientific management” in the early 20th century. Taylor’s principles led to detailed job descriptions for fragmented jobs. People created organizations with hierarchical, compartmentalized, and functionalized departments with rigid and impermeable boundaries. Managers “controlled” people with bribes and threats: performance appraisals; discipline procedures; incentive plans; and lies, abuse, and crazy making.

Conformity became the first rule of organizations. The only quality required of a worker was obedience. Leaders were separate from workers and creativity, initiative, and innovation came from the top or from outside the enterprise. Taylor’s message to workers was, “You are not supposed to think. There are other people paid for thinking around here.”

Taylor’s tragic mistake was to think that managers can control and engineer people like machinery. Treating people like pieces of equipment robs the workplace of spirit, ethics, purpose, values, emotion, and meaning.  I’m sure Taylor had no idea when he introduced the quest for efficiency without humanity just how many souls his approaches would crush, how much energy his methods would steal from creativity.

More than 100 years later, most organizations are mediocre monocultures that demand conformity. Everyone thinks and behaves the same. The discrepancy between the potential and actual life expectancy of corporations is greater than for any other species on the planet. Most people’s jobs are too small for them. Massive human potential goes unfulfilled. How’s scientific management working for us?

Smart people with great values fill our organizations. The problem with workplaces isn’t too many smart folks, and we don’t need more “dumb” workers: the problem is too many employees who comply with the demands for conformity and dumb themselves down to be accepted by disengaged colleagues and lousy leaders who fail to create conditions where every person can choose to be their best without fear of being ostracized, marginalized, or discarded like old appliances.

The best team players aren’t the sleepy, silent, and spiritless human robots of Frederick Taylor’s dismal workplace.  The best team players are alive, energized, and engaged. They’re hard to handle. The best leaders care about others and support and encourage authentic people at work.

The “stupid” people in this story are the two academics who have apparently never seen the walking dead that fill the kinds of organizations they endorse.

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