Leadership

Do You Trust Your Staff to Be Results-Oriented?

By / Oct 15, 2012 (TMG archive photo)

Rather than focusing on whether an employee is there on time, are you willing to focus on whether they get the job done effectively?

Every time you hear the term “results oriented work environment,” take a moment to think about Frederick Winslow Taylor.

Even if you don’t recognize Taylor’s name, you’re probably familiar with his legacy, which isn’t pretty. A mechanical engineer and manager, Taylor preached a gospel of “scientific management” in the late 19th and early 20th century that emphasized squeezing every last ounce of productivity out of workers. Management-by-stopwatch was appealing to many manufacturers at a time when assembly-line work demanded rigorous processes. But Taylor’s attitude about the role of workers under his system could be condescending and even downright inhumane. In his signature work, 1911’s The Principles of Scientific Management, he imagined one typical line worker as “so stupid and so phlegmatic that he more nearly resembles in his mental make-up the ox than any other type.” Peter Drucker he wasn’t.

Frederick Winslow Taylor, who helped conceive the idea of a results oriented work environment. (public domain photo)

We’ve evolved in century since then, thank goodness. Today, when we say “results oriented work environment,” we mean a system in which leaders focus on whether employees are getting their tasks done, not on when they show up or leave. It recognizes that staffers often have complicated personal lives, and that giving them the freedom to do a little holiday shopping at their cubes or to leave early to go to the dentist makes them happier and, ultimately, more productive.

Leaders are sticking to an old-fashioned conception of what productivity is, and if workers don’t match up to it, they risk being punished.

Except Taylor’s legacy appears to be a little hard to shake.

Last week the Wall Street Journal reported on a study by researchers from the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management that says workers who use “flex time” can be at a disadvantage in the workplace. “[I]f management assumes an employee needs the flexibility to manage his or her personal life, that worker suffers in the boss’s estimation,” reads the Journal report.

And there’s nothing in the article that suggests the negative perception is earned — that is, that the flex-time worker was less productive. So it’s not just the number of widgets your employees make that matters, but the physical presence of the employees who make them. Leaders are sticking to an old-fashioned conception of what productivity is, and if workers don’t match up to it, they risk being punished.

Small wonder a lot of people are futzing around at their desk well after 5 p.m. for no good reason. Harvard Business School lecturer Robert C. Pozen recently wrote about this phenomenon in the New York Times, noting that the focus on face time and hours clocked are “understandable remnants of the industrial age, harking back to the standardized nature of work on an assembly line. But a measurement system based on hours makes no sense for knowledge workers.” So leaders have a tough task: Not only do they have to seriously consider the benefits of a more results-focused organization, but they have to seriously question their instinct to think that a worker who leaves early or comes in late is slacking.

So how do you do it? What is your approach to flex-time or “ROWE” policies, and how can you best address that Tayloristic reflex and make sure you treat flex-time employees fairly?

Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. More »

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