By Mike Cook
For the Bellingham Business Journal
Among the many pleasures in my life since moving from Rochester, New York, to northwest Washington in fall 2006 is my association with Western Washington University. In that time I have had several opportunities to guest lecture, as well as mentor undergraduate students. And in 2012 I began teaching a course called Managing Organizations And People in the various tracks of the MBA program at Western.
Working with students has been inspiring and therapeutic for me. A 30-year career as a management/leadership development coach and consultant left me, I have to admit, a bit charred around the edges—a common outcome of our workplaces, which are, let’s be honest, often not the most life-giving environments.
Among the many topics I touch on with students is a central theme I stick to and one that has a bracing effect on them. That theme is this: When it comes to people there is one thing you can count on—you don’t know what’s going to work until it does. There are no formulas!
Sometimes this has a disheartening effect on students but most often it is a challenge. As we continue to discuss and probe the notion of people being highly unpredictable it often dawns on students that they can forego any hope of learning how to control people. In fact, they come to realize that people in the workplace don’t need to be controlled, they need to be inspired, respected, clearly directed and allowed to perform the roles they have been assigned. But, and this is a big but, that is not to say there is no need for management. Today the management must come from within. The employee must know how to manage themselves and that requires knowledge that many people have not even begun to acquire.
“Back in the day,” as they say, in an era that depended heavily on a workforce that was willing to do as it was told, “jobs” were really jobs, clearly defined, repetitive with limited sets of tasks that you could leave at the workplace when you left for the day. Very few if any people talked about taking their work home with them. The tools were either bolted to the floor or too heavy to take home and even if you could the materials used to perform your job were not found around the house. Employees needed to be supervised more than managed, since the repetitive nature of much of the work then was mind-numbing and likely less than inspiring. Not so much these days.
That is not to say that there is no repetitive work today. But in an economy that requires ever more control of costs, jobs have been bundled with other jobs to become areas of responsibility. Lots more interesting with room to create working routines and add a dash of the personal touch every now and then.
But back to the idea of people being unpredictable and the need for management—there is need today for management in our places of work but mostly it is self-management. With jobs having grown laterally into areas of responsibility, what has occurred naturally is an increase in interdependency and the need for interpersonal skills at all levels.
Back when I worked final assembly at the Oldsmobile plant in Lansing, Michigan, I really didn’t need anyone else to help me put on the one large bolt that held the bumper to the frame. The only interdependency I experienced was with the guy who relieved me so I could use the restroom every so often. And believe me, given the fact that he only came with management permission, he was pretty important in my life.
Now I schedule my own workflow and develop my own working relationships and that means a lot more than knowing the guy at the next work station. I need to understand how I work best, how I prefer to receive information. Am I a reader or a talker? Do my co-workers know that? Will I read my emails daily, or do voicemails or texts get my attention first? Can I sit down with a co-worker and really have a conversation where I am interested in learning these things about them so I am meeting their needs?
If you are an employer today, if your employees do not have these skills they are costing you money. Knowing all these things is part of their job, not yours. If they need management or your help getting along with co-workers, you probably don’t need them. Among the costs we control today is the amount of management in our budgets, and the less the better—management is expensive.
Mike Cook lives in Anacortes. His columns appear on BBJToday.com every other Tuesday. He teaches in the MBA program at Western Washington University and also runs a CEO peer advisory group in the Bellingham area.