Breaking the Manager Barrier

Michael Metzger

For centuries, “experts” had widely assumed that a human being could not run a mile in under four minutes. “Can’t be done.” On May 6, 1954, Roger Bannister did it, completing the distance in 3:59.4. Since the early 1900s, management “experts” have assumed workers have to be managed. If you suggest mentoring as a better model, they scoff. “Can’t be done.” Breaking the manager barrier is not easy, but it can be done.

Modern management owes its origin to Frederick W. Taylor. He was born in 1856 to a stern Quaker mother who drilled hard work and discipline into him. Young Frederick became a determined lad. When he took up tennis, for example, he refined the techniques and skills required to perform better groundstrokes and strategies to win matches. When he turned to croquet, he spent hours working out the best strokes and strategies in the infamously precise game. When Taylor took up golf at the age of forty, he tinkered with new types of clubs, fairway grasses, and soil mixtures. His hard work paid off. He was the 1881 national doubles tennis champion and the handicap champion at the Philadelphia Country Club in 1902, 1903, and 1905.1 But in some ways it didn’t pay off. Taylor “was so obsessed with refining the rules and techniques of the many sports he played that he reportedly took all the fun out of the neighborhood games as a child.”2

Things grew grim when Taylor turned his attention to the work-a-day world. He started as an apprentice machinist in Philadelphia in the late 1870s when factories were dark and dangerous and work was called a “job” – an old English word for “criminal activity,” as in “bank job.” Taylor determined to squeeze more productivity out of these pitiful conditions, giving rise to the science of industrial psychology, human resources, performance evaluation, quality control, and management studies.3 He would eventually come to have as much influence on the world as that of Marx or Freud, according to management guru Peter Drucker.4 Even Vladimir Lenin was a convert. “We should try every scientific and progressive suggestion of the Taylor system,” urged Lenin. Marxists did try them – and just look at all the fun they had.

Taylor’s sourpuss sensitivities came from his belief that people are pack animals and work can be fragmented into measureable pieces. The purpose of work was not human flourishing but rather efficiency, productivity, and profits. “Taylor destroyed the romance of work,” writes Drucker. “Instead of a noble ‘skill’ [work became] a series of simple notions.”5 In fact, one of Taylor’s simplest notions turned into one of the most sinister – surveillance. To improve productivity, Taylor urged companies to hire managers to watch over workers. Just look at all the fun we’re having in labor relations today.

The word surveillance comes from the French to “watch over,” meaning to care for and monitor. Caring originally included treating people as responsible and creative. Taylor reduced surveillance to merely monitoring. You can draw a line from Taylor to today’s GPS-based surveillance systems for truckers, brokers, and sales people. These surveillance systems “are ushering in an age of mistrust,” writes Maggie Jackson in Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age. An absence of trust is the first sign of a dysfunctional organization – and it’s a clarion call to break the manager barrier. Breaking it, however, is not going to be easy.

When Dennis Bakke launched AES, an energy distribution company that today has 29,000 employees in 29 countries, they instilled four values, one being fun. By fun, AES assumed people are responsible and began to reject Taylor’s management theories. “I mean really reject them as a deliberate, fundamental decision,” Bakke says.

This decision was rooted in a Judeo-Christian definition of reality, which begins with an assumption that people are thinking, creative, responsible individuals. It blossomed into an organization with no shift superintendents or foreman, no general counsel’s office, no finance department, no human resources or personnel de¬partment because this function was “too important to be left to some specialist operation separate from our supervisors.”

Under Bakke, AES required every officer to work for one week every year in one of the plants. Every piece of financial information was given to every person in the company. There were no limits as to how much any one person could buy in the company with regard to capital investments. “There is no capital budgeting process as such. There are no salary grades. There are no job descriptions written, by design, and there are no employee handbooks,” Bakke added.6 This effort at mentoring yielded very good results.

A November 1993 report by the investment banking firm of Kidder Peabody found that from 1988 to 1992 AES revenues grew at an annual compounded rate of 64 percent. Company earnings during that same time period, the report noted, likewise soared at an annual rate of 136 percent. In 1991, AES’ mentoring culture was recognized by Forbes magazine, along with honoring it as one of “America’s fastest growing companies,” an honor it again earned in 1992 and 1993. It wasn’t until AES went public that Bakke’s influence began to wane. American corporate culture’s systemic commitment to short-term thinking (quarterly reports) and stockholder optimization makes it difficult.

In 1955, Roger Bannister was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated as “Sportsman of the Year.” Within two months of breaking the barrier, his record was broken. Thousands have since run sub-four-minute miles. Bannister proved the four-minute barrier was more psychological than physical. AES’ mentoring proves the same thing.

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1 Daniel A. Wren and Ronald Greenwood, Management Innovators: The People and Ideas That Have Shaped Modern Business (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1998), pp. 134-5, 139.
2 Maggie Jackson, Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age (New York, NY, Prometheus, 2008), p. 81.
3 Charles Wrege and Ronald Greenwood, Frederick W. Taylor: The Father of Scientific Management: Myth and Reality (Homewood, IL: Business One Irwin, 1991), p. 254.
4 Peter F. Drucker, Age of Discontinuity (New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1969), p. 271.
5 Peter F. Drucker, Management Practices for the Twenty-First Century (New York, NY: Harper Business, 1999), p. 138.
6 “Values Don’t Work in Business,” Max L. Stackhouse, Dennis P. McCann, and Shirley J. Roels, with Preston N. Williams, ed., On Moral Business: Classical and Contemporary Resources for Ethics in Economic Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995), pp. 713-717.

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1 thought on “Breaking the Manager Barrier”

  1. My dad has written a book which attempts to explain this same shift using the example of Christ and his posture as a son. We’re currently posting chapters of it on his blog – http://www.becomingsons.com Amazing what can happen if we could actually establish a culture of “only doing what pleases the father…”

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