The organization as workplace: satisfaction

The central thesis of Chapter VI is that the survival and success of organi- zations depend on their providing sufficient incentives to their members to secure the contributions that are needed to carry out the organizations’ tasks. Monetary rewards are, of course, important; but willingness to do the work and the enthusiasm with which work is done may depend very much on how pleasant or unpleasant workers find the job and its physical and social environments.

Many cultures, including our own, cherish a myth of an earlier Golden Age, in which life was delightful and men and women were happy. During the eighteenth century, the Age of Reason, such myths flourished. “Man,” said Jean Jacques Rousseau, “was bom free, but everywhere he is in chains.” The ideal of a Golden Age has not died. In our own day, we cast nostalgic eyes on the past, imagining that we see there simpler and happier times that have been taken from us by the complexities and confusions of our present industrial society.

This section of the commentary will examine some of our present dis- contents that center on the workplace, to assess their severity and to ask how far they differ from the discontents of the past. Are our modem factory, office, and shop fit places for human beings to work in and live out their days? In particular, are the changes taking place in the workplace— changes resulting from the continuing advance of technology, or from rising levels of education in our society, or from our responses to resource scarcities and environmental pollution—are these changes improving the quality of life in the workplace, or causing it to deteriorate?

Of course the conditions of some people may have improved, of others deteriorated. We may have something different to say about the life of the executive and the life of the blue-collar or clerical worker. Moreover, the quality of life has many dimensions. We may observe progress along some of them, regress along others. I will focus on levels of work satisfaction: people’s attachment to or alienation from their work. I will begin with executive work.

1. The Work of the Executive

Forty years ago we learned from William H. Whyte a new phrase, “the Organization Man.”18 The Organization Man was an executive who had sold his soul to the Corporation. He dressed as it wanted him to, married as it wanted him to, and thought as it wanted him to. But most important, the Organization Man was a member of a group. He was loyal to the group, conformed to the group norms, and made his decisions and did his work through group processes. It was no part of his role to express his individuality, to innovate in solitude, or to dissent from the group consensus.

Whyte’s argument has been widely interpreted as an attack on modern business institutions and industrial society. It was no such thing. It was an expression of nostalgia for an individualistic ethic—the Protestant ethic, as it is often called—which Whyte thought was rapidly being displaced by a social ethic.19

We may share Whyte’s sympathy for the rugged individualists of the past—the Henry Fords and the Andrew Camegies, but we must remember that there was generally room for only one of those individualists in any single company. Henry Ford could be an individualist because he could hire many organization men to work for him.

Second, we must not imagine that there is no place for individualists in the business and industrial world today. Their main opportunities arise, as they have always done, in the spawning of new industries and companies. I can think, offhand, of a dozen examples in the electronics industry alone— men like William Hewlett of Hewlett-Packard, Pat Haggerty of Texas Instruments, or Bill Gates of Microsoft. Moreover, these contemporary individualists seem often to have acquired a managerial style that allows them to work effectively with others. They seem to have absorbed at least some elements of the social ethic. But we find that that was also true of men of the past, like Carnegie, when we examine their careers carefully.

So we are left with the question of whether the portrait of the Orga- nization Man revealed a genuine trend or just rediscovered that most people, most of the time, need a supportive social environment—need to “belong”— and are capable, at most, of only modest bursts of creativity, whether in isolation or in groups. Whyte himself spoke quite cautiously of a needed balance between the individualist ethic and the social ethic, and argued only that the balance had moved too far toward the latter.

Let us accept the premise that the social ethic describes—if with a bit of exaggeration—the ways of thought and action of most business managers today. What does this say of their satisfactions, of the quality of life in the executive workplace, of their attachment to it, or alienation from it?

One can doubt that there has been any massive shift during the past few generations in the nature of the manager’s work or social environment. Conformity to social pressure is not an invention of our generation. Nor should we go to the other extreme and assume that ours is peculiarly an age of nonconformity. The solid ranks of blue jeans I see in my classes disabuse me of that idea. What kind of nonconformity produces this coincidental convergence on blue jeans, and informal living arrangements? We are not solitary savages but social animals. Most of us are not productive, or even comfortable, when placed in isolation and asked to solve vague, complex, unstructured problems. We cannot conclude that the office, which provides us with social support and social interaction, is a hostile environment for us.

How then are we to account for the boredom and lack of satisfaction that many executives experience in their jobs? If the workplace is humane, why do many persons express their alienation from it, and why do they seek their satisfaction outside it? Daniel Berlyne, in his research on what makes things boring or interesting, showed that activities can hold people’s interest and attention only if they are sufficiently complex to continue to present elements of novelty, but sufficiently simple to be understandable, so that pattern can be discerned in them. The level of complexity of a task does not, of course, remain constant. Experience with it gradually reduces its complexity, so that in time almost any task can become routine, uninteresting, boring. Nor is the complexity of a task the same for all persons. What is incomprehensible to some may be banal to others.

Of course, maintaining the average complexity of executive tasks at

some priority over the goals of immediate work satisfaction for managers. Put in   simplest   terms—which apply   to all   kinds of   work and not just to managerial jobs—lots of dull tasks have to be done in the world each day, and to each of us falls a larger or a smaller share of them. Some of these dull tasks, particularly those   requiring mechanical effort, we have passed off to machines, but more than enough remain for the human beings in almost all occupations.

People whose jobs are unrewarding look for their main satisfactions in other parts of their lives, and we say that they are alienated. Again, this is not a peculiarity of contemporary life. The novels and letters of Stendhal complain constantly of the tedium of executive life in the French army and government a century and a half ago.20 Samuel Pepys, writing his diary in England three centuries ago, gives us only glimpses of the work of his office at the Admiralty, because, apart from periodic political crises that endanger his position, he finds his life outside the office much more interesting.21 The testimony of these witnesses is especially valuable, in that both were reputedly effective executives, and both were intensely interested in and curious about life, even though their curiosity was more often satisfied outside the workplace than in it.

How has the introduction of computers into business changed this picture? To date, the computer has had very modest impact on executive work, particularly at higher executive levels. In some middle management areas (e.g., scheduling and inventory control) the computer has assumed responsibility for routine, repetitive decisions that managers had previously made. Here, the consequence, in addition to downsizing, has been to transfer the manager’s attention to somewhat longer-run concerns, and to the management of people.

At higher executive levels, even these kinds of effects have not been visible. To a limited extent, the computer has changed and improved the flow of information to top executives—the information that is available to them, for example, when they are engaged in collective bargaining, about the cost of particular provisions in the labor contract. Changes of this sort, however, have little significance for the human quality of the executive’s job. They do not change the nature of interactions with associates or subordinates. Of course, we cannot be sure that this will continue to be the case—that later developments in the computer revolution, like the current proliferation of data bases and communication networks, will not impinge on the manager’s job in more fundamental ways. Nothing we have seen up to the present time allows us to predict with any confidence what the shape of such developments might be, or their consequences for alienation or for the balance between the social ethic and individualism.

What I have said should not be taken as an argument against making the executive workplace a more challenging and humane environment. Using the computer to automate routine work is one possible direction of improvement, although we should remember that the human jobs left behind after the automation may sometimes be simpler instead of more complex than those they replaced. Other possibilities for work enrichment may be found in more frequent lateral transfer of executives from one responsibility to another.

Thus far, I have presented no systematic evidence, but have relied on anecdotes and appeals to your own personal experiences for support of my position. Turning now to a domain where at least a modicum of objective evidence is available to discipline our personal viewpoints, I should like to examine work satisfactions and alienation of blue-collar and clerical workers, and particularly the impacts on work satisfaction of factory and office automation.

2. Work Before Industrialization

Golden Age myths do not all describe a happy savage. There is also a Golden Age of preindustrialized society, supposedly inhabited by happy craftsmen and even happy peasants. The contrast of this Golden Age with the bleak realities of life in factory and mine during the early Industrial Revolution provides a central topic for nineteenth-century social criticism. The theme of alienation finds a clear voice in the writings of Karl Marx; the Communist Manifesto22 contains a succinct statement:

Owing to the extensive use of machinery and to the division of labor, the work of the proletarians has lost all individual character, and consequently, all charm for the workman. He becomes an appendage of the machine, and it is only the most simple, most monotonous, and most easily acquired knack that is required of him.

One hundred years after the publication of the Communist Manifesto the same fears were expressed about the introduction of the computer to automate factory and office work. Two charges, then, have been leveled: that the Industrial Revolution dehumanized work, and that the appearance of the electronic computer has dehumanized it further.

Again, few statistics are forthcoming that would settle these questions in any definitive way. We know that, prior to the Industrial Revolution, almost all people were poorer in material goods than they are in the industrialized nations today. Perhaps, however, they were poor but happy. Perhaps they have given up their pleasant and challenging occupations for the potage of a goods-filled unsatisfying leisure.

An English writer, Alasdair Clayre,55 searched out what the preindustrial workers in England themselves said about work. Of course, much more was written about workers and peasants, than by workers and peasants. Nevertheless, Clayre was able to find a little diary material, some reasonably concrete reports by observers, and, most important, the evidence of poems and work songs that were current among the people. Here is a typical example of what he found, part of a poem written about 1730 by one Stephen Duck:56

Week after Week we this dull Task pursue, / Unless when winnowing Days produce a new; / A new indeed, but frequently a worse, / The Threshall yields but to the Master’s Curse: / He counts the Bushels, counts how much a Day, / Then swears we’ve idled half our Time away.

The evidence is wholly consistent. Work—whether on farm or at sea—is hard and wearisome. After work is done there may be time for pleasure. As Clayre sums it up:25

It is not often, in the whole body of traditional songs, that we find a reference to work as an activity valued in itself, independent of love, of the chances of interruption by girls, of play, or of rewards.

Although the evidence is less full then we might wish, the weight of it is clearly opposed to the reality of a Golden Age of work that was destroyed by the machine and the factory. We should not go to the other extreme of supposing that the Industrial Revolution was itself a Golden Age. We know too much about the brutalities of the first century of the factory system to fall

3. Automation and Alienation

We are now only about four decades into the computer revolution. There is no doubt that it is a revolution of the most profound kind, which has only begun to run its course. Because the computer is such a recent innovation, we do have some reasonably reliable and comparable data on levels of work satisfaction before its introduction and today. We also have evidence from a few careful studies of the changes experienced by workers at the time computers were introduced into their factories and offices.

Polling data from at least fifteen job satisfaction surveys of national samples of workers provide no evidence of decline in the average levels of job satisfaction reported by respondents. Thirty-five or forty years ago, most workers (80 to 90 per cent) said they were “satisfied” or “reasonably satisfied” with their jobs. About the same percentage say the same things today.26

Of course we must be careful how we interpret these findings. Workers who say they are reasonably satisfied with their jobs may not be especially happy in them. They might have a long list of things they would like to see changed. They might not even be particularly pleased with their choices of occupations, and might wish that they had entered others. We do not have good measuring sticks for absolute levels of satisfaction. But we can conclude from the findings of the polls that, however high or low the absolute levels of satisfaction, there has been no discernible trend in those levels since computers began to be used by business and industry on a large scale. Automation, as far as it has gone to date, has not produced new alienation.

A person whose conception of automation was formed by viewing Charlie Chaplin’s Modem Times might understandably be puzzled at these poll results. The dehumanizing effects of machines appear so blatant that it would seem that workers could not fail to notice them, unless they were numbed by their work experiences. But of course Modem Times is a caricature, and it is a caricature of a form of mechanization that is becoming increasingly outmoded. To get a more factual picture of the meaning of automation for workers, we must examine the automated workplace itself and study its characteristics.

A substantial number of published studies, especially from the decades of the 1960s and ’70s, describe factories and offices operating at one or another level of mechanization and automation, including before- and-after studies of the installation of new computing systems. First there are studies of the short- term, transient effects of introducing computers, like the observations reported by Ida Hoos.27 In these studies, we see con- siderable evidence of psychological trauma produced by the changes. Workers are often fearful of the new technology, and express feelings that their work has been dehumanized. They worry about the prospects of their being displaced by the computer, and about their abilities to cope with their altered jobs.

That such reactions to computerization have occurred cannot be doubted, but their interpretation is more problematic. Are they reactions to computers and a computerized workplace; or may they be, instead, reactions to change? And even more particularly, may they be reactions to the particular ways in which change was introduced and implemented? Writers on human relations have been pointing out for years that the way in which an innovation will be received by workers depends critically upon the way in which it is presented to them. Change may be feared and resisted, or it may be accepted as a welcome challenge.

Human nature is not inherently hostile to change, for human beings seek out novelty as often as they flee it. Whether their reactions will be positive or negative depends in large part on the nature and extent of their participation in the change process. In simplest terms, people usually react positively to actions that they perceive as being done by them, and negatively to those they perceive as being done to them without their consent. It is not change, but feelings of anxiety and helplessness in being subjected to change over which they have no control or influence that causes malaise and opposition.

We cannot be sure, therefore, whether studies that show negative attitudes toward a newly computerized workplace reflect characteristics of the technology or are simply the consequences of a poorly managed change process. We know that managements in the past have frequently been guilty of failing to consult workers and secure their participation in all sorts of changes, most of them unconnected with mechanization. We know that these failures in communication quite consistently produced exactly the sorts of reactions that have been observed in the before-and- after computer studies. Hence, we are left with two different possible causes for these reactions, and no basis for disconfounding them. For further enlightenment, we must turn to other sorts of studies.

Thirty years ago, Robert Blauner carried out an important series of case studies which he reported in his book Alienation and Freedom: The Factory Worker and his Industry.28 Blauner’s idea was that there are many forms of manufacturing technology—the assembly line is only one of them—and different forms might have quite different psychological sig- nificance. Some of them might be severely dehumanizing and alienating, and others less so or not at all.

Blauner looked at companies using four different technologies: a printing concern, a textile manufacturer, an automobile assembly plant, and a continuous process chemical manufacturing plant. He found substantial differences in the levels of satisfaction or dissatisfaction of workers in these four situations. Some of the diversity could be attributed to differences in the ethnic and social origins of the workers, but even when allowance was made for this factor, large differences remained. Worker satisfactions were relatively high in the printing concern and the chemical plant, relatively low in the textile mill and the auto assembly plant.

We can conjecture some of the reasons for these findings. Printing was, at the time of Blauner’s study, a relatively traditional technology employing skilled craftsmen. The textile mill and the assembly line fit more closely to the Modem Times stereotype. Most of the jobs in these factories were highly routine and repetitive, and the human work was paced by the rhythm of the machines.

The finding that job satisfaction at the chemical plant was relatively high requires a little more consideration. It was a modem, highly automated plant, in which humans served primarily in a backup role—not operating the process but monitoring it, and intervening only when it malfunctioned. The human staff also had, of course, the responsibilities for maintenance and repair. Some parts of the engineering staff were continually engaged in the longer-term concerns of improving and expanding the plant, and introducing new operations. A relatively large fraction of the jobs associated with the plant called for a high level of skill, and few were paced by the tempo of the manufacturing processes. The worker supervised the machine, maintained the machine, designed and modified the machine, but was not driven by the machine. The worker’s pace did not have to be matched, from moment to moment, to the machine’s pace.

It is the chemical plant, and not the textile mill or the auto assembly line, that most nearly typifies the direction in which highly automated and computerized factory and office work are moving. The newer technology appears to be substantially more congenial to its human operators than the technology that was typical of an earlier phase of the Industrial Revolution. The current and continuing trend toward high levels of automation is eliminating some of the routine and boredom of semi- automated technologies.

Thomas L. Whisler in a score of insurance offices.29 Like Hoos, Whisler compared attitudes toward work prior to and subsequent to the comput- erization of large-scale clerical operations. The difference between Whisler’s studies and those of Hoos is that Whisler examined the offices, not immediately after the change had been introduced, but some years later. He did not observe strongly negative attitudes of the sort that Hoos had reported. On average, the clerical workers reported that their jobs were now more demanding—a higher level of accuracy and reliability was expected of them. At the same time, they reported that their jobs were no less pleasant or more boring than they had been before. Evidently the higher demands of the jobs produced as much challenge as tension. Whisler also found that all of the changes in attitude were very small in magnitude, and often in opposite directions in different firms. A rather radical alteration of the data processing technology had produced only small, almost insignificant, changes in the perceived human quality of the work environment.

We need many more studies like those of Blauner and Whisler before we can be satisfied that their results may safely be extrapolated to the whole spectmm of manufacturing and clerical operations that are now being auto- mated. However, the findings should be surprising only to persons who have not examined in detail the new technology—who still view it as if it were in a direct line of descent from the traditional mechanized factory, instead of representing a quite distinct and different line of evolution.

4. Alienation and Authority Relations

A good deal of the discussion of alienation in the workplace has been focused on the role of authority in organizations, and the alienating effects of authoritarian environments. Because the next chapter, Chapter VII, takes up the topic of authority, we will postpone our discussion of the relation between authority and alienation to the commentary to that chapter.

5. Systems Effects of Automation

To understand the effects of automation upon job satisfaction, it is not enough to observe the direct impact of automation upon the factory or office where it takes place. The purpose and economic justification of automation is to save human labor. After automation, fewer persons will be employed for a given level of output than before. This increase in pro-ductivity produces shifts in the distribution of the labor force among occupations and industries. Under present conditions, and those of the foreseeable future, these shifts are bringing about a relative decline in the fraction of the labor force that is engaged in manufacturing and routine clerical occupations, and an increase in the fraction engaged in service occupations, a change that has already been going on for a generation and is likely to continue into the indefinite future.

The shifts raise the important question of whether service jobs tend, on average, to be more or less satisfying than jobs in manufacturing industries or large clerical offices. The data from opinion polls do not show large differences in satisfaction among these categories, but the categories are too gross to allow us to reach conclusions with any great assurance. In particular, “service occupations” is a most heterogeneous category that includes school teachers, cosmetics salesmen, medical technicians, and innumerable other groups. Unless we know which of these occupations are going to be most expanded, we cannot easily decide whether work is going to become, on average, more pleasant or less pleasant.

Probably, on average, service occupations are not less routine than occupations in factories and offices. On the other hand, most service occupations appear to afford more-than-average human contact in their performance. This is generally considered a positive and humanizing aspect of a job, and a majority of people probably regard it as so.

We arrive at the conclusion that automation, by producing a net shift in the employment spectrum toward the service occupations, may make a small contribution toward increasing job satisfactions and the humaneness of the workplace, and very probably is not deleterious in its net effects. In all of this discussion, the assumption has been made implicitly that the levels of employment and unemployment are independent of how much automation has been introduced into the economy. Most economists would accept that assumption, and I have given the arguments for it in Chapter 5 of my New Science of Management Decision.30

6. Organizations of the Future

At the very end of the commentary on Chapter I, some observations were made about ongoing and potential changes in the nature of organizations with the spread of computing and networking technology and the broadening ranges of their application. Some work, it was argued, was being transferred from the factory or office to the home; networking and “groupware” were encouraging and facilitating collaborative work; with the networking of organizations, hierarchy was becoming a less important component in the total system of communications channels.

These developments are sufficiently new that it is not possible to predict with great assurance either the rate at which they are likely to spread or their effects on work satisfaction.31 Each of these developments raises its own issues. One issue about home work is the extent to which employees will prefer working in a remote environment, tied to their coworkers by electronic links, as compared with a social environment permitting face-to-face interaction in the office. A central issue with respect to networking, which will be explored more fully in the commentary to Chapter VIII, on communications, is how the load that is placed on human attention by each-to-all communication nets is to be kept within acceptable bounds. An obvious issue with respect to hierarchy is how top management is to retain its ability to steer the general course of the organization and maintain adherence to its goals.

Until we have more experience with these developments, the prudent course is to render a Scottish verdict, “Not proven.” Meanwhile, events are proceeding sufficiently slowly that we will have many opportunities to study the consequences of these changes in specific work situations when they are first attempted.

Source: Simon Herbert A. (1997), Administrative Behavior, Free Press; Subsequent edition.

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