This is the first installment of a six-part blog series from Overland Resource Group, exploring the past, the current state, and the future of union-management collaboration and employee engagement.
Setting the Stage for Workplace Change – the ‘Blue Collar Blues’ and a Sinking Gross National Product
In the early 70’s a lot of attention began to be paid to what was then called “blue collar blues.” Employees, mostly in manufacturing environments, and in particular those working in automotive plants, were increasingly vocal about the fact that jobs were routine, boring, dull – and in fact in many cases poorly designed from the standpoint of productivity. A typical comment from an assembly line worker was “They expect me to check my brains at the front gate.”
The jobs themselves had not changed much since Henry Ford created the assembly line in the early years of the century, so why were employees suddenly now being more vocal about what was missing in their working environment, and the media consequently picking up on the story?
Sociologists were suggesting that in post-war America, with a solid middle class now well established, with factory workers making what were clearly good wages and enjoying substantial benefits, a line-worker’s attention would naturally shift to the next level up on the hierarchy of human needs. With food on the table and a solid roof overhead, often with two cars in the garage and an RV out front, the next dimension of employment came into focus – the potential of the workplace to provide “meaningful work.”
Douglas McGregor, a management professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, published an influential book in 1960, called The Human Side of Enterprise. In it, he laid out what he called Theory X and Theory Y – two sets of contrasting beliefs a manager might hold about what motivates his / her employees.
To over-simplify, Theory X holds that the average human being has an inherent dislike of work and will avoid it if he can. He is inherently lazy. People must therefore be tightly controlled, highly directed, and ‘threatened’ in order to insure that they work hard enough. Theory Y, on the other hand, posits that the expenditure of physical and mental effort in work is as natural to humans as are play and rest. Employees will be creative in how effectively they work and will direct themselves as long as they understand and are committed to the objectives of the organization. Under the prevailing conditions of modern industrial life, the intellectual potentialities of the shop-floor worker are, at best, only partially realized. McGregor did note that Theory Y may be hard to put into practice on the shop floor in large mass production operations, but it clearly could be used initially in the managing of ‘professionals’, including managers themselves.
By the early 70’s, though there were relatively few cases at first, both corporate management and union leadership were paying attention to the on-going “conversation” about work itself, the workforce, and what motivates employees.
Coincidentally, with a national election looming in 1972 and Nixon’s personal experience of having lost the 1960 election primarily due to an unfavorable economy, he became concerned that the Gross National Product was declining and unemployment was increasing. The stage was set for change.
Next: National Quality of Work Center
Robert Hughes is the founder and President of Overland Resource Group and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Nicholas Bizony is long time member of the consulting consortium at Overland and is a founding Principal with The Lakeland Group, where he consults to major organizations in the public and private sectors, enabling them to achieve significant improvements in productivity and quality, cost reduction, and increased customer satisfaction. Nick can be reached at email@example.com.