We Won’t be Managing White-Collar Factory Workers for Much Longer

May 4, 2010

In my last post, I warned of the dangers of being a “white-collar factory worker.” This is a follow-up post to discuss the same problem from another perspective: managing difference-makers and “factory workers.”

For people who are the difference makers, Dan Pink’s advice holds very true: “Traditional management is about compliance. If you want engagement, self-direction works better.”

I feel that there is another major problem in today’s workplace, one that places management in a difficult dichotomy. Even if you are a manager who embraces self-direction, the entire workforce is not prepared to be managed this way.

I’ll admit that there are those in leadership positions aren’t fully prepared to manage truly self-directed workers, and there are situations such as venture capitalists who want inexpensive off-shoring incorporated into business plans.

However, employees play a role here, too. I have friends that work in the trades as non-union workers, and they’ve told me that they’ve been astounded when they’ve worked side-by-side with union workers in certain jobs. They’ve literally been told to stop getting as much done in a day as they can, because they were making the union workers look bad. On those jobs, my friends said that they were able to breeze through the day operating at what they considered half-pace.

On the white-collar side of the fence, there are those employees who have learned the compliance game all too well. They don’t seek to operate outside the bounds of their job. They push any and all responsibility up the chain. They demand that their manager clearly define the boundaries of their job, their role, and the processes that they should be following.

In addition, there are those who don’t seek to extend themselves professionally. Pawel Brodzinski recently noted the lack of initiative on the part of many individuals when it comes to professional development in a recent post, People Don’t Want to Learn.

Managers these days are increasingly straddling a line between those who demand self-direction and those who demand direction, with all the various degrees in between these two extremes. And by the way, we’re using one HR system with a standardized annual review process.

I don’t believe that this will be sustainable or desirable in the long term. Continually raising the productivity bar will require that more time and energy applied to the more creative, high-return aspects of business. We’re running out of people bandwidth to continually organize and structure everyone’s day. People will need to understand the general direction and be a part of helping the organization get there by applying their skills and abilities as the strategic direction dictates.

My advice is that ultimately, you’re in a very bad place if you want someone else to fully define and orchestrate your day. If you expect a manager to explicitly define and organize your work, don't expect top dollar for the work. And increasingly so, don't expect medium-sized bucks for that work, either.

If your job can distilled down into a well-defined, repeatable process, your job is in danger of being commoditized. Translation: you will receive lower pay or your job will be moved off-shore, where it can be performed by someone else for far less pay. This might not happen tomorrow, but the potential exists. Follow the advice offered by Seth Godin, and strive to become indispensable, through things like:
  • Providing a unique interface between members of the organization.
  • Delivering unique creativity
  • Managing a situation or organization of great complexity
  • Leading customers
  • Inspiring staff
  • Providing deep domain knowledge
  • Possessing a unique talent
Be a professional, and keep developing yourself as a professional. The best defense is a good offense!


Anonymous said...

I find that generally people behave fairly logically based on their past experience and perceptions. If someone is acting as a 'factory worker' it's probably because they're found that taking initiative is poorly rewarded. To maximize their utility from their effort expended, they do just enough to not get fired.
Anyway, a job that can be commoditized, as you define it, isn't going to be saved forever just by working extra hard. There is someone somewhere overseas that is willing to work just as hard as you.

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