Strategies for Continuous Learning in the Workplace Part IV: Building Esteem

Tom Peters

In the past three columns, I’ve detailed miracles that occurred in formerly broken-down workplaces: a GM auto components factory, Harley-Davidson’s motorcycle assembly plant, Johnsonville Foods, and the classrooms of Thayer High School in Winchester, N.H. But it took a recent article in the San Jose (Calif.) Mercury‘s Sunday magazine, “Airplane 1988—A Disaster Story,” to pull it all together for me.

The author described a 4,600-mile, multi-leg journey on Continental Airlines. This was not just another lament about airline delays and lost baggage. The resonant chord was his almost exclusive emphasis on the loss of control that the average passenger feels. Quarters are cramped, flight attendants are rarely attentive, food-service trays further constrain space, excessive hand baggage extrudes from every crevice, and fellow passengers roll onto your seat.

You may be statistically safe, but you are out of control. The writer concludes by contrasting this setting with the joyous freedom of the road at the end of his trip—even in a California traffic jam, in vehicles rightfully declared to be unsafe at any speed. You are undisputed king of your 40 or so square feet, including tape deck, windshield wipers, seat adjustors, and all the other appurtenances over which you are the unquestioned master.

The article reminded me of a landmark psychological experiment from a burgeoning field called “locus of control.” Experimenters gave adult subjects some complex puzzles to solve and a rote proofreading chore. In the background was a distracting noise, described as “a combination of two people speaking Spanish, one speaking Armenian, a mimeograph machine running, a desk calculator, a typewriter, and street noise.” The subjects were split into two groups. Individuals in one set were told to work the task, while the noise played on. Individuals in the other group were provided with a button that they could push at will to tune out the noise. The people with the “off-switch” solved five times more puzzles on average than their cohorts and made significantly fewer proofreading errors. The surprise: “…none of the subjects with the off-switch ever used the switch. The mere knowledge that one can exert control made the difference.”

This led me to reconsider the four workplaces I’ve described to you. Though the settings and the leaders are remarkably different, each story boils down to self-control restored and self-esteem enhanced.

The leaders’ core philosophies were similar to one another, as were employees’ response to them. GM Plant Manager Pat Carrigan spoke of employees “taking ownership” and her goal that every worker should feel that “I make a difference.” Her workers, in turn, spoke of being treated for the first time “like adults.” And tough-minded, local union boss Jack Whyte spoke repeatedly about “being a full-scale part of the process.”

At Harley-Davidson, Chairman Vaughn Beals rejoiced in “releasing power that’s damn near infinite,” by turning over day-to-day responsibility to the work force. And the workers made it clear that they had accepted the new grant of ownership. “It’s my motorcycle,” one typical line worker explained.

At Johnsonville Foods, President Ralph Stayer waxed poetic about employees becoming “the instrument of their own destiny.” His philosophy was revealed in the words and deeds of almost every “hourly” employee I talked to. I prodded one team leader about his devotion to worker involvement. “But what do you do,” I objected, “when somebody makes a really dumb suggestion?” With a reproachful look, he responded, “I just don’t think that any [worker] idea is a dumb idea, Tom.” This was followed by his careful explanation of how you coach people to help them turn rough ideas into “thoroughly documented suggestions, with all facts straight.”

Thayer High School Principal Dennis Littky recalls the high school when he arrived seven years ago: “The biggest thing was that no one, teacher or student, felt good about themselves or what they were doing.” Littky built esteem by giving trust—and expecting it in return. As one local school-board member says, “He has a relationship with every child in that school. … He always treats everyone with respect. … He loves those kids and they know it.” She also claims that he changed the tone of the school from defeatist to positive in a host of little ways: “First thing you saw [before] were notices on the board that someone had detention… [Now] there are always bright and happy things [such as announcements of individual achievement] on the bulletin board. … That, itself, makes students take pride.” And one teacher adds, “If you expect that kids are going to write on the wall, they will, OK? And if you expect the teachers can’t do something, or won’t do something, they won’t. He always expects the best of you.”

These four exemplary leaders, however, are not remnants of the unguided ’60s or the narcissistic ’70s. Each spoke passionately about “results,” “responsibility” and “accountability.” They spoke about respect and responsibility given—and respect and responsibility expected in return. Johnsonville’s Stayer summed it up best: “We’re here to give you an opportunity to achieve whatever it is you want to achieve in life. We’ll also help you figure out what that is, and we’ll give you the resources to do it. But if you don’t have a goal, if you don’t see yourself as improving, you’re not going to make it here. Because you’re going to be letting down not only yourself but all your fellow workers.”

(c) 1988 TPG Communications.

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