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looking backwards – Part 2 – first principles

May 25, 2010

It is funny the things you find yourself disagreeing with people about. I remember somebody saying that they had disagreed with their boss over the basic principle that underpinned the organisation. I suppose that is not so unusual until you discover the context in which the discussion took place.

It was during a company team building session attended by every employee in the company. Apparently their boss had put forward the view that the clients were the most important thing that the company had. Without them there was no money coming in and therefore no company. The alternate view, that the employees were the only thing that the company had,  was brushed aside. The employees were there to serve the clients.

Call me crazy but I don’t think that is the right thing to say in front of all of your employees. Last I heard the company in question had a lot less employees and a lot less clients.

A quick Google search on the topic of “how we treat our employees” brings up phrases like “We know how important our people are for the success of the business and we value them as much as we value our clients.”. I happen to think that is worse than saying clients are more important because it is dishonest. The word ‘almost’ is clearly implied. It would be better if it said this (but I don’t think you would find these words on many Company websites!):

“We know how important our clients are for the success of the business and we value them as much as we value our people.”

The preamble from GUIDING PRINCIPLES AND OBJECTIVES IN EMPLOYEE RELATIONS addresses the issue this way:

Preamble from the Guiding Principles
I like the honesty in the first paragraph and it is clear that even not-for-profit organisations have to make money to continue their work.  I will note though that it doesn’t indicate the size of the profit that is required.

The second paragraph puts the first in perspective through the use of the word “principal” which means ‘first in order of importance’. The only way the Company can achieve its purpose is through the contributions of the employees. No employees no Company.

So far so good with me. I am happy to have those two paragraphs open the guiding principles for my organisation.

The great thing about the next paragraph is that it tells me how to go about realising those two principles. It is the responsibility of the executives, managers and supervisors to ‘create a climate’ – what a great phrase – they are expected to be proactive and create a climate in which employees can gain satisfaction from their work. In 1968 it was recognised that this is how you get maximum contribution from your employees – by making it the manager’s work to make sure the employees gain satisfaction from what they do.

Notice it doesn’t say managers should “ensure that employees regularly receive performance reviews, financial incentives and pay increments”.  Just last week I watched this great animation adapted from Dan Pink’s RSA talk “Drive” on what motivates us. Some 40 years later it seems we have rediscovered that it isn’t just money. It is a purpose and autonomy that helps give us the satisfaction we all desire.

Seth Godin recently blogged on the second piece of the puzzle that we seem to have forgotten. A manager’s job is, to quote Godin, to “provide access to the people, systems and resources that would allow me to do my job the best possible way.”

That is what managers were expected to do in 1968. The GUIDING PRINCIPLES acknowledge that managers don’t always get it right so the  preamble finishes by providing them with some hope and words of encouragement. If management conscientiously adhere to the principles and objectives set out in the document they will get better at creating a climate where the people they work for, the employees, gain satisfaction and thus contribute the maximum they are able.

Which begs the question, if we knew all that in 1968 what happened in between time to cause us to forget it until now? I would love to hear your thoughts.


This is the second in my looking backwards series. You can read the first in the series here:  looking backward to find a way forward. The third installment can be found here: looking backwards – recognising the individual

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Gavin m permalink
    May 25, 2010 10:33 pm

    In 1968, what an ambitious path to take – becoming a manager. The idea to move ahead in the organisation by ‘serving’ those you seek to be manager of. Somehow I think that notion never really took off – huge loss.

    I have come from an organisation where middle managers and supervisors were ‘transformed’ into support staff to the workers at the coal face. I gleaned from that experience as a very young middle manager, that the ability to create a climate enabling employees to gain satisfaction from their work was paramount (at all levels). In hindsight this meant strengthening managerial skills not removing them from the equation. My simplified view of management sees processes and things being ‘managed’ thereby allowing us to try to control the climate/ environment/ framework we all work in.

    Even more important than this is our ability as a manager to lead the people who work for us. Effective leadership skills will enable us to influence (not control) people within our organisation. Courage, focus, strong interpersonal skills, trustworthiness, being a good motivator all enhance the manager as a leader. Hopefully this influence results in a more satisfying workplace.

    I was particularly affected by the comment that allowed managers to “get better at creating a climate ……” implying that this business of management is really a work in progress. Managerial skills including those of leadership must be honed /continually improved and this needs to be supported by the organisation as a whole.

    Having re-read this comment, maybe I am a little idealistic or even short sighted. Maybe personal ego, greed, fear or inability all prevent good managers from succeeding or even being allowed to become managers. I suppose that the more modern industrial relations laws try to steer managers onto the path of treating employees like people. For some reason though when you make a law it tends to set an upper limit to what an organisation will do (or has to do).

    Looking forward to next weeks blog – Thanks Samuraiguy

    A quote from one of my recent managers when I asked him if he aspired to the next level of management within our organisation:

    “Nope. I’m quite happy where I am – I’ve already been promoted to my level of incompetence!”

  2. May 26, 2010 8:58 pm

    Thanks Gavin for your thoughts. Your point on the organisation as a whole supporting the development of the managers is a good one. Often people are promoted above their current level of competence and not given the support from their bosses that they need to develop new competencies. The result is that the manager and the people who work for them both suffer.

    I would love to hear from someone who has been able to ask their manager’s boss for extra training for the manager to help them (and their team) be more effective. I wonder what the response would be like? Would the boss consider it a complaint? Would the manager consider it an insult? Seems a great way for everyone to be supportive of the roles we all have to play in our work lives.

    Mmm. Very thought provoking.


  1. looking backwards – Part 3 – recognising the individual « finding my own Way

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