Work and Love

31 min read

  “The idea that to make a man work you’ve got to hold gold in front of his eyes is a growth, not an axiom.  We’ve done that for so  long that we’ve forgotten there’s any other way.” 

If not money and all the similar carrots and sticks stored in our corporate arsenals to get the job done, then what is it that would make it possible for us to care for one another while at work?

Most companies, whether they realize it or not, are based on the model of an army – specifically the army of Frederick the Great of Prussia (1740 to 1786).  Prior to Frederick, European armies (with some notable exceptions like the famous Roman legions), were largely made up of unwilling conscripts – unruly mobs of criminals, paupers and occasional mercenaries.  Frederick determined to make his army a reliable and efficient instrument of his political ambition and introduced many innovations including ranks, uniforms and standardized rules and regulations.  To ensure that his army operated efficiently on command, he encouraged the idea that the common soldiers should be taught to fear their officers more than the enemy.

This basic idea of a mechanized structure in service of a political intention became the basis for organizing factories during the Industrial Revolution.  The officers became the managers and the political intentions became commercial objectives.  What endured was the reliability of an efficient machine.  Division of labor, so much admired in Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, accelerated the movement towards mechanization, further separating workers from their supervisors and removing any vestiges of control from the workers.

This culminated in the late 19th Century’s principles of Scientific Management, particularly as expounded by a second Frederick – Frederick Taylor, who was famous (some would say infamous) for introducing time-and-motion studies into American factories.  While quite successful in increasing productivity, he was perceived by many to be an “enemy of the working man”.  (In fact, the whole idea of Scientific Management was brilliantly parodied in Charlie Chaplin’s classic film, Modern Times.)  Here is how Taylor succinctly described his view:

  “Hardly a competent workman can be found who does not devote  a considerable amount of time to studying just how slowly he can work and still convince his employer that he is going at a good pace.  Under our system a worker is told just what he is to do and how he is to do it.  Any improvement he makes upon the orders given to him is fatal to his success.”

While it is easy to characterize Taylor as a villain, his methods were a logical development arising from the central vision of the Industrial Revolution.  The machine may have started as a tool, but it soon came to be the iconic model for human organization.  It was not until the second half of the 20th Century that this model was seriously and broadly questioned. 

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