How to become a better boss

Let’s start with identity because it is the most central, as well as the most puzzling, part of the story. If we go back to the workers at Northern Plant, their behaviour didn’t make much sense from Mike’s corporate viewpoint. After all, the new practices he was trying to implement were going to make the plant more productive (thereby safeguarding jobs) and they were supposed to help workers develop broader skill sets and become more involved in their work. Unfortunately, the workers didn’t see it that way – what they saw was a threat to the identity they had developed for themselves over many years. A central part of this identity was autonomy, that is, the freedom to sort out their own problems as long as they hit their production targets. New management practices of Motor Co threatened this autonomy – it required workers to buy into new practices and new measures that they would not have control over. So the most natural way of retaining their self-identity was to push back – to use whatever tricks and techniques they could muster to keep the new practices at bay. The importance of retaining a clear sense of identity was, somewhat surprisingly, more important than concerns for the long-term viability of the plant.

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Self-identity

So the first big insight for you as a manager is that you need to get to grips with your employees self-identity: how they see their role in the workplace. The trouble is, identity is a slippery thing. An employee’s identity evolves over time, as a function of his or her experiences, responsibilities, and relationships. Most people don’t take the time to articulate – even to themselves – what their identity is. There are some simple stereotypes that we can quickly recognise: the ambitious MBA graduate who will do whatever it takes to climb the corporate ladder; the high-school teacher who loves helping kids learn; or the immigrant who works two minimum-wage jobs to pay for his or her kid’s education. These individuals have no trouble making sense of their role in the workplace. But for the vast majority of employees, identity is much fuzzier and open to interpretation.

Understanding the self-identity of your employees, therefore, requires a certain amount of detective work. There is no simple categorization scheme you can use, so you have to divine how workers see themselves by observing their reaction to changes in their working environment. Here is another example drawn from an academic research study1, a story about the introduction of self-managed teams in Stitchco, a UK clothing manufacturer, in the 1990s. As with Northern Plant, the logic of shifting from an old-fashioned piecework system to a new team-based production system seemed entirely obvious to top management, as it would help the factory to increase its output, while also providing workers with a broader range of skills. By providing a base rate of pay and team-based incentives, they believed the new system would also make the workers financially better off.

However, the mostly female workforce hated the change. The more experienced workers found themselves carrying the newer ones and working harder than before in order to reach their team bonus targets. Some of them were asked to become supervisors, but they found it hard to start telling their co-workers what to do. Many of them liked to be able to set their own pace, perhaps working harder one day and more slowly the next day, and the team-based system made this much harder to do.

Again, a well-intentioned change hit resistance because management failed to understand the self-identity of the workforce. In this case, the female employees at Stitchco were operating in very narrowly defined jobs with no autonomy over what they did. But they did have control over one important part of their work, namely the speed with which they worked. They also enjoyed the banter of the shop floor, being mates with their fellow machinists. The teamwork model threatened both these features – some women found themselves overseeing their mates, which created tension, while others resented having to worry about the bonuses of their mates in deciding how fast to work.

Management at Stitchco gradually got their heads around these problems, and while they didn’t get rid of the teamwork system, altogether they scaled back some elements, for example, by providing supervisors rather than forcing the women on the shopfloor to assume these roles. Performance in the factory gradually improved, though not as quickly as top management would have liked.

So what’s the bottom line here? Simply that all employees have a way of making sense of the things they do and why they do them, and that it is much easier to get things done when you reinforce, rather than challenge, this sense of identity. Good managers are detectives – they look for clues about which initiatives their employees get excited about and which ones they resist, and they gradually build up a picture of their employees’ identity.

1. Ezzamel, M. and Wilmott, H., Accounting for teamwork: a critical study of group-based systems of organisational control, Administrative Science Quarterly, 1998, 43: 358-396. Also see Jenkins, S. and Delbridge, R., Disconnected workplaces: interests and identities in the “High Performance Factory”, in Searching for the H in HRM (eds S. Bolton and M. Houlihan), Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, 2007.

This is an edited extract taken from Becoming A Better Boss: Why Good Management Is So Difficult, by Julian Birkinshaw. It is published by Jossey-Bass, a Wiley brand, RRP £18.99

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