Organizational design (OD) hinges upon a caveat posed by Myron Tribus, “what does the business organization [leaders] desire?” Business organizations can be designed in a myriad of ways and possess a plethora of leadership styles. Tribus remains correct; the entire design can be simplified into a single decision about the organization’s makeup and summed as the business is either a money tap or a socially involved mechanism trying to improve society and culture. If money taps, there is not much left to say. The organizational design, culture, and climate will reflect the owner’s desire to collect as much money as possible until the tap runs dry and the business is cast off by industry. If socially involved, the decisions are obvious, and further delineation is superfluous.
For several years now, I have researched corporate training; from the start of recorded history, corporate training has protected business knowledge as much as it is screening people out for not being the “right fit” for a business and as a means of controlling behavior. Originally an untrained youth would be indentured to a master, who agreed to do work in exchange for knowledge and ultimately be trained to become a journeyman, then master of a trade, craft, or business. Your options were controlled long before interest was gaged and contracts for services were purchased.
Schools sprang up, and indentured servitude was expected to fall away. Instead, only the indenturing of people went slowly away, but the servitude remains and is as healthy today as it was in the 1600s. Currently, servitude is cloaked in terms of culture, competitive stance, and corporate knowledge, and the corporate trainer remains the arbiter of entry into a business, trade, craft, etc. The trainer does not impart knowledge but exemplifies behaviors, attitudes, and mannerisms that the business leaders consider tenets of competition.
Finally, let’s name the 800# gorilla in the room, servitude is captivity, and captivity is how a person is described who changes into what the company desires of its long-term employees. Thus the phrase “Captured by the system” indicates this phenomenon. What does it mean to “Play the game?” the same thing, change your attitude, behaviors, and ideals, and become one of us, doing what we tell you to do.
By naming this phenomenon, I am not being cynical. Multiple researchers of peer-reviewed research have discussed this phenomenon in their research and called it key to business success, placing the onus onto trainers and training to expound and exhort compliance of the human element. Trainers are considered mentors, managers, job coaches, HR representatives, supervisors, etc.; if you fill a leadership position and trust, it is because you exemplify the business’s manners, attitudes, behaviors, and culture. Understand compliance is neither good nor bad. Non-compliance leads to ostracization and eventual unemployment. However, submission does not guarantee long-term employment either, as those businesses relying most heavily upon human compliance tend to burn out fast and bankrupt themselves.
All operational processes and procedures rely upon changing behaviors, not necessarily upon gaining new knowledge. In making this statement, I am not discounting gaining new knowledge, as new knowledge can arrive in many shapes, sizes, and encounters, but the primary role of a trainer in corporate offices is not new knowledge imparting but behavioral controls. The indentured servant model of a Master training Journeymen and Journeymen training Novices has not changed these many centuries and remains firmly set in the “modern” principles of organizational learning.
Why is this important to know?
Not understanding the model and putting into place a person who does not comply is as dangerous to the health of a business as a thief, a liar, or a con man. ENRON did not fail only because of the action of the leadership team. ENRON failed because the model of behaviors exemplified by the leadership team and taught to employees poisoned the organizational body. Hence the corporate trainers led the failure of ENRON, for the corporate training model follows GIGO (Garbage In equals Garbage Out!). Understanding that the trainers were responsible for ENRON’s collapse does not excuse any person’s conduct. Instead, it more fully places the blame on the leadership team who exemplified behaviors anathema to good organizational health.
Take any business, successful or collapsed, military organization, or non-profit; these distinctions do not matter. Review them closely, and you will find Tribus’s choice personified in the employees’ actions, cultures, desired attitudes, behaviors, dress styles, mannerisms, etc. Suppose a learner is preparing to train others, and doesn’t understand these fundamental aspects of corporate training and organizational design. In that case, that trainer will teach poorly, and those employees will have short careers in the business.
Hence the most extraordinary aspect of controlling costs does not arrive in cutting people but in training them for compliance, improving the understanding of the role of behavioral adaptation, and improving the incentives to adopt the culture of the business. A client of mine is facing this exact scenario; the economic downturns have hit them hard. Instead of focusing on improving costs through behavioral adaptation, they have begun cutting people, leaving in place the trainers that are fundamental to the problems the company is facing. Proving the maxim, “You cannot correct the problems with the same thinking that spawned the problems.”
What is needed?
Unfortunately, what is needed is not what is currently wanted, but the path forward will require pieces of the following solution. What is needed is a new model for corporate training, and the model has been historically proven to be successful. Joseph Smith Jr., an early American religious leader, founded several highly successful communities and launched a leadership revolution and a religious organization. His leadership style was based upon the following principle, “Teach them (people) correct principles and let them govern themselves.”
Technology has removed the brick stick to beat compliance into employees. Technology has also leveled a lot of playing fields, putting employees into a position where they must act for themselves, guided more by self-interest and self-preservation than any generation of workers previously. Add in COVID lockdowns that spurred the rise in remote workers, and technology has released a lot of employees to work outside the accepted strictures of an office. The release of employees has done two things, changed the behaviors compliance spectrum and removed the front-line supervisor as a primary trainer in monitoring and controlling cultural acceptance.
Several years ago, a researcher was told by front-line supervisors, job coaches, and mentors of a company that communication and training were not in the specific job roles of these people. Thus, they could not be held accountable for poor communication on their teams. Remote working has eliminated these aspects on the part of the front-line supervisor. Therefore, if the supervisor is not teaching independence, allowing for self-preservation, and promoting the freedom of thought and action in employees, those employees are now acting outside the company culture and operations, and disaster is looming. To their horror, the New York Times just discovered that company-forced cultures are being called into question when employees are not in the office, and demanding employees return hurts bottom lines.
Thus, the front-line supervisors must adapt. Adaptation in managers nullifies a manager’s power and authority, sparking fear of downsizing into these mid-level managers. Fear mixed with self-preservation leads to more problems for a company’s leadership (C-Level Suite) to consider. The self-interested but not free mid-level manager will crave their benefits, perks, and powers, like any drug, and the withdrawal process is never pretty. Again as recently exhibited by the New York Times, their trainers are proving that they do not understand people and technology and do not know the role of the trainer in corporate training.
Since the mid-1990s, technology has risen, coinciding with the need to provide front-line employees more freedom to make decisions and take rapid action. Mostly, this freedom has clashed with “traditional” models of behavior demanded of by what is considered novice servants. Yet, technological growth was not considered a fundamental threat to tradition until the COVID-lockdowns. Regardless of the politics in the lockdowns, the truth remains, the traditional roles have fundamentally shifted, and the businesses that embrace this new role for the trainer, including a new model for operation, will reap success in the whirlwind.
Hence, while not wanted, the model suggested is what is needed. Employees must be taught correct business principles and fully granted the freedom to govern themselves. Thus, the role of the trainer shifts from behavioral compliance to knowledge instruction and behavioral exemplar. More to the point, all levels of a business need to conduct themselves differently. Relying less upon behavioral and attitude adoption and more upon individuality, expression, and thinking to complete business tasks.
Front-line and mid-level managers are, by necessity, going to have to decrease in the new model. Relying upon layers of managerial oversight is not going to work, and honestly has never worked, and the costs of this oversight have proven too expensive. The gap between C-Suite Level decision-makers and the front line has grown too large and too expensive, and until this is acknowledged, the role of the trainer will continue to be hindered by old-model thinking. The 1960-1980s saw the exponential rise of middle managers, coinciding with significant cost increases and a tripling in government influence, all in the name of controlling behaviors, dictating attitudes, and demanding compliance.
The growth of the middle manager was considered “new thinking,” and history has proven this idea is as false as fools’ gold and as worthwhile. Middle management restricted freedoms, and while employment laws have granted, since the 1940s, employers the ability to take these controlling actions, these actions remain fundamentally unfair. The employees have slowly gotten more freedom back from their employers. Each business will find a balance between the extremes of absolute liberty and the oppressive regime of stolen freedom. The proposed model helps strike a balance as nothing else will, but caution is needed here; there is no one-size-fits-most solution in this balancing act.
Since the industrial revolution began, businesses have competed upon their employees’ skills and influence to serve customers, which is the fundamental truth that cannot be ignored any longer. By the C-Level Suite, the skills, freedoms, liberties, behaviors, attitudes, and investment of the employee dictates the company’s ability to compete for market share. While much lip service has been undertaken to this fundamental truth, action has lagged considerably, and this trend can no longer survive in the global markets. The front-line employee must be taught to understand this truth that they currently grasp like a fish in a stream, and they must become empowered more to act in this role. Requiring the trainers to know, prepare, and teach these principles to power action by the front-line employee.
Teaching correct principles and allowing employees to govern themselves is cyclical. The employee will rely more heavily upon trainers to teach the correct principles. Increasing the need for value-added, timely trainers who support individual liberty and freedom in employees to generate customer-centric solutions. These trainers will need to be taught so that they can teach more perfectly, and the cyclical process will continue. Needs for training will drive new training, producing more freedom to act and driving more demand for training.
Returning to the decision posed by Tribus, regardless of whether to be a money tap or a community-building organization, embracing a new model for the role of the trainer will prove beneficial. Reducing mid-level managers will produce direct bottom-line cost reduction. Increasing the freedom of front-line employees while also training them to generate customer-centric solutions will open new lines of business and new opportunities. There are no downside consequences to adopting these changes earlier than your competition and proving the concept. As a business leader, are you brave enough to embrace these truths, or will you watch what you have built be destroyed by those who are? The choice, as always, is yours, and if you would like help, please feel free to reach out.
© Copyright 2023 – M. Dave Salisbury
The author holds no claims for the art used herein, the pictures were obtained in the public domain, and the intellectual property belongs to those who created the images. Quoted materials remain the property of the original author.