From Managing the Machine to Managing the Mind: Really?

The title sounds ominous. It might be, depending on how you wish to look at what the function of management is. One could nearly argue that when Frederick Taylor advised us on better management – treating the organization as a machine – is when the mind was being controlled. But then, does managing the mind mean control, or does it mean respect and harnessing a force we have neglected because we have treated humans as cogs/objects up to now?

We have come a long way in how we view organizations and, as a result, how they get managed to deliver on their objectives.

Organizations exist the moment we have a group of people who work together for a particular purpose. That could be a club, union, business, charity, government, etc. Management is there to help the group achieve its goals.

This post is the second of what I refer to as the Mindfulness series.

In the first one: How to Use Mindfulness to Increase Your Productivity Quickly, I looked at the link between mindfulness and productivity.

This post looks at the rise of mindfulness and how management should or should not engage with it.

I use history of management to explain why the practice of management needs to change, considering its mandate is to make sure the business achieves its objective and purpose within the context it operates.

Mindfulness and Management

The question I am trying to answer in this post is: how can we get people to perform at their best within an organization?

The assumption remains – we need people to do their best so the business can do well. It does not have to be one-sided; if the company does well, the individuals should also benefit. The second part is where many wheels fall off. Some people feel exploited and used. Today, it is getting to the point that organizations need to be responsible citizens who are not exploiting their workers and obsessed with greed. I will not go into this second aspect – it requires a rich discussion.

I am not about to survey the story of management. I will highlight aspects of management and its evolution to see how it has or, in some parts, has not changed and is or is not enabling the organization to achieve and deliver on its objectives.

It would be wonderful to have ‘the X golden rules’ of management. We do not have and will never have any ‘golden rules’ to management because we live in a world where ‘change’ is a constant. Yesterday’s conditions and problems are different from those of tomorrow. The conditions we operate under are getting more complex, and everything is becoming more interconnected and intertwined.

Despite this, we will still want to know the best practices we can use to manage within given conditions (social, economic, political, etc.).

The Story of Management

Before the industrial revolution, we were mostly managing institutions like the church, military, construction, some trade, and agriculture. Things only started to ‘heat up’ with the industrial revolution. From that point onwards, we began to coordinate, plan, reward, and allocate resources. As organizations started to grow, scale, and specialize, business owners began to depend on others like agents and managers to help them run the organization. The big triggers that started to crank things up were mass production, specialization of labor, quality control, workflow planning, standardized processes, accounting, and competition, to name a few.

The default attitude by managers, even today, is that change is abnormal. The holy grail of management remains to create stability. Establish systems that will make the organization hum and cruise along – wouldn’t that be wonderful?

Metaphors in Management

To understand how organizations have been managed, Gareth Morgan uses eight metaphors:

  • Machines (1909),
  • Organism (1960),
  • Culture (1973),
  • Political System (1976),
  • Instrument of domination (1993),
  • Brain (2005),
  • Psychic prison (2006),
  • Flux and transformation (2012).

Metaphors shape the way we see and act in any situation, including business. George Lakoff argues that metaphors are crucial in the way we see reality and live life. We make plans, commitments, and decisions based on the way we see and understand the world. We respond based on the imagery (story) associated with the reality described by the metaphors.

The question then is: what is the metaphor that we are currently using to guide our actions?

There is no simple answer. I will start by saying that we currently have a blend, but it does appear that we are firmly moving towards one well-defined metaphor. Read on!

Looking at Morgan’s eight metaphors, we can match them to various businesses. We can see some organizations managing entirely within one prism, and we see others that have combined a few metaphors.

Let’s look at the machine metaphor, described by Frederick Taylor when he published “The Principles of Scientific Management’ in 1909; it is the oldest metaphor but still actively used today.

The metaphor refers to business when things are going well as ‘well-oiled’ and running like clockwork. When things are not going well, we say that things’ need fixing’ and that there’s a spanner in the works and we need to look at the nuts and bolts. We run ‘time and motion’ studies – we become paralyzed if we cannot measure every inch of the business – data is the key!

Taylor was a mechanical engineer. It should not surprise us why he believed that business needs to be managed by optimizing and simplifying jobs, and productivity would naturally increase. The mechanism was about the engineering of ‘process.’ This metaphor encourages us to treats humans as little more than ‘cogs in a wheel.’ It was all about inputs and outputs. He said: “in the past … man has been first; in the future, the system must be first”. We can see why the metaphor is about managing and controlling the mind, numbing the mind so the human-robot can do as it is instructed to do. But let us not be dramatic.

The obvious point is that we can see this kind of language and attitude still playing out today in many businesses. The issues then are – how effective is this approach, and does it work in today’s social structure? It might explain the friction we see in various organizations.

What are better metaphors?

The bottom line remains – how do we achieve our objective(s) as a business?

How to articulate the objective remains the starting point. It is clear that ‘winning’ at all costs and being ruthless might get some into hot water. After all, we are not in the Middle Ages – respect, human dignity, the environment, etc. are values that the larger society believes in. Any business with some smarts will not be dumb to the point of arrogant ignorance. It requires the goodwill of its customers to prosper.

Winning as a word might also be unhelpful. Business is not a game with an end. Other companies are seen as entities to be eliminated. The imagery and language we use are critical and provide useful mechanisms that guide how we manage our business.

The emphasis up to the mid-1900s was on execution. In the 1950s, we started to move to the idea of business as expertise. Drucker coined the term’ knowledge work’ – value creation shifter from the execution of tasks to workers using information (expertise).

I think the metaphor of ’empathy’ is now the most appropriate one.

The business owner will not get far if the leader acts as a general shouting commands at ‘people.’ The c-suite today needs to realize the nature of work has changed. Douglas McGregor alerted managers that the command-and-control mindset was not effective; they needed to motivate and engage people. We have seen the social contract shifting from authority to coaching. In 1995, Daniel Goleman published Emotional Intelligence; this signaled a significant shift in the relationship between the worker, management, and how a business defines its purpose.

Rita McGrath indicates that ’empathy’ is the new frame – people are looking at business to provide meaningful experiences. There is enormous dissatisfaction bubbling up in society who are deeply dissatisfied with organizations that appear to act only in their self-interest, focused on profit at the expense of the workers and customers; the broader society (stakeholders) feel exploited. Looking around, we know this is true. The turmoil we are observing are symptoms of discontent – possibly of a broken system.

Management needs to lead change rather than react to change. Any successful organization needs to re-think hard how it will deliver its objectives in today’s environment. We live in a networked society; the future is arriving faster than ever. The next decade will most certainly be more volatile, complex, and more ambiguous than what we have seen in a long time. We need people, we need smart people, and we need people on our side who are willing to look after us, but they will only do this if they know we have their interest at heart – we need to be mindful – we need to respect their talents and ask them to bring their mind to bear.

Forward-thinking organizations will have the advantage – those that get stuck in the past will disappear (Kodak, Blockbuster, Blackberry, and others).

Only by being curious, outwardly focused and having the ability to learn, can we get into a state of flow and become high performers in any condition. 

The mind is the next frontier.