Respect, Trust, Candor and the Coronavirus

By on March 26, 2020
Respect, Trust, Candor and the Coronavirus

“I got a message from Corporate to get all you SOBs into a conference room and to tell you that you’re all fired and to get the hell out of here immediately.”
-Manager of Car Dealership

When a friend of mine shared this story with me several days ago, my first reaction was disbelief. Surely, he couldn’t have said exactly this, not during our fight against the Coronavirus. She assured me that this was precisely what her son-in-law was told before he was summarily fired. No severance. No health insurance. Shattered illusions about what the company thought about him, an employee who had always met sales quotas, who for years had been one of the dealership’s top performers.

Mulling over what my friend had told me, my first thoughts were about how the coronavirus had caused many of us to say things we would have never said before; that the tension in the air had caused us act in ways that were entirely inconsistent with what we actually believed.

And then, for some reason, I recalled comments made by Frederick Taylor, father of scientific management, whose book The Principles of Scientific Management was called by the Fellows of the Academy of Management the most influential management book of the 20th Century.

In parables Taylor used to get his ideas across was a muscular German named “Schmidt.” In talking about Schmidt, Taylor said, “He does just what he’s told to do. No backtalk.” Schmidt was told “When your manager tells you to walk, you walk; when he tells you to sit down, you sit down.” Asked about talking to a worker like this, Taylor replied, “With a man as mentally sluggish as Schmidt, it was appropriate and not unkind.

Was the perspective on workers held by the manager of the car dealership any different than that of Taylor?

No.

In fact, my friend’s son-in-law was considered by his manager to be a 21st Century Schmidt. He was a sluggard, not valued, not respected, not trusted.

I recalled the number of companies in which I had done consulting whose leadership teams, although too polite to ever say so, by their behavior toward workers obviously believed they employed many “Schmidt’s.”

And I also recalled companies whose leadership teams had radically different views about their workers, companies whose leaders never thought of their workers as being Taylor’s Schmidt. Instead, their thinking was guided by people like Taiichi Ohno, one of the key architects of the Toyota Production System. They fully subscribed to Ohno’s observation that the employees who built their products or interacted with their customers were their most valuable workers. They believed the knowledge, intelligence, and creativity of these employees were their company’s most valuable assets.

And this belief was consistently reflected in the way they treated their workers.

They regularly walked through frontline areas—in factories, office areas, and warehouses—and had very productive discussions with workers. They made it clear to workers that they were there to learn, not to lecture. They asked questions and listened intently to what workers said. And they acted on what the workers said. Many used a great tool, the Idea Board, that by its presence says loud and clear to all employees that their ideas are greatly valued. Here’s a link to a video about the Idea Board.

The owner of one company I worked with regularly sent handwritten notes to the homes of employees. In these notes, he said how much he valued them, that he was personally honored to have them on his team, that he looked forward to their continuing contributions to the company.

These companies also consistently showed their workers that they trusted them. The owner of one company brought all his employees together every three months and reported, in great detail, on exactly where the company stood financially.

The leadership teams of these companies never engaged in micro-management. Instead their behavior reflected the thinking of General George Patton who once observed, “Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.

And the degree to which these companies trusted their workers was reflected in their letting workers know that they had the right, and duty, to stop production if they spotted product or process defects, not starting up production until the problems were resolved. Their trust of workers was also reflected in unlocked tool rooms and tools located at point of use. Their trust of workers was reflected in their not feeling a need to install cameras in breakrooms. Their trust of workers was reflected in their not requiring letters from doctors providing proof that they were sick when they had to stay home for a day or two because of illness. In these companies, leadership teams were relieved of the worry that if their employees weren’t continually watched they would be malingerers.

Finally, because respect and trust had become defining characteristics of these organizations, employees were not afraid to speak out about problems, rather than trying to hide them. Candor was used by everyone, driven by the knowledge that they respected and trusted each other. Nothing is more invigorating, for the individual and the organization, than knowing that you can tell it like it is and not feel compelled to sugarcoat problems.

It would have made a huge difference if the car dealership that had to lay off employees would have been one in which respect, trust, and candor were alive and well. Had this been the case, the store manager’s message wouldn’t have been this:

“I got a message from Corporate to get all you SOBs into a conference room and to tell you that you’re all fired and to get the hell out of here immediately.”

Rather, it would have been something like this:

“All of you know we’ve been struggling financially. Right now our company is facing a threat to its very existence. Saying this is very hard, because the company really values your hard work and your many contributions to our success. Despite this, we’re going to have to lay off all of you. Let’s hope that this threat to our country’s economy is eliminated soon and our great team can once again come together and be the winners we’ve always been.”

What a difference this would have made.

And what a difference it would make for our country in these very perilous and challenging times if we all showed respect for each other, trusted each other, and were completely candid with each other. It would be a very different world.

About George Friesen

George Friesen serves as Business Practice Leader - Lean Manufacturing for the Workforce Solutions Group of St. Louis Community College. He has led the College's Lean business practice area since 2000. Prior to joining the College, George worked for Maritz Performance Improvement Company. Over the past 35 years, he has served a wide variety of Fortune 500 companies, specializing during the past eleven years in Lean Manufacturing, focusing especially on the 5S System, Lean leadership and thinking processes, Value Stream Mapping, and Lean team building. George is a graduate of Washington University (AB), Webster University (MA), and United States Air Force Flight Training.

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