Management vs. Punishment

A high-performance workplace minus the bruising culture

by Henry J. Lindborg

In August, a New York Times article focused on reported practices at Amazon and summarized a litany of complaints about contemporary corporations.1 The article suggested Amazon fosters a highly competitive and combative workplace, and even has an experiment to determine how far it can push employees.2 The depiction of an intense and brutal workplace created a large media buzz, but the type of organization described in the article is familiar and not at all uncommon.

To better understand careers, many researchers have tracked how the rules have changed in U.S. and global workplaces since the 1990s. Employee expectations that hard work would be repaid with job security, training and a clear career ladder were undermined by workforce churn (turnover or changes in job growth rates) in the 1980s.3 The psychological contract between employer and employee was frayed long before the dot-com bubble of the late 1990s and recent economic recession.

These economic events, however, served to further loosen employer bonds with a generation that had new orientations to loyalty, work and personal achievement.4 The idea of a start-up created by driven, young entrepreneurs survived the "dot-bomb" meltdown and flourished in the ambitions of science, technology, engineering and mathematics graduates, and workplaces such as Amazon and Google.

Seeking the challenge

A Darwinist culture may appear intimidating or alien, but individuals who venture with start-up organizations understand they’re all punishing workplaces. Amazon, for example, is in a perpetual start-up state, requiring relentless dedication to new ventures. A start-up is imprinted in its founder’s DNA—his or her character and values—while demanding absolute attention to the customer, adaptability, disposition to action, willingness to perform any task, consciousness of resources, learning and hard work to the point of burnout.

In an ordinary start-up life cycle, the organization evolves into a more stable condition, perhaps outgrowing the founder and distributing work in a developing bureaucracy. For most start-ups, it’s not about how hard they can get people to work—demands for high performance are found in all organizations—but whether their strategies of innovation and growth can be sustained. For younger workers, this can actually be a workplace motivator.

Many millennials seek high-level challenges and wear their lessons-learned bruises as badges of success. These hard-earned honors help rank employees in short-term work assignments, and some workers might benefit from being tested in competitive environments.5

In the absence of defined career ladders and training, workers may consciously choose to test themselves, taking their innovation and survival skills to new levels, but they don’t expect long careers under such pressure. They reap their learning and rewards, and move on. As more organizations—such as healthcare, publishing or higher education—encourage start-up values for self-renewal, the pattern will become more common.6

Measuring performance

A leader of an intense, high-tech start-up workplace is sometimes presented as a latter day Frederick Taylor,7 continually measuring all aspects of performance and creating a numbers-driven organization. But measuring human performance is problematic for any organization.

While it isn’t difficult to track the efficiency of call center operators monitoring quantifiable units of productivity—such as calls taken or orders processed—management’s functions are more complex and difficult to assess. Evaluating management also consumes time and relies on subjective skills ratings.

Deloitte Services LLP—a Wisconsin-based audit, finance and risk management consulting firm—found it was spending 2 million hours per year conducting performance evaluations. To develop a less cumbersome system, it turned to the positive strengths-based approach of the Gallup organization—focusing on what’s right with employees, not on what’s wrong. It created simplified project-based feedback aligned with corporate objectives.8

Organizations have evolved from the scientific management of Taylor’s shop floor in developing efficiencies, but they should determine whether they’ve focused enough on their managers by asking a few critical questions.

Can managers develop high-performing teams that aren’t combat units undermining entire systems? Teams have to understand how their work contributes to the whole organization, using effective charters and vision statements. A team’s vision must answer the question, "What difference will we make?" Without this, teams lose track of why they exist. Resources also must be provided and not acquired at the expense of other teams or departments.

Are managers conducting civil and honest performance reviews? Perfunctory or hostile reviews kill the spirit of a workforce. An effective evaluation looks forward to improved future performance, not punishment.

Do managers create an environment where equality is assured and assumptions are publicly challenged without personal damage? Equality is a key factor in high-performing groups, and a hallmark of a learning organization is the ability to critically evaluate ideas without attacking the person presenting them. Creating this environment requires disciplined practice that’s vital for improvement and innovation.

Can managers use consistent, evidence-based evaluations that are free of politics? Fair performance evaluations are possible only if they have a rational system—including the tools, training, and culture—to support them.

References and note

  1. Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld, "Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace," New York Times, Aug. 15, 2015, http://tinyurl.com/nytinsideamazon.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Greg Hutchins, Working It: The Rules Have Changed: Y2K Edition, Quality Plus Engineering, 1999.
  4. Rob Asghar, "Study: Millennials Are the True Entrepreneur Generation," Forbes, Nov. 11, 2014, http://tinyurl.com/trueentrepreneur.
  5. Martin Lindstrom, "Generation Y Is Born to Startup," Fast Company, Nov. 16, 2011, www.fastcompany.com/1795255/generation-y-born-startup.
  6. Clayton M. Christensen, The Innovator’s Dilemma, Harper Business, 2011.
  7. Frederick Taylor introduced a theory of management known as scientific management—later named Taylorism—in his 1911 novel, The Principles of Scientific Management. It focused on managing organizations according to methods of efficiency, which Taylor derived from experiments such as time-and-motion studies. For more on scientific management, visit http://tinyurl.com/fredericktaylor.
  8. Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall, "Reinventing Performance Management," Harvard Business Review, April 2015, https://hbr.org/2015/04/reinventing-performance-management.

Henry J. Lindborg is executive director and CEO of the National Institute for Quality Improvement in Fond du Lac, WI. He holds a doctorate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and teaches in a leadership and quality graduate program. Lindborg is past chair of ASQ’s Education Division and of the Education and Training Board. He is a past chair and current member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Career Workforce Policy committee.

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