The key to succeeding in business is really quite simple.

Ask your employees what they want…and then give it to them.

That’s certainly the opinion of management researchers David Sirota, Louis Mischkind, and Michael Meltzer. As I pointed out in the last post in this series, in The Enthusiastic Employee (2005) they offer compelling evidence to suggest that companies profit by, in their words, “giving their employees what they want.” A similar study by Rodd Wagner and James Harter of the Gallup Organization supports those findings.[1]

But if this is true, why have so very few organizations (and managers) taken this simple message to heart?

And make no mistake, employers are most certainly not giving their subordinates “what they want.” According to a recent study of the American workplace, only three in 10 employees feel they have the equipment and materials they need to do their work right.[2] Similarly, only three in 10 employees strongly agreed with the statement that at work, their opinions seem to count.[3]

In other words, not only are most employees not getting what they need (much less want) to do their jobs to the best of their ability, when they do ask, apparently managers aren’t even willing to listen.

So for this week’s post, a closer look at why this is.

What’s keeping managers from doing what it takes to succeed?

 

Why is your boss your boss?

Ask employees what they want? And then give it to them?

If you’re a manager, that probably sounds like a strange (or potentially disastrous) idea. In fact, it’s likely you feel your organizational role is to do the exact opposite of this.

I thought my employees were supposed to listen to me, you’re probably thinking, not the other around?

This is in fact what most managers are led to believe. They are the ones in charge, so subordinates do the “listening” and “obeying.” Managers, on the other hand, do the “telling” and “directing.” It’s as simple as that.

But why is this? Why are managers “in charge”?

Why is your boss your boss?

Well, if you’re like me, it’s probably not hard to come up with an answer (or three) to this question.

For starters, your manager is your employer. He or she may not have hired you personally, but your manager can surely fire you. So if you consistently don’t do what he or she says, you may find yourself out of a job.

But managers are also seen as having “authority” for another important reason. They will often know more than their subordinates about the work they do, or job they hold. Consider the sales manager who was once a top salesperson him- or herself, for instance. That experience and demonstrated ability to succeed in the position makes this person perhaps ideally suited to guide and assist those who report him or her.  In fact, it is often the case that an individual will not be considered for a promotion to management until he or she has mastered all of the skills expected of those he or she will be managing. Part of manager’s authority, in other words, may derive from his or her expertise, skills, experience, or greater organizational knowledge.

These are both good reasons for putting managers in charge. There is, however, one other worth mentioning – and one that you may not have thought about in a while (if at all).

Your manager is your boss because that’s what the organization chart tells you.

 

Pyramid Scheme

For those of you who are unfamiliar, an organization chart (or org chart) is one of those funny, pyramid-shaped diagrams with all the little boxes and lines on it. For example:

Figure 1.

 

Perhaps you’ve seen one like it before. But if not, the boxes represent individual employees, or specific organizational roles, while the solid lines connecting them indicate who reports to who. The person(s) at the very top—usually the CEO, business owner(s), company founder(s), or board of directors—is understood to have the most organizational power, while those at the bottom (often the company’s so-called “frontline” employees) are considered to have the least. Each employee is typically assigned only one manager, but managers are not limited in the number of subordinates they might be expected to manage. So according to the org chart shown above in Figure 1, employees X and Y report to manager A, and employee Z reports to manager B. And both managers report to the CEO.[4]

But to return to the broader point, since managers are above those they manage on this chart, they’re expected to do what their manager tells them to do.

And most of us accept this.

 

A “map”

Organization charts didn’t just appear out of thin air, of course. According to business historian and Pulitzer Prize winner Alfred Chandler, the origins of this diagram can be traced back to the 19th Century, and the rise of the American railroads.

As Chandler describes it, back in 1854 a man by the name of Daniel McCallum was appointed general superintendent of the New York and Erie Railroad. And at 500 miles, it was one of the world’s longest; it was not, however, the most profitable. The essential functions of coordinating the deliveries of freight and people, repairing cars and track, and monitoring the position of trains were vastly more complicated for the NYER than for other, smaller railroads – and therefore more expensive.[5]

Nevertheless, McCallum felt that “other things being equal, a long (rail)road should be operated for less cost per mile than a short one.”[6] Because of this, he instituted a number of administrative policies and procedures aimed at capitalizing on NYER’s economies of scale, and improving its overall efficiency. This included drawing up an organizational “map” with which to better visualize its internal operations, various departments, and personnel.

McCallum’s efforts were to prove successful. Profitability for the NYER did increase. As a result, other railroads began adopting many of McCallum’s administrative policies and techniques – including his organizational “map.” Henry Varnum Poor, editor of the American Railroad Journal at the time, is thought to have contributed to their popularity by selling copies of McCallum’s original for a dollar. And some of the earliest adopters of this new administrative tool included General Motors, DuPont, and Mitsubishi of Japan.[7]

So it was that the organization chart was born.

 

A picture is worth a thousand workers

If McCallum’s “map” helped the NYER run more efficiently, it is probably not difficult to understand why.

Org charts are perhaps ideally suited to describe how the work of an organization has been broken down into specialized tasks, and how those tasks are then to be coordinated with each other in order to achieve agreed upon organizational aims and goals. And to be sure, it is the effective execution of these two organizational concepts, specialization and coordination, that serves as the business model utilized by virtually every for-profit enterprise in existence.

These two principles also have deep roots in economic theory.

The idea of specialization is alluded to by Plato in The Republic, which was published around 380 B.C.[8] However, Adam Smith is widely considered to have been the first to fully recognize and articulate the importance of this concept, and the advantages it offers businesses and other for-profit enterprises. In The Wealth of Nations (1776), he notes that, other things being equal, several people working together, and each performing a unique, specialized task, are capable of producing more—often far more—than if those same individuals work alone and independently.[9]

For instance, in his oft-repeated example[10] Smith observes that the production of metal pins can be increased dramatically if each step in the production process is performed by an individual dedicated to a single step, then passed along to someone else to perform the next. In this way, many more pins might be produced than if the same number of individuals were to perform every step themselves, making pins from start to finish. The advantages of doing things this way is two-fold, Smith observed. Efficiency can be increased because workers save time by not having to switch between tasks. And quality can be improved by assigning each worker to the step at which he or she is best.[11]

But of course, it is not enough just to split up something like the production of metal pins into a number of discreet tasks. Care must be taken to insure that no critical step in the process is neglected, nor any effort unnecessarily duplicated. In other words, coordination is needed to fully realize the benefits of Smith’s concept of specialization. You wouldn’t want more than one person doing a particular step in the pin-making process if one or more other steps are being neglected, would you? Incomplete pins would begin to pile up. As a consequence, most organizations designate certain persons as being responsible for coordinating workers efforts in order to prevent this from happening. In this way the advantages of specialization might be fully realized.

And today, the individuals responsible for such coordination are frequently referred to as “managers.”

 

One hundred years of influence

If there is any utility to an org chart, it seems it’s because they help management coordinate the all important work of their employees in the most efficient way possible.

They also remind us that our boss is in charge.

But as helpful as they might seem, rarely are org charts photocopied and circulated to the extent that they once were.[12] Make no mistake, however. Over a hundred years after McCallum first drew one for the NYER, the organization chart still influences how we talk, think, and behave at our places of work.

For instance, you’ve probably heard of “moving up in the organization” or “climbing the corporate ladder” sometime in your professional career. Other similarly veiled references to org chart’s up/down pyramidal form include terms and phrases such as “top brass,” “upper management,” higher-ups,” “lateral move,” “oversee,” and “underlings.” Even “supervisor” and “subordinate” could be included in this list because the prefixes super- and sub- translate to “above” and “under,” respectively. When it comes to rank, power, and prestige, managers are considered to be both figuratively and literally “above” those they manage…and we behave accordingly.

But if the org chart is really that influential—and useful—why then have they become so deeply unpopular over the years..?

 

Next in the series: Not a pretty picture

 

Endnotes

[1] 12, The Elements of Great Managing by Rodd Wagner and James K. Harter. 2006. New York: Gallup Press.

[2] “State of the American Workplace.” The Gallup Organization. 2017, p. 102. (Available for free download by clicking here.)

[3] Ibid., p. 112.

[4] There are a couple other organizational concepts that derive from the organization charts that are worth a mention as well, and with which you may be familiar. For example, “span of control” refers to the total number of employees that report to any particular manager. (In Figure 1, Manager A’s span of control is two, for instance [employees X and Y].) “Chain of command” is determined by tracing upwards on the diagram through boxes connected by a solid line. (In Figure 1, Employee Z’s chain of command is ZàManager BàCEO.) This concept is helpful if you, as an employee, encounter an issue that, for whatever the reason, your own manager is unable to address or resolve.

[5] Chandler, Jr., Alfred D. “Origins of the Organizational Chart,” Harvard Business Review, March-April, 1988, p.156-157.

[6] Ibid., p.156-157.

[7] Ibid., p.156-157.

[8] Evers, Williamson M. “Specialization and the Division of Labor in the Social Thought of Plato and Rousseau,” Journal of Libertarian Studies, Vol. IV, No. 4, (Winter 1980).

[9] The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith. 1776. Book 1: Chapter 1.

[10] “What is so important about Adam Smith’s pin factory example?” at

Quora.com. https://www.quora.com/What-is-so-important-about-Adam-Smiths-pin-factory-example. Retrieved April 13, 2017.

[11] The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith. 1776. Book 1: Chapter 1.

[12] “Why don’t you publish your org charts?” by Phil Carron. Think Blog. December, 2010. https://www.thinkcompany.com/2010/12/why-dont-you-publish-your-org-charts/. Retrieved April 13, 2017.