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I like it here – making an agency a great place to work

Guest speaker at a mid-term seminar for students of the Diploma in Child Care Administration in South Africa a few years back was Nick Smiar of the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and a certified child care worker in the Illinois Association of Child Care Workers. He spoke on ‘The Great Workplace’ — and this article is based on one earlier published in The Child & Youth Care Administrator

What makes an agency a great place to work? If we knew the answer we could bottle it and make a million dollars selling it to agencies in serious trouble because of low staff morale, high turnover and poor quality of work.

On the surface, it would seem that such problems are especially present in the nonprofit, human services sector because of poor funding, especially in times of tight budgets and low public support. The problems, then, seem insoluble. Yet there are non-profit agencies with long and enviable track records of productivity, high staff morale and low turnover. What do they know that we don’t?

The answer is not difficult to discover, simply difficult to accept. Organisational climate, physical setting, management philosophy and style are conditions of the workplace which, when combined in a positive sense, will produce a positive work environment. Those organisations which have turned traditional management theories upside down, have questioned the basic assumptions and methods of those theories, and have moved in the direction of democratisation of the workplace, have been successful on the bottom line and have solved problems with job satisfaction and employee commitment. In the American context, it is said that the last place where democracy will gain a foothold is In the American workplace, where the basic assumption seems to be that everyone else knows what is best for workers except the workers themselves. I don’t know how that applies to your country.

Worker productivity has been the concern of industry since the beginning of industrialisation in the early nineteenth century. The simplistic, mechanical and directive methods of the nineteenth century gave way to the application of the new sciences of psychology and sociology in the twentieth century. Yet even these scientific approaches did not seem to be the answer to the basic difficulty — employee motivation to work efficiently and to produce.

The formula for a great workplace is simple, but the creation and maintenance of the great workplace is not so simple. It requires a cold, hard look at the assumptions underlying our management philosophies and a total revision of organisational culture.

In the brief history of management theory, the common thread has been the tight connection between the activities of managers and productivity of employees. The manager is taught always to keep an eye on the bottom line and do what is necessary to ensure that the bottom line is not written in red ink. Even those management approaches that stress the improvement of human relations in the workplace do this mainly for the purpose of affecting worker productivity and, thereby, the profit margin.

Management theories evolved in the twentieth century
Although the different management theories are presented below in chronological order, one theory did not disappear when another appeared on the horizon. Each one has remained, sometimes altered and sometimes simply imbedded in actual organisational cultures.

Scientific Management: The first management theory is scientific management, also known as industrial engineering. In the early 1900s, Frederick Winslow Taylor applied scientific method to the tasks in the industrial workplace, assuming that there must be a ‘right’ or scientific way to do any job and that the worker on the line has neither the intelligence nor the inclination to be efficient.

Workers are naturally lazy. Productivity will rise, Taylor and his followers would say, when job analysis belongs to a new class in the workplace — the manager — and not to the worker on the line. The manager’s task was to produce and maintain a “harmonious co-operation” between himself or herself and the workers on the line. The manager’s task, then, was to make decisions about what was the best way to do a job and then ensure that the worker on the front line received instruction in the correct methods. Interestingly, it was Taylor’s intention to introduce democracy into the workplace and restrain arbitrary actions of employers regarding production by employees (Taylor 1948; Hoxie 1966, pp. 25-113, 140-149). The popular novel and movie, Cheaper by the Dozen, presents the figure of Frank Bunker Gilbreth, a pioneer in the scientific management movement and an expert in ‘time and motion’ efficiency studies (Gilbreth & Carfey 1948; Spriegel & Myers 1953).

Psychological theories: The second management theory drew on psychology. Elton Mayo, an influential Harvard professor, directed groundbreaking research from the late 1920s through the mid-1930s at Western Electric’s Hawthorn Works near Chicago (Roethlisberger & Dickson 1964). The research seemed to indicate that productivity was affected by psychological factors, such as attention paid to the workers — especially their social and psychological problems, rather than by factors such as physical conditions in the workplace. The worker became the patient (Mayo 1933, 1945; Roethlisberger & Dickson 1964, pp. 590-604). Each Christmas we see a caricature of this school of management. The staff psychologist at Macy’s, in the popular Christmas film Miracle on Thirty-Fourth Street, tests Kris Kringle and determines that he is mentally ill. The basic, and even dangerous, assumption in this management theory is that if there is a problem or a conflict, the source of the problem or conflict lies within the employee.

The solution would be an adjustment of the employee, not of the organisation or the workplace. This increased the need to place extensive trust in the new managerial class within the organisation.

The career manager: The third management theory has emphasised the development of management as a professional activity and the manager as a new professional.

Peter Drucker, in his 1954 book The Practice of Management, promoted results-driven management, such as ‘management by objectives’, in which expectations for performance are clearly spelled out (121-1 36); but the workers at the front line could not be trusted to make such decisions about the running of the business. The professional manager is seen as an all-purpose professional, that is, his professional training permits him to move from one content area to another or from one business to another, applying his knowledge of management to the problems of the business in which he finds himself (370-378).

The search for excellence: The fourth management theory we might call excellence management, promoted by Tom Peters in his book The Search for Excellence (1982). Peters found these characteristics of excellent companies, each of which is the topic of a chapter in his book: a bias for action, close to the customer, autonomy and entrepreneurship, productivity through people, hands-on management, value-driven, sticks to its knitting, simpler form, lean staff and simultaneous loose-tight properties. One of the basic assumptions here is that people are not very rational and are suckers for praise. The motivation of workers can be influenced by affecting the way they feel about themselves, that is, their self-esteem (55-56). Although this model does emphasise the importance of treating employees well and does advocate moving authority for decision-making as far down the organisational structure as is practical, the model is manipulative. It uses any base for motivation which will increase the profit at the bottom line. Terms such as “hoopla,” “razzle dazzle” and “illusion of control” are also used to describe management methods (6740).

A great place to work
When an employee is asked what makes a business a great place to work, there is a very high likelihood that the answer will be something like this: “I feel trusted here. My opinion is asked, and then I see what happens to my opinion. Sure, we have our problems, but they’re aired in the open. I always have a sense of what is coming down the road. There are no surprises. Even if there were surprises, I know that they’re from the outside.” The employee who describes her or his job that way is likely to be committed to the job and to the agency, to remain within the agency as long as his or her career path indicates, and to function efficiently and effectively.

Robert Levering, in his book A Great Place to Work (1988), describes four primary characteristics of the great workplace. First, people have a say in what affects them. Second, people have forums for free exchange of information, ideas, opinions and criticism. Third, people have clear procedures to assure due process. And fourth, people have the right to make up their own minds about the level of commitment they will have to the organisation, above the minimum. He makes the observation that one of the primary characteristics of the great workplace is the amount of trust present in workplace relationships. More specifically, the agency must build a reservoir on a track record of trust. In his research on trust in the workplace, Fernando Bartolome discovered that there are six factors that affect levels of trust in the workplace: communication, support, respect, fairness, predictability and competence (Bartolome 1989). If the communication is open, if there is support for employees in doing their jobs, if the agency expresses consistent respect for the individual as a human being and an employee, if the systems of the agency are consistently fair, if the agency operates with an easily understood predictability and if the managers are perceived as and operate as competent professionals, then the reservoir of trust fills and maintains itself.

That reservoir of trust is exactly what is called upon in times of crisis or emergency. The absence of that reservoir spells disaster for the agency in crisis (Smiar 1991).

Translating Bartolome’s observations into Levering’s framework for analysis of the great workplaces, we see four principal characteristics of the great workplace: open communication, truly participative decision-making, consistent fairness and sharing of rewards.

Face-to-face communication works best
In communications, the simpler and more frequently face-to-face the communication, the more effective the message and the greater the trust level.

Face-to-face communication, with no intervening barriers such as status symbols, tends to narrow the perceived distance between employer and employee and builds the impression on the part of the employee that management has nothing to hide, is involving the employee in the decision-making processes, and is not likely to do anything other than what it said it would do (D’Aprix 1982). It is amazing how many agencies rely on memos, newsletters, bulletin boards and written communications passed down the line to communicate not only information about tasks to be done, but also important information about agency policy, philosophy, direction and mission. When there are problems with these systems the answer is frequently to intensify the systems, ignoring the fact that the systems themselves are creating additional barriers. Often the answer is as simple as opening the administrative door, walking into a coffee break area or communications room and talking directly with employees. The “open door” policy in great workplaces is the most frequent indicator of the presence of this characteristic.

Allow employees to participate in decision-making
Research in organisational behaviour, especially in motivation in the workplace, has confirmed that there is a positive correlation between participation in decision-making and productivity (Vroom 1964; Herzberg 1987).

The basic assumption here is that the person doing the job knows more about it than anyone else.

The great workplace is the one that not only permits but even expects the worker to assume an increasing share of responsibility for decision-making related to her or his area of work. The key factor here, according to Levering, is management’s motivation behind any participatory techniques, such as quality circles or job enrichment. If the purpose is merely to make employees feel good and produce more, the employees will quickly catch on to this manipulative and demeaning message.

Simply put, the employees must see that what management gives as the reason corresponds with the actual goals (Levering 1988).

Fairness requires the use of communication
The next great revolution in business, industry and other services will be the full introduction of democracy into the workplace.

The essence of democracy is the extent of control that individuals have over their own lives and destinies as well as the life and destiny of the community in which they live. Here, I can simply reflect the experience of my own country. Despite recent scandals in government, American democracy remains intact because we are deeply convinced that the facts must be known and that we can handle those facts. In every other sphere of our lives, Americans have been successful in expanding the protection of human and civil rights and opening pathways for the development of full citizenship, except in the workplace. Most workplaces resemble a master-apprentice model more than a democratic model.

In fact, Levering discovered that the workplaces that were classified as ‘bad’ by employees were consistently exploitative and arbitrary.

The inherent danger in the undemocratic workplace is that workers’ rights will not be recognised or respected.The danger is that the political power structure of the organisation will grind the employees down by maintaining class distinctions within the organisation and reserving certain benefits and rewards only for the upper class in the organisation — the administrators and managers. Pre-eminent among those workers’ rights is the right to be treated fairly. Fair treatment means:

Fairness, therefore, requires the use of communication to communicate — not as a manipulative tool or a reward for compliance (Bartolome 1989). It recognises the employee’s right to know, in the same sense that we have a right to know exactly what is happening in our government and our nation, even if that information is likely to cause concern or anxiety. The employee has a right to all information except that which is limited by law or the dictates of reason. In a practical sense, that means anything except the content of personnel records and processes and those deliberations of a board or administrative group that are tentative or so sensitive that their revelation would cause grave damage to the agency. Fairness requires the design of accurate job descriptions, staff evaluation instruments, personal growth contracts and whatever else is used to state expectations. It requires that the employer design and implement a system of evaluation and review of grievance which is even-handed, predictable and fair, and then that the employer actually implements this system in such a way that all employees can see visible proof of its inherent fairness.

Promotion from within is a common characteristic of great workplaces, according to Levering. Both respect and fairness would seem to demand that the agency recognise the competence of its own employees, as well as their career pathways and needs for advancement. The great workplaces did not automatically promote from within, but they gave it the highest priority during their searches for staff.

Levering discusses a final right, the right not to be ‘part of the family’. Many workplaces seek to motivate employees by drawing them into a family-like atmosphere and then calling on them to be loyal to this family and even to overperform for it. This can be a very subtle form of tyrannical oppression of persons who are not willing or able to engage themselves in this fashion. This is related to the right to dissent from a prevailing corporate culture without being subjected to undue social pressure to conform. As managers or administrators, we would all like to have each employee be a part of the team or family and thus feel a strong motivation to deliver above and beyond the call of duty. The individual, however, has a right to enforce the basic agreement — to deliver service or labour in exchange for some clearly stated rewards. In my own experience as an administrator I often had to restrain myself from reacting to the employee who clearly stated her or his wish not to do more than the 40 hours required by the job. I restrained myself by reminding myself and my managers that that is the individual’s right. We had no right to demand more in the exchange of labour for money than we had set out in the original job description. Further, we had the responsibility not to allow that to prejudice us in our evaluations of the employee.

Rewards and recognition important for employee motivation
Finally, the great workplace provides the means of sharing rewards, recognition and ownership. The term ‘non-profit organisation’ does not mean that the agency cannot make a profit, even if it most often does not turn a profit.

There is nothing inherently wrong with passing along financial rewards when employees have delivered at their end. Money is not a dirty word, and in fact is a motivator in the short run. if the employees can see a clear connection between performance and reward, then the reinforcing power of the reward becomes greater.

Recognition must be genuine in order to be effective as a motivator.
If the connection between recognition and performance is clear, then the trust reservoir will Increase. Reinforcement of mediocre performance does not increase motivation; it actually increases resentment and confusion on the part of both the recipients and the observers. Recognition of superior performance, on the other hand, makes sense, is effective and contributes to the perception that the agency acts predictably.

The great workplace is a complex creation; it does not simply happen or evolve. The creation begins with a management philosophy that truly values individuals, views staff persons as basically responsible workers and has a deep commitment to equity and fairness. We cannot fall into the trap of thinking that a technique or method is the answer to employee dissatisfaction, low morale and high turnover; the answer is a re-orientation of management philosophy.

From the philosophy will flow the particular forms, methods or procedures which, in the context of the management philosophy, will make sense to the employees.


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