During the 30 years my consulting agency has worked with organizations to create high-performance work cultures, I’ve noticed a disturbing trend that isn’t confined to the field of engineering, manufacturing, or any other particular industry; it holds true in factories, offices, and other modern workplaces.
While the details may vary, the overall situation is the same: We treat machines better than people.
I don’t believe anyone sets out with this intention. However, even good leaders can alienate employees by losing sight of what adds real value to the business — not the machine or the process, but the people.
Showing machines or technology more respect than people happens when we allow our behavior to contradict our value for people — our belief that the majority of employees are responsible workers and citizens who desire to achieve and want the organization to succeed.
Devaluing your workforce by treating machines better than people not only dehumanizes workers, but it also leads to big problems. When people feel like replaceable parts, you’ll see more tardiness, absenteeism, turnover, accidents, spoilage, waste, theft, vandalism, sabotage, and lawsuits that can cost millions to resolve.
Moreover, all of this can lead to decreased profitability, low morale, diminished quality, lagging productivity, and a lack of passion — even among your highest performers. These are natural reactions for people who feel displaced and unappreciated.
The Roots of Discontent
How do good leaders end up appearing to care more about machines than people?
The simple answer is that they don’t realize how their actions can communicate the opposite of what they believe to be true. It’s a lack of awareness.
The origins go back to the Industrial Revolution: When the assembly line was born, the focus was on efficiency. Products would move from workstation to workstation, where interchangeable parts were added until the final result was produced. In this way, people also came to be viewed as “interchangeable” parts — cogs, replaceable, pieces of the process.
Today, this thinking is still deeply embedded in business language and practices. Consider these common examples of language used with workers: a “pipeline” of candidates, “taking stock” of existing personnel, or departments running like “clockwork.”
The following list explores four ways in which business leaders often demonstrate a greater appreciation for machines than people, as well as what they can — and should — do to change that dynamic. In many cases, it doesn’t cost you anything to fix this dynamic, but it has a significant payoff.
1. Machines are calibrated to improve function. When a machine is purchased, it’s perfectly calibrated before being put into the live production environment to ensure it’s performing optimally. Its operator corrects problems daily so it continues meeting and exceeding the standards set for it.
Organizations go so far as to pay manufacturers extra to install and adjust machines to ensure high performance right out of the box. With precise calibration, every machine is fully engaged in its work, providing uniform quality at a consistent pace.
In contrast, human workers are experiencing an epidemic of workplace disengagement. A recent Gallup study found only 31.5 percent of U.S. workers are actively engaged at work. If only one-third of machines functioned effectively and efficiently, they’d be replaced immediately.
This illustrates a stunning opportunity for leaders in every industry to invest in disengaged employees by showing faith in their ability to meet higher standards.
Here are a few tips to improve employee engagement and recalibrate a lagging workforce without investing in more machines:
• Clarify the context. People are different from machines in that we perform better when we understand why we’re doing a job. With so many job functions being siloed, it’s important to explain to employees how their positions contribute to the higher purpose. By acknowledging this, leaders show how much they value employee contributions while providing perspective for them.
• Up the ante. Job descriptions set the foundation for employee expectations and give workers a sense of purpose. Instead of bland descriptions focusing on daily tasks, such as “inputting financial data into spreadsheets,” big-picture language like “accurately tracking financial information in order to mitigate risk and keep consumer prices lower” helps employees set their own goals beyond menial tasks.
2. Machines are showcased. Having worked with leaders in the manufacturing industry for more than three decades, I’ve enjoyed amazing plant tours that would put any episode of “How It’s Made” to shame. These tours typically focus on robotics and amazing machinery, while the workers are relegated to quietly playing supporting parts.
As I’m escorted around plants wearing my visitor badge, operators fade into the background to allow me to take in the glory of their machines. Admittedly, these mechanical creations are astounding to witness and represent significant investments, but the message conveyed to workers and visitors alike is that these things have more value than people.
In contrast, a distinction of a high-performing facility is that operators are the ones conducting the tours.
Valuing people is not only the secret to high morale and productivity, but it’s also a competitive advantage that can separate two companies with the exact same machinery. According to another Gallup survey, 40 percent of employees who feel ignored by their manager are disengaged.
Instead of encouraging employees to hide from visitors, highlight their unique talents. Ask operators to describe their jobs on the production line. This will make them feel more valued, and visitors will receive a wealth of information from the person who knows the most about the machine: the one who operates it every day.
3. Machines draw more investment capital. Several years ago, I visited a truly impressive manufacturing facility that produced a popular household item. The division leader shared that it had been built from the ground up, with the fabrication and assembly machine representing millions of dollars in investment.
When I asked how team members were trained and developed, she cited company policy without blinking an eye: “Any team member training must take place after hours — off company time. At this time, the company is unable to provide any company-sponsored training or reimburse team member development.”
Too often, organizations create a sound business case for a machine that costs $1.4 million, but are either unable or unwilling to understand the case for investment in training and development of team members. In truth, an organization’s investment in the continuous improvement and education of employees reflects how much it values its workforce. People are the geniuses responsible for creating machines in the first place, and recognizing their worth is a vital part of driving production and innovation.
4. Machines get fixed when they break. I marvel at the lengths we go to repair, salvage, or save machines. The value of bringing a broken machine back online by sinking more money into it seems to be easily accepted.
Consider the colossal rescue effort for Seattle’s Big Bertha, the world’s largest tunneling machine — that has her own (humanizing) Twitter feed, by the way — when she stalled deep beneath the city more than two years ago. (She has since resumed digging, and the machine has tunneled about 1,100 feet since the last planned maintenance stop in April, according to a June 13 Washington State Department of Transportation press release.) Machine breakdowns are costly; when machines break, the attempts to rescue them are nothing short of heroic.
If Bertha were a person, she might have been abandoned and forgotten in that tunnel. Human employees are dispensable, as they’re told quite often. The instant someone stops performing or hinders production, management often first thinks, “How do we get rid of this person?”
In this case, the main objective for most HR leaders trained in the widely used system of progressive discipline is to build a legal case for termination. Why aren’t people treated with the same respect and dignity as Bertha?
Business leaders need to adopt more positive assumptions about their fellow humans. The majority of people aren’t screw-ups — they are responsible adults, willing to work hard to address any problem brought to their attention. Instead of pushing employees with performance problems out the door, why not use a counseling approach to facilitate a solution and save the investment the company has already made in hiring that person (as well as that person’s self-worth)?
Time and again, leaders testify to me that they are able to turn low performers into superstars when they take the time to treat workers respectfully.
Improving Human Relations
Open two-way communication makes people feel as if they’re being treated like professionals instead of incompetent amateurs. When the company culture recognizes and respects employees as valuable assets to the business, they will begin acting as such.
Valuing people is not only more efficient, but it’s also the right thing to do — and it carries immeasurable benefits for the company. People are a priceless business resource, and this will be as true in 2020 as it was in 1920. That shiny new machine might help productivity, but it’s no replacement for the grit, tenacity, and resourcefulness of a person.
Editor's note: A previous version of this post incorrectly stated that Seattle’s Big Bertha tunneling machine had not yet resumed operations following a breakdown in December 2013. The post has been corrected to reflect that Big Bertha is currently operating.