The theme of this seminar is very forward thinking, and it points to the paradigm shift we must all adopt in our approach to the management of people. In our culture, the workplace is not typically a happy environment. We view work as a great burden, and we look forward to our weekends, our evenings, our vacations, and, at last, our retirement, when we can enjoy ourselves after the toils and tribulations of the field, factory or office.
What is more, we seem to believe that the worker's happiness gets in the way of productivity. You have to perform at your best at all times, we say, and you cannot afford to allow your feelings to get in the way. This way of thinking leads us to put ourselves in impossible situations, and to set up systems of managing people which produce frustration, distrust and resentment, rather than the intended improvement in performance and commitment. A colleague whom I believe has been currying favour in the "right" quarters is promoted, and I am expected to carry on as normal, in spite of the resentment that gnaws away at me whenever I pass his new office. After working all year to address deficiencies in my performance, at the end of last year I got another poor appraisal, and I am still expected to be sufficiently motivated to try again this year.
Problems of this kind cannot be solved until we come to see the happiness of the worker as the key to productivity. This is the paradigm shift that is needed, and it represents a true revolution in our thinking about people and work. The idea that the workplace should be a happy environment is not a dangerous new heresy; it is a recognition of our everyday experience, of situations that we have been involved in, observed, read or heard about, all our lives. Think of the traditional work songs that for centuries have eased the work of farmers and fishermen; think of the old time transportation and re-erection of chattel houses over the weekend; think of the offices and work groups you have participated in which have been most productive; think of companies which have an enduring reputation for the quality of their output or service. Isn't it the case that they were/are the most rewarding and satisfying experiences of our working lives?
These situations have become legend not only because they were so effective, but because the experience was so much fun. What is more, the nature of the work does not matter: it may be hard and repetitive, and the hours long; or it may be so engaging that long hours of dedication pass almost unnoticed. The case for the happy worker can also be made by exception: think of the many failed attempts to improve the level and quality of output and services in private firms and in the public sector, and consider what attention was paid to giving the worker a say and a stake in the process, and securing their commitment to the overall objectives of the reform.
The flowering of the HR profession in recent decades is a major stride in recognising the importance of the role of the individual within the organisation. We no longer treat workers as undifferentiated cogs in a machine, but as individuals with varying abilities, needs and aspirations. We acknowledge the importance of training, work-life balance, and employee facilities such as day care and exercise gyms, etc. However, these aspects of people management remain means to an end, not ends in themselves.
We are not so much interested in the worker as we are in his productivity. We believe that the manager's principal responsibility is to extract the highest performance from the individual. We have come to realise that we must keep the worker in good shape, physically and emotionally, if he or she is to be most productive. That is the extent of our concern for our workers. We don't really care about them as persons, how they feel about themselves, their aspirations, their insecurities, their outlook on life, who they really are.
Our current approach to management manifestly does not work in today's Barbadian society. In Government and the private sector we continue to roll out increasingly sophisticated performance appraisal systems, which take account of all the soft skills as well as technical and administrative competencies. A significant minority of workers score very well in these assessments, but seldom do the quality and timeliness of the output of the organisation improve to an extent that the average customer can attest to.
It remains the case that companies and government departments that provided efficient services before the introduction of sophisticated worker appraisal techniques by and large continue to be efficient, and those that were not efficient continue to bear the brunt of frequent complaint.
The reason for the disconnect between appraisal and output is the fact that managers worry about the output, when they really need to worry about the people producing the output. That is the essence of my message. The key to productivity is the full engagement of the producers in what is delivered. That level of commitment will be forthcoming only when the worker is fully persuaded of the objectives of the firm or unit, and fully comfortable with their role in the execution of those objectives. The manager's task is to persuade everyone to come on board, to internalise the group objectives, and to work together with the team to bring those objectives to fruition.
This alternative approach to management has practical implications, for managers and workers. The manager is leader, guide, coach and source of inspiration for his or her team. She or he knows team members' strengths and weaknesses, and works to fit the team together as a unit that is more than the individual members. The manager's job is to make the team gel, to work with those who are having difficulty, to manage interpersonal dynamics, to build trust and cooperation among team members. The best way to build a winning team is to secure the enthusiastic commitment of all of the players. In much the same vein, the best way to achieve the company objectives is for managers to secure the enthusiastic commitment of workers to those objectives. There are many ways in which this can be done, by inviting suggestions for programmes, procedures and processes; by showing genuine appreciation for input, ideas, thoughts and feedback; and by finding avenues for the creativity and talents of staff.
In contrast, much HR practice seems to encourage managers to set objectives, parcel them out among workers, and check periodically on who has achieved what. At each check point the manager decides what remedial action is needed, if necessary; then at year end everybody is scored against their worksheet, and gets a pay increase that depends on their score. Anyone who thinks that this arrangement can produce results does not really understand how to manage for success. Those of you who have tried in vain to make systems of this kind work can attest to their many weaknesses. Despite these weaknesses, performance appraisals of this kind remain very popular, and some appear to believe that they are state of the art. Sadly, in this as in so many areas of expertise, Barbados continues to lag behind leading intellectual currents in the HR profession, where there is great ferment because of the evident failure of this approach to management.
Managers need to start thinking of themselves as captains of sports teams, rather than captains of companies of infantry. The outstanding sports captain - think Frank Worrell - is leader, coach, mentor, advisor, and general source of guidance and support for all the team members. The team is composed of individuals, and in the kind of world class team we all wish to build, many of those individuals will be socially challenged, and will need to be brought into line; but that is nobody's business but the team's. The captain and the team must together work on a resolution of those conflicts which makes the whole team a stronger unit. Those conflicts, and their resolution, are things that the rest of us should get to know about only much later, in casual conversation over drinks, when the matter has long been resolved. There are other things that need to be in place to build a world class team, such as a selection process that provides the team with an appropriate mix of skills for the job at hand. Once he has such a properly balanced team, it is the manager's task to mold it into a cohesive unit that achieves the company's objectives. That can be done only through interaction at a personal level.
Barbados is challenged to provide internationally competitive services in an increasingly crowded market, in tourism, in international business and financial services, and in the production and export of rum, sugar and other agricultural and manufactured goods. The best way to cement our reputation in the international market is by the quality and professionalism of our production and services. This requires appropriate training to continually build and refresh the pool of relevant skills, as is well recognized. What is not so well understood is how best we may manage those skills, so that they deliver quality products and services. It begins, I submit, with the recognition that the happy worker is the most productive worker, and a charge to managers to focus on building team spirit, as well as ensuring that the players are well trained and physically and emotionally fit.