(Essential – if boring – preamble…)
It was autumn 1974. Some twelve months previously, I’d completed my engineering apprenticeship in the then publicly-owned UK power generation industry (CEGB). I was called to a meeting with the head of the maintenance department of the power station in which I was working at the time. He told me that I would be moving into the Work Specification Production Office. There, along with a clutch of other engineers, my job would be to produce documents that would specify in detail the work to be carried out by skilled craftsmen in the Mechanical Maintenance Department, on any and every conceivable maintenance task that they might find themselves working.
A few years previously, the CEGB had embarked on what I considered even then to be an ill-conceived Pay and Productivity Scheme. In it, craftsmen and others were paid according to their ability to carry out their assigned work within the time assessed by specially appointed Work Study Assistants. The Work Specifications, on which the times were based, included excessively elaborate, step-by-step instructions for the craftsmen, together with lists of precisely defined tools for them to use.
(Get on with it, Chris…)
O.K. To help me on my way, the head of department gave me a piece of advice that has shaped my approach to management to this day. Although not in the way that he had intended.
“Remember, Chris,” he said, “You’ve got to treat these people like trained monkeys.”
Trained monkeys! He was talking here about skilled craftsmen.
Leaving aside the offensive notion of referring to any human being as a trained monkey, my Dad happened to be a mechanical craftsman at one of the power stations just down the road. He certainly wasn’t a trained monkey (with no disrespect to the real thing). Experienced craftsman, yes. Respected (by management) Shop Steward and later Convenor, yes. Engaged outside of work in various ‘social’ affairs, such as being the secretary of a local working men’s club, yes. But 'trained monkey'? No!.
Also, like all people who possess a skill of any kind, his ability to apply it expertly, in real-world situations, involved much more than the unthinking application of routine procedures. Much less did it need a set of ‘how to blow your nose in 20 easy steps’ instructions from a newly-qualified engineer – or (other than in exceptional circumstances) any arms-length technical input of any kind.
I actually wasn’t a very good engineer at that stage of my career. Nor did I enjoy it. I recall that I used to liken it to playing Snakes and Ladders, without any ladders! However well you thought you’d done one day, you always ended up back at “Square One” the next. In later years, engineering strategy, commercial performance, resource management and the like were really engaging. But pontificating on the ‘nuts and bolts’ (literally) of day-to-day engineering was not my scene.
But it was my scene, of course. I’d just been told as much by my boss (twice removed). So, to survive and thrive in that environment, I quickly recognized that I needed to build a network of support amongst those who really did know how the world worked in that regard. People who could actually make things happen. As I recall, this included a couple of the foremen, the stores supervisor, and one or two key craftsmen, who were respected by their peers and ‘covered all the angles’ as regards the various crafts. None of these had formal engineering qualifications. But they weren’t ‘trained monkeys’ either. Far from it. They were intelligent, technically and/or organizationally knowledgeable, and politically astute operators. People who were perfectly capable of finding their ways through the complexities of organizational life and getting things done.
I’m very grateful, though, for that 1974 lecture on the “trained monkey” approach to management. The advice has continued to inform my own practice over the intervening years, both as an in-house manager and later as a consultant. It has served as a constant reminder of how senseless such an approach is. And of what to avoid.
Leadership, is not about tying people up in knots, but rather about encouraging, assisting, and enabling them to excel.
The guiding principle should be, "trust, not trussed".
(And the point is?)
Over 40 years have passed since that meeting. Thankfully, much has changed. And it’s fair to say that I had the privilege of working for a number of enlightened managers and engineers back then, too, whose approach confirmed and strengthened my own prejudices.
Have things changed enough, though? Are there workplaces in which the “trained monkey” school of management is alive and well?
And what about broader society? Are there some people whose knowledge, opinions, and actions are similarly dismissed by those who consider themselves to be intellectually, morally, and socially superior?