BOOKS on how to get the most out of your employees almost always follow the same formula. They start by noting that the secret of business success is employee-engagement: an engaged worker is more productive as well as happier. They go on to point out that most employees are the opposite of engaged (a 2013 Gallup Survey that claims that 70% of American workers are “not engaged” or “actively disengaged” gets a lot of play). They blame this dismal state of affairs on the legacy of Frederick Winslow Taylor, a Philadelphia-born Quaker who became one of America’s first management consultants and in 1911 wrote a book called “The Principles of Scientific Management”. And finally they reveal the secret of making your employees more engaged: treat them like human beings rather than parts in an industrial machine.
The first two books under review are cases in point. They both rely on over-familiar examples of high-performance companies, such as “funky, funny” Zappos and CNN. They come from the same school of poor writing—sloppy sentences, ugly management jargon and pseudo-folksy style. Stan Slap is particularly slapdash. “The Power of Thanks”, by Eric Mosley and Derek Irvine, claims that a “Positivity-Dominated Workplace creates and maintains competitive advantage”. The best way to do this is to thank people regularly. Mr Slap’s “Under the Hood” claims that the best way to maximise business performance is to look under the bonnet of your company, discover the employee culture that lies inside, and then fine-tune it. Fine-tuning involves things like praising good workers and sacking bad ones (“one of the biggest opportunities to create a legend is when the hammer falls right on the culture and someone has to go”).
Laszlo Bock’s “Work Rules!” is much better. Mr Bock has been head of “people operations” at Google since 2006 and has seen the company grow from 6,000 to almost 60,000 people. He cannot resist repeating a succession of familiar Google tales about nap pods and free food (though he is amusing on some workers’ habit of stealing food for the weekend). The author gives in to the temptation to laud his bosses (Larry and Sergey, it seems, are far-sighted and generous seed-planters) and to introduce readers to Google’s private language (“Googlegeist” is “the spirit of Google” and “yoglers” are Googlers who practise yoga). But once he gets into the nitty-gritty he is often fascinating.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Mr Bock’s book is that he cheerfully undermines his own argument. He starts off with a hymn to the high-freedom approach to management, which gives workers the liberty to solve problems however they want. “Not every company will be able to duplicate perks like free meals, but everyone can duplicate what makes Google great.” But his account of how Google works suggests a much more interesting picture. Google can afford to practise a high-freedom approach because it selects its people so carefully: only about 0.25% of those who apply actually end up with a job. And even these prodigies need to be ridden with a spur and a bridle.
Mr Bock is an unabashed defender of elitism. He argues that knowledge-intensive companies are unusually dependent on a tiny number of highly talented workers: a top-notch engineer “is worth 300 times or more than an average engineer”. This means that such companies have no choice but to “pay unfairly” in order to provide extraordinary performers with extraordinary rewards: if they don’t the people who really matter will simply go elsewhere. He is particularly contemptuous of “skimmers”, those who float along at the bottom of the company for years; they should not really be there.
Mr Bock also makes a good case for empowering managers. Many of the engineers who dominate Google think that managers are a waste of space: they “get in the way, create bureaucracy and screw things up.” The company has repeatedly experimented with cutting management to the bone. But Mr Bock thinks that bureaucracy-busting can only go so far: you can no more run a big company like Google without management than you can run it without lawyers, accountants or cleaners. By all means involve computer programmers in decision-making, he says; but in the end priorities must be set and managerial decisions made.
Mr Bock’s most striking management tips have much more to do with hiring and classifying people than with empowering them. The best recruiters are fellow employees and they should be motivated to spread the word. Interviews are lousy selection mechanisms because interviewers are so biased and make decisions on the basis of first impressions: far better to give candidates a task similar to the one they will have to perform and see how well they do. Mr Bock is keen on choosing top performers from state universities. Not only are they more likely to be brighter than their middle-of-the-road Ivy League counterparts, he believes, but they will probably also have had to develop a greater degree of grit and determination in the face of difficult personal circumstances.
In the course of “Work Rules!” Mr Bock also unwittingly reveals what is wrong with most empowerment literature, which is based on the assumption that all companies should embrace some form of high-freedom management. Any failure to do so is a sign that managers are imprisoned in Taylor’s scientific-management cage. But what works for Google does not necessarily work for fast-food restaurants where workers are poorly educated and turnover rates are high. Teresa Amabile, of Harvard Business School, has argued, on the basis of extensive survey data, that one of “the most important indicators on employee engagement…was simply ‘making progress in meaningful work’”. But some jobs, such as serving fast food or stacking shelves, do not have a lot of meaningful work to make progress in.
Most empowerment literature is also based on the idea that a sharp contrast can be drawn between inherent rewards and external stick-and-carrot rewards. Mr Bock shows that even at a firm as unusual as Google you need a mixture of the two. This is even truer of less-educated workers. Companies that have taken the doctrine of empowerment to more mainstream workers have not done so by abandoning sticks and carrots, but by using them in more sophisticated ways. Toyota encourages its employees to think of ways to improve production. They can also stop the whole assembly line if they see something that needs fixing. Whole Foods organises its workers into teams that have a lot of freedom to choose members and distribute tasks, relying on peer pressure rather than top-down control.
It is undoubtedly a mistake for a company to base its management philosophy on Taylor’s aphorism that “people are no more than mechanical parts” in a great assembly line. It is equally mistaken to cling to the idea that all workers can be left to their own devices—and that all you need to do is to be nice to your employees and miracles will happen.
Work Rules! Insights from Inside Google that Will Transform How You Live and Lead. By Laszlo Bock.Twelve; 404 pages; $30.