MOTIVATE OR ALIENATE? FIRMS HIRE GURUS TO CHANGE THEIR 'CULTURE'

Peter Waldman, Wall Street Journal, July 24, 1987


In Atlanta, clerical workers for Pacific Mutual Life Insurance Co. search their memories for a time when they felt ''victimized.'' Trainers then ask them how they could have avoided that feeling by being more ''accountable'' for their actions. Later, with Dionne Warwick singing ''What the World Needs Now'' in the background, the trainers pass out red carnations in an expression of corporate love.

In Van Nuys, Calif., auto workers attend special retraining courses to help them gain ''a greater measure of dignity, self-fulfillment and self-worth'' from their labors, as one manual puts it. At one of the seminars, the General Motors Corp. employees study ''Possibility Thinking'' -- how to overcome ''cultural trances'' and ''flat-world barriers'' that hinder performance.

Abuzz with buzzwords, corporate America has launched one of the most concerted efforts ever to change the attitudes and values of workers. Dozens of major U.S. companies -- including Ford Motor Co., Procter & Gamble Co., TRW Inc., Polaroid Corp. and Pacific Telesis Group Inc. -- are spending millions of dollars on so-called New Age workshops. The training is designed to foster such feelings as teamwork, company loyalty and self-esteem.

Workers, however, have had decidedly mixed reactions to the attitudinal training, creating, in many companies, bitter conflicts between employees who embrace the new concepts and those who don't. Younger employees, especially, are more apt to praise the sessions for addressing productivity problems and for attempting to make jobs more meaningful. But many older employees say the seminars -- and management -- are simply paying lip service to serious concerns in the workplace.

Although the efforts to transform corporate ''cultures'' vary widely among companies, many of the programs draw heavily from motivational themes popularized by entrepreneurs like L. Ron Hubbard and Werner Erhard. Indeed, most of the programs share a common, simple goal: to increase productivity by converting worker apathy into corporate allegiance.

In Pacific Mutual's voluntary ''Leadership Alignment'' course, for example, trainers lead employees through two days of role playing and discussions to encourage them to take more responsibility for their actions. At one point, employees divide themselves according to personality types and act out roles of ''promoters'' ''supporters'' and ''analysts.'' The exercise attempts to show how different behaviors can help or hinder productivity.

These workshops and others, consultants say, represent efforts to move away from traditional corporate structures -- where managers often make decisions with little input from subordinates -- toward a more collegial atmosphere. To survive, companies must emulate Japanese management styles and harness the full mental and physical talents of their workers, say these consultants.

''There's a new ideology of management emerging'' at some companies, says Robert Howard, a Cambridge, Mass.-based author and labor consultant, ''in which the corporation is a mother-like institution that maintains family interaction and a warm home.''

The attitudinal training appears to work best at companies that combine words with actions. Tektronix Inc., based in Beaverton, Ore., uses ''People Involvement'' workshops to expose employees to new management practices already in use in some of its plants. Employees describe for their colleagues how they work in teams, schedule their own hours, evaluate each other for raises and even communicate directly with customers and suppliers when problems arise. Many Tektronix employees praise the participative system's effects on both morale and production.

At other companies, however, workers often complain that the seminars and exercises they attend are the first and last time they hear about improvements on the job; once the training ends, so does management's commitment to change. ''Unfortunately, most of the so-called transformation work today is really just a substitute for giving workers real autonomy and responsibility,'' says Harley Shaiken, professor of work and technology at the University of California at San Diego. ''It's too bad because efforts at manipulation today will only create resistance to more legitimate reorganization tomorrow.''

Such resistance was visible at Pacific Mutual's Atlanta claims office. Shortly after holding its ''Leadership Alignment'' seminar there, the company raised work quotas nearly 20%, says Edna Lee, a former claims examiner in the office. When Ms. Lee complained about the work increase, she recalls, her manager warned her that the new quotas were a ''gravity issue'' -- a Leadership Alignment term describing uncontestable management decisions. Ms. Lee persisted in objecting until the company fired her, she says.

''Leadership Alignment was actually an attempt to blindfold us and redirect our energies away from real concerns like being overworked and having our benefits reduced,'' Ms. Lee maintains.

A Pacific Mutual spokesman says Ms. Lee was fired for ''complex reasons'' that he wouldn't discuss but which he says were validated in a National Labor Relations Board ruling in the case. Brian Seaman, the Pacific Mutual trainer who designed the Leadership Alignment course, says the training merely stresses ''common-sense principles the employees can use on the job.'' He says the sessions helped the company save ''a few million dollars'' by boosting office morale and production and by helping cut worker turnover.

At GM's Chevrolet-Pontiac-Canada plant in Van Nuys, some 4,700 workers attended seven days of seminars this spring on such subjects as ''Coping with Change'' and ''Listening Skills.'' The courses are part of GM's new Team Concept: a Japanese-style management system in which workers are stripped of traditional job classifications and given added responsibilities for quality and maintenance.

The training consisted of lectures and exercises meant to engender a new sense of labor-management partnership at the historically fractious plant. In one session on conflict resolution, workers learned different ''strategies'' for reacting to disagreements with other people. Illustrating their points, instructors mentioned the ''withdrawing'' turtle, the ''smoothing'' Teddy Bear and -- wisest of all -- the ''problem-solving'' owl. ''Owls highly value their own goals and relationships," says the course's training manual.

But rather than creating a spirit of cooperation, the training seminars -- and Team Concept itself -- have opened a rift at the GM plant between supporters and opponents of the new program.

Some workers have taken to the new system with renewed enthusiasm for their jobs, going so far as to barrage management with daily suggestions on how to improve production. But others, many with at least 10 years seniority, charge that Team Concept is GM's attempt to break the workers' union. These critics claim that GM's instructors intentionally confused them with hours of vague advice on interpersonal relations while ducking questions about Team Concept's effect on work conditions.

''In the end, they offered Team Concept as a panacea: 'Give up your union rights and everything will be OK,' '' says Paul Goldener, a 30-year veteran of the plant and a leading critic of the changes. ''They're pitting brother against brother in a deliberate attempt to break the union.''

Jim Gaunt, GM's director of personnel at Van Nuys, denies that GM wants to disrupt the union. In fact, he says, Team Concept may have strengthened the union; the program's inception has encouraged the company to recall a second shift of unionized workers. He adds that the training sessions weren't attempts at brainwashing but a sincere effort to refocus employees' attention on quality and cooperation.

''Our whole thrust was trying to create an attitude that change was a necessary element for our long-term viability,'' he says.

Similarly, Pacific Bell, in the wake of its divestiture from American Telephone & Telegraph Co., decided it needed to transform its traditional, ''compliant'' culture, as one spokesman describes it, into a less hierarchical, more entrepeneurial one. So the unit of San Francisco-based Pacific Telesis began a series of quarterly, two-day training seminars for its 67,000 workers to give them a common purpose and common approach to their work.

To foster greater creativity, for example, trainers discussed different ''levels'' of thought, energy and behavior. (In ascending order, the six levels of energy were defined as automatic, sensitive, conscious, creative, unitive and transcendent.) That session, loosely based on the teachings of G.I. Gurdjieff, an early 20th century Russian mystic, was supposed to inspire more analytical thinking among employees. In it, workers broke into groups to discuss issues like the difference between ''knowledge'' and ''understanding.''

But for many employees, that session and others inspired only anger. Shortly after the program began, workers were quoted in articles about the training in local newspapers as saying that the workshops smacked of mind control, Eastern mysticism and coercion.

''Dissenters are referred to as 'roadblocks' or having 'Bell-Shaped Heads' '' by supporters of the training, wrote one company employee, in response to a California Public Utilities Commission survey on the sessions. ''In trying to be modern,'' wrote another, ''I feel the company bought a hollow, intentionally cloudy program'' from outside consultants.

In June, the utilities commission staff, on the basis of these and other comments, issued a sharply critical report on the program, concluding that ratepayers shouldn't bear the training's costs. The phone company suspended the workshops.

But Pacific Bell still maintains that the program is effective in providing employees with common ''frameworks'' and vocabulary for communicating with each other. ''Having common tools and approaches saves an enormous amount of time,'' says Carol Westphal, a spokeswoman. ''We continue to believe that the positives outweigh the negatives.''

copyright 1987 Wall Street Journal


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