By Goke Ilesanmi
Manipulation is defined as the act of making someone think and behave exactly the way you want him to, by skilfully deceiving or influencing him. Though the person manipulating the other person or people may have his way for some time, the strategy of manipulation is not the one that is enduring – it does not last! When employees feel betrayed or manipulated, management’s attempts at motivation cannot achieve any positive result. By way of illustration, according to research, a giant supermarket chain in Florida was well known for its warm relationship with its fifty thousand odd employees.
The company published a bi-weekly bulletin that listed all the births, deaths, marriages and serious illnesses of employees and their families. For more than twenty years, the company president had sent personalised cards to the families of everyone listed in the bulletin. But when a new president was appointed in 1984, he decided to discontinue sending cards for births, marriages and illnesses. It is far better not to do something than to commit yourself to something you may not be able to deliver.
In another development, research has confirmed that when the brown aircraft of People Express took to the skies in 1980, its founders initiated a social experiment on the grandest of scales. It was probably the most elaborate attempt at corporate democracy ever. According to Donald Calvin Burr, president of People Express, “The single predominant reason why I cared about starting a new company was to try and develop a better way for people to work together.”
So many people flocked to join the company because of this message, that only one out of a hundred applicants could be accepted. “You’re not a commodity,” Burr would stress to new recruits at the end of intensive five-week-long, six-day-a-week (without pay) training programmes. “You’re not a beaten-down worker. You’re a manager. You’re an owner.” And apparently, he meant it.
Azriel Winnett, a business management expert says there were no supervisors, secretaries or vice-presidents at People Express. All employees were given the title of manager. They were rotated among jobs frequently – in the air as flight attendants, at the airports as ticket agents, or behind the scenes in the accounting or scheduling departments. One third of the corporate profit was distributed to employees. They all owned a minimum of a hundred shares of the airline’s stock. “When you fly People’s Express, an owner is never more than a few steps away,” boasted one its newspaper adverts.
Fired with an infectious excitement, the “owner-managers” would work ten to twelve hours per day. Since per capita productivity was high, People Express operated with about fifty staff per airplane, about half the industry average. Burr was determined that the company should become “a role model for other airlines and businesses”, and it did. Not only had it become the nation’s fifth largest airline within five years, but it had become famous for its human management philosophy. “Anyone who isn’t studying People Express and the way they’re managing people is out of their minds,” proclaimed a Harvard professor of repute. Two years later, People Express was no more. Drained by an excessively rapid expansion, Burr was forced to sell the entire airline before it was too late.
Reasons for collapse
The reasons for the company’s failure will probably be debated in business schools for many years to come, as business reporter Robert Levering points out in his fascinating book, A Great Place to Work. But parallel to the financial crash, a failure of a different kind became evident in the course of time. For all his ingenuity as a motivational expert, Donald Burr’s grand scheme for ultimate corporate democracy had long turned sour in the eyes of many of his employees. Levering masterfully analyses the reasons for this in his book. During the final week of the airline’s existence as an independent entity, he talked at length with numerous People Express employees. They talked of feeling being “manipulated”. They stressed that this feeling had manifested on a large scale long before the airline flew into financial turbulence.
There is a special excitement about being involved in launching a company, and part of the People Express experience has occurred in countless other companies, too. Everyone feels needed and useful. The “partners” at People Express felt like winners, despite the long, uncompensated hours of work. But in this kind of situation, it is easy for the people at the top to purposefully prolong the start-up phase, and to take advantage of their workers’ love of excitement and novelty. The very responsibility given to the employees can become deceptive. Their very loyalty can become an object of manipulation.
And although an elaborate communication system was in place at People Express, it worked well only when the going was good. But there were no viable mechanisms for handling employee complaints and concerns. The system made no provision for conflicts, because it assumed a kind of everlasting harmony between the employee-managers and the top executives.
At People Express, many employees discovered that broken promises led to broken dreams. Perhaps the big-wigs were thinking to themselves: “Tell people whatever will make them feel good. Then they’ll work harder, and we’ll make more money.” And as any politician knows, you can win votes by making promises, but voters eventually expect you to deliver.
In an atmosphere of trust, communication can flourish. But trust is not something that can be turned on at will, like a tap. Therefore, every corporate organisation that wants to succeed in business should desist from manipulating its employees or making empty promises to them because deploying this deceitful strategy can be counter-productive in the long run.
Till we meet on Wednesday.
GOKE ILESANMI, Managing Consultant/CEO of Gokmar Communication Consulting, is an International Platinum Columnist, Certified Public Speaker/MC, Communication Specialist, Motivational Speaker and Career Management Coach. He is also a Book Reviewer, Biographer and Editorial Consultant.
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