issue of Employee Involvement Network marks the 60th time---10 years---that I have put my thoughts
into words in this newsletter. Over the last month I have found myself reflecting on this,
seriously contemplating what I have learned in the process. Perhaps it is appropriate in
this time of rapid change to look back and appreciate the journey we have all been taking.
When we published our first issue of Employee Involvement Network
in April of 1987, it was
apparent that there needed to be more dialogue on the issue of employee involvement. By
then, I had been learning and practicing involvement concepts for about 6 years and found
that I needed to know more. And those I spoke with said that serious issues were
discussed at the water coolers, but little was being said publicly about the problems
We had few resources back then to help us. The Association
for Quality and Participation1 (then called the International Association of Quality
Circles) was a wonderful resource for this work. Pioneers Jeff Beardsley and
Don Dewar made a major contribution when they launched the IAQC to fill a void in our
understanding of participative concepts.
The U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor-Management Relations and Cooperative
Programs (disbanded later under the Bush administration) was also an excellent conveyer of
emerging information regarding employee involvement. Stephen Schlossberg, then Deputy
Undersecretary of labor, was a strong proponent who championed a number of initial studies
that shed new light on the power of participation.
A few universities were also studying participation and consultants were beginning to
focus on it as well.
A major concern among involvement practitioners, however, was the significant
"failure' rate of new programs. Data at the time showed that three-fourths of all
participation efforts "failed" within a year of implementation. The term
"quality circles" was shunned in many organizations because the quick
rise-and-fall experience had left such a bad taste. Of course, it wasn't the concept that
was bad, but the shock to the established command-and-control culture that destroyed the
circles. Our management system was not yet ready for this kind of empowerment of workers.
What was pushing the trend toward participation, however, was world competition. The
U.S. was losing major industries, and businesses were looking for strategies to compete.
So the interest in employee involvement continued to grow despite the failures.
By 1987, Teambuilding, Inc. was two years old. With precious little funds, we made a
conscious decision not to advertise our company, but rather put that money into something
that would serve a larger purpose. We would attempt to provide a forum for employee
involvement issues. There was no "grand plan" to mass mail this newsletter to
America---we simply hoped that those who saw value in it would copy it and share it with
others, thereby enlarging the network. To a great extent, that has happened---and what I
have personally gained from this experience has far exceeded my expectations.
People have shared stories with us to pass along. Some have written
their own stories
for us. Authors and publishers have sent us early editions of their books to preview. And
we have had the opportunity to meet new people whose ideas have expanded our scope of
We followed the trail of studies that continually proved that employee involvement,
when implemented properly, translated into improved performance for organizations:
- 1984 - U.S. Department of Labor Economic Policy Council
- 1988 - U.S. General Accounting Office
- 1989 - Brookings Institution
- 1990 - U.S. General Accounting Office
- 1991 - Columbia University School of Business
- 1991 - Manufacturers' Alliance for Productivity and Innovation
- 1993 - Work in America Institute, Inc.
We watched America win back previously lost market share as companies such as Intel,
Motorola, Ford, Microsoft, Xerox, Harley-Davidson, and others began to implement quality
and innovation strategies based on employee involvement concepts, adding additional
impetus to the participation trend.
We watched employee involvement move to empowerment, and then to self-direction. Many
of us questioned the notion that a group of workers could "manage" themselves
without direct supervision---we doubted, and we were wrong. The movement from an
adult-to-child to an adult-to-adult work environment was underway.
But we also watched as "re-engineering" and "re-structuring"
snapped us back to the command-and-control mentality that has dominated this century. The
brutal downsizings of some organizations left employees asking where the involvement went.
As with all powerful trends, however, the movement has continued. The last year has
seen a renewed interest in moving participation forward, reminding me of the age-old truth
"There is nothing so powerful as an idea whose time has come."
Change on a Personal Level
Focusing on the 10 years of Employee Involvement Network
made me also contemplate the personal
journey I have been on since beginning this work in 1980. Perhaps some of you have had a
When I began, I thought worker participation was an interesting technique for improving
work---just another tool in the manager's toolbox to be used when needed. But as time went
on it became apparent that this was far more than "just another tool."
My wake-up call was in 1982, during my first employee involvement "program,"
when the wife of one of our workers commented to me that her husband's behavior at home
had changed. She said that "he was calmer, didn't yell as much, and didn't complain
about his work anymore." Life at home had improved.
I was so ignorant of the psychological benefits of involvement in those early years
that it took some time before I connected her statement to the program we had implemented.
And it would be a while longer before I went to the library to finally link theory with
Industrial psychologists Abraham Maslow and Frederick Herzberg had told us for years
what would happen if we involved people in this manner at work---and now we were
I found my work shifting naturally from technically driven improvement concepts to
human driven concepts. It was obvious that real improvement resulted when the
people became energized.
So little by little I began to learn more about the human side of performance. My
passion was to understand the factors that drive behavior, especially those that result in
high or low performance. Some of what I learned included:
- Our childhood determines a great deal of the triumphs and tragedies of our adulthood.
Moving on leads to improvement.
- Our personality is genetically determined and is a gift. Rather than lament our
differences, successful people celebrate and use them.
- Our belief system is acquired after birth and is totally unique to each of us. Values
strongly held are a primary source of conflict.
- Our intuition is almost always right, but our intellect usually overrules it.
- We define ourselves by the limits of our thinking, and this boundary is a major barrier
to our success.
- There is a spiritual element to each of us waiting to be released. Releasing it brings
- The need to be recognized is one of our greatest needs, however, a sincere "thank
you" is seldom forthcoming.
- Everyone has something to contribute and will if we just ask. The need to feel valued is
As I look over this list I realize that these are simply age-old philosophies of life.
Would I have learned them without my journey through employee involvement? Maybe, but I
don't think so.
In eighteen years of formal schooling I didn't learn these principles, and so moved
into adulthood without ample preparation for life, relationships, and an understanding of
my own potential. From the responses I get during my seminars, I don't think I'm alone.
So the beauty of the involvement movement has not only been its contribution to the
performance of the workplace, but also a greater understanding of who we are and what
makes us better.
Schools today are beginning to
teach these concepts along
with the regular curriculum, so perhaps there is hope that tomorrow's adults will be
But for now we can be thankful that we had an opportunity to learn something greater
than simply how to do work better. We've had an opportunity to learn something about life
that makes each day worth living.
1. The Association for Quality and
Participation was affiliated with the American Society for Quality (ASQ)
in 2000, and now operates under the banner of the ASQ.