A Management Truism to Remember: Your Workers Aren’t You

Illustration by Dreamstime.

One of the first things I learned after starting a freelance writing career is that many people expect writers to work for free.

Writing for free, or for exposure, is a hotly debated topic among writers, and it doesn’t take the imagination of a writer to guess why.

But of all the times I’ve told someone “I’m flattered, but I write for a living,” one conversation in particular made a real impression on me.

Good HR advice from an unlikely source

During that conversation, a small business owner was proposing that I write for him while his business got off the ground, at which time, hopefully, he’d be able to hire me for a fee. During our talk, this owner spent a good amount of time telling me about his plans for his business, and it was evident that he was excited about the road ahead.

And that was all fine and good — for him.

As I told him later, “I wish you well with your business venture, but this is your vision, not mine. My vision is to be a well-paid writer, and unfortunately, I don’t think that writing for you for free is going to get me there.”

Maybe that sounds a little harsh. It wasn’t. Instead, it was damn good HR advice. (No matter where I am or what I do, I just can’t turn it off.)

Employees don’t share your agenda

If you’re in management, and especially if you’re a manager/business owner with employees, don’t make the mistake of believing that your employees have the same agenda as you. They don’t.

Your employees may admire you, they may appreciate you, and they may appreciate the mission of the company, but they have their own concerns. They have their own goals and their own interests. And that’s OK.

Let me make the point another way.

A small history lesson…

The year was 1870. The place was Coatesville, Pennsylvania. And the problem was slow but steady change.

The men of the Lukens Steel Company had to admit they’d been treated pretty well. Employer-provided housing at decent rental rates, pay advances, personal loans — these were but a few of the fringe benefits of working at the mill. At one point, when economic times had gotten tough, the mill would even run at cost to keep the men employed.

But the situation wasn’t all puppy dogs and rainbows. Management took care of its employees and, in return, had expectations beyond mere good performance.

Workers were to be compliant. Anyone caught “causing trouble” by asking too many questions about management decisions or by offering his skills elsewhere ran the risk of being blacklisted, not that shopping around would have yielded much. The local mills “collaborated” on compensation strategies to keep competition down.

And yet, employees were happy and loyal. Until they weren’t.

Yes, even paternalism has its limits

By 1887, some 77 years after the mill had opened, employees had grown weary of this paternalistic management style and began to want some things for themselves, like better wages. Profits were up, and they wanted a share in the good fortune. They’d heard the news reports about the strike at the Pittsburgh Bessemer Steel Company in 1882 (workers decided to strike rather than sign so-called yellow dog contracts), and in 1886, two mills in Coatesville had gone on strike as well.

Now, 77 years is admittedly a good run, and I’d be silly to try to claim that this management style was a bad move from the start.

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But paternalism has its limits. Eventually, the workers at Lukens went on strike.

The mill owner apparently took the strike as a personal insult, believing himself to be a decent sort besieged by ingrates. So, a couple of months into the strike, when he became convinced that the workers were holding firm, he kicked them out of their rentals and fired them.

Humph.

The workers had decided to place the interests of their real families above the interests of the patriarchal mill owner, and that came as an unwelcome surprise to him.

Your workers aren’t you

You may say, “Well, since the workers went on strike, the owner should have kicked them out of his properties,” and granted, the move wasn’t completely unexpected. But remember, the workers were paying rent. The owner kicked them out to make a point, plain and simple.

Here’s what he wrote to an agent about the situation:

You cannot realize the situation as we do, nor comprehend how fully we would be surrendering ourselves into the control of our workmen by yielding at present. It is not the question of a slight advance in wages merely, but there is a principle at stake which is of far more importance.”

Three months later, the men were back at work at their old rates. However, the relationship between employer and employees had been irrevocably changed. New lines had been drawn in the sand.

Repeat: If you’re in management, or a manager/business owner, your employees aren’t you and you should manage them understanding and appreciating as much.

(By the way, this is why I favor the servant leadership style of management, which views subordinates as partners, not servants or children.)

Just saying.

Crystal Spraggins, SPHR, is an HR consultant and freelance writer who lives in Philadelphia. She also writes at her blog, HR BlogVOCATE. For the past 15 years, Crystal has focused on building HR departments in small- to mid-sized companies under the philosophy that "HR is not for wimps." She is also the CEO and Founder of Work It Out! and partners with HRCVision, a full-service HR consultant practice specializing in leadership and diversity training. Contact her at crs036@aim.com.

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