In an ever-evolving world, here is an evaluation of the presence of ‘Taylorism’ in the present work environments. Part-2 of the series, this piece explores how certain practices shapes employees’ engagement and touches upon what could be the potential impact.
The theory of scientific management or Taylorism, introduced by Taylor in the early 20th century is still the most dominant and sometimes the only way of managing the workforce in many sectors. The first part of this series essay analysed the relevance of Taylorism in the modern age and how it has influenced the Human Resource Management of organisations. The following part of the essay details the concerns arising from Tayloristic managerial practices in work today and argues if these concerns are justified.
Some of the organisations are not regarding Taylorism as an alternative but as a necessity to manage their workforce and attain high profits. There are always concerns for the Human Resource Manager (HRM) associated with adopting Taylorism in a workplace because of de-skilling, dehumanization, alienation and objectification of labour under Taylorist influences (Davis and Cherns, 1975, Green, 2005 and Levine, 1983).
Adopting Taylorism: Concerns and justification
Arguably, one of the most profound concerns associated with adopting Tayloristic practices is alienation and disengagement of workers from their work. Braverman (1974) summarised three distinct principles of Taylorism as “dissociation of the labour process from the skills of the workers,” “separation of conception from execution” and “the use of this monopoly over knowledge to control each step of the labour process and its mode of execution.” The close supervision, task segmentation, automation, and bureaucratic constraint prompted alienation and disengagement of workers from their work and also stripped the workers from control over their work (Blauner, 1964 and Crowley et al, 2010).
Disengaged employees uncouple themselves from work roles and withdraw cognitively and emotionally (Luthans and Peterson, 2002). They fail to perform their roles and task behaviors become effortless, automatic or robotic (Hochschild, 1983). Therefore, engaging the workforce is now a necessity at workplaces and is one of largest initiatives taken up in the business organisation in the recent past (Johnson, 2004). However, by adopting Tayloristic practices, it is more difficult to initiate employee engagement schemes like ‘de-layering’ of management and decentralising some decision-making power to teams (Bacon and Blyton, 2000; Turnbull, 2004) or creating job autonomy and skill variety. This is because these initiatives would contradict the very principle of control and division of labour that is integral to Taylorism. Taylor stressed on “fair day’s pay for fair day’s work” and incentives to motivate workers were only monetary in nature. Littler (1978) argues that Taylor had a misconception about motivation and emphasised that only monetary benefits triggered motivation in workers. It can be argued that workers can be less motivated because of the deskilling and routinization of a task because it offers less scope for improvement, innovation, and development. It has been observed that there were faster and higher rates of “burnout” in firms that adopted Tayloristic practices (Hannif et al, 2008 and Hartzband and Groopman, 2016). Taylorism is also responsible for a reduction in the quality of work life (QWL) of employees and this can be well observed in the low-skill jobs. As Frederick Herzberg rightly pointed out, “If you want people to do a good job, give them a good job to do.” Taylorist principles of fragmentation, reduction in task discretion and management control still underpin the job design of much low skill, low wage jobs, and these characteristics risk making jobs repetitive, tedious and boring (Morgeson and Campion, 2003 and Anderton and Bevan, 2014).
Herzberg (1959) proposed Motivation-Hygiene theory that listed a number of potential motivators at workplaces, which include recognition, possibility of growth, achievement, responsibility and advancement, which Taylor failed to recognise. He also argued that changes solely on factors like pay and incentives (that he termed hygiene factors) did not affect an employee’s motivation. Therefore, it is right to argue that the level of motivation among workers gradually decreases when the Tayloristic practices are adopted, which also affects their job satisfaction. Burnout and dissatisfaction among employees are the major precursors to job resignation in the workplace today (Aiken et al, 2002). Also, the Tayloristic performance management method of rewarding high performers and dismissing underachievers greatly decreases the level of satisfaction among workers because the work is done out of threat of losing one’s job rather than by the motivation to do it.
It is very challenging to manage a workforce that is dissatisfied with their work life because the consequences are usually costly industrial disputes, safety hazards and high rates of employee turnover (McHugh et al, 2011). Therefore, lack of motivation and employee dissatisfaction are important concerns that the Human Resources (HR) department needs to address in an organisation where Taylorism is prevalent.
Taylor believed that all workers are lazy and operated below the level of their capacity, which is why they had to be constantly monitored. Thus, Taylorism implies low-trust relations between employer and employees. And it stresses on the need for direct control to ensure that labour power bought is turned into labour performed (Prujit, 2000). Trust between employers and employees is important because it facilitates better teamwork, employee retention (CIPD 2012a), employee satisfaction and better adaptation to organisational change (Dix and Oxenbridge 2003). Lewick and Bunker (1996) argued that trust is a critical success element to most professional, business and employment relationship. It can be argued that adopting Tayloristic practice can potentially impede the development of trust between the employers and employees and establishing the vital link of trust is a challenge for the HR department and the management.
Taylorism does not stress on the importance of leaders, but it focuses on the role of managers and supervisors in a workplace. These managers and supervisors performed a supervisory function, measured the performance, exercised control over the workforce, planned the work, set targets and managed rewards, portraying an “exploitative-autocratic style of leadership” (Likert, 1961). Today, we understand that organisational leaders are required to motivate and inspire employees to achieve their goal (Bass and Stogdill, 1990), build their morale (Kahn and Katz, 1952), strategically manage the workforce (Westley and Mintzberg, 1989), conflict resolution (Rahim, 2002), manage organisational change (Nadler and Tushman, 1990) and so on. Hence, it can be argued under Taylorism that the roles of leaders are very limited and they often fail to inspire employees and raise new leaders.
One can also argue that de-skilling and over-specialising tasks tend to create many low-skilled jobs in an organisation. Thus, it is right to argue that Taylorism can lead to the creation of what is now termed as “precarious work” within an organisation, outsourcing of certain tasks and different contractual forms. One can argue that Taylorism has created a number of jobs that are less secure and less uniform, and the working lives of people doing these jobs have been marked with layoffs and casual work (Allen and Henry, 1997). Work without security and stability will have serious consequences on the physical and psychological health of the worker and could lead to industrial disputes and safety hazards at the workplace.
All these concerns have the potential to cause serious physical and psychological impact on workers and can adversely affect the productivity and efficiency in the workplace. It is important to note that the above-mentioned concerns are interrelated to each other; one resulting in another and the presence of one suggests the existence of the other in an organisation. Therefore, it is important to address these issues collectively to ensure the holistic wellbeing of employees.
According to Adam Smith (1776) in ‘Wealth of the Nations’, adopting Tayloristic management can lead to better productivity of work because of the division of labour, but oversimplification of a worker’s tasks may have inhuman and demoralizing effects on the workers. Despite the shortcomings of this management practice and challenges in adopting it, Taylorism continues to exist in almost all workplaces today. A direct depiction of Taylorism can be observed in construction work, the manufacturing sector, the fast food industry and call centres. On the other hand, an indirect and discreet depiction of Taylorism can be observed in the medical sector, corporate sector and in clerical and administrative jobs. Although Taylorism started with Taylor, it did not end with Taylor.
One can also argue that there will be new initiatives and schemes based on the principles of Taylorism that will be adopted in organisations in the future. Thus, Taylorism is indispensable to management practices and its legacy will continue in different forms, different degrees, and different names and it is nearly impossible to separate Taylorism from work.
It is right to argue that Taylorism is almost essential in sectors like manufacturing where machine-like precision (Bell and Martin, 2012) is needed and where the tasks have to be done quickly. This stated, it could be said that ‘democratic Taylorism’ (Adler, 1995), where employees are given a certain degree of autonomy over their work and are empowered in the workplace, is the most recommended practice that should be adopted by organisations where Taylorism is “the way” of managing the workforce.
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