Labor has been blamed for much of the malaise in the American workplace. But 85% of America's industrial problems lay with management, according to Dr. Edward Deming.
He's the American guru of Japanese industrial quality success. (U.S. companies initially rejected his ideas, then embraced them after seeing what they did for Japan).
E.F. Schumacher, in his book “Small is Beautiful,” says, “Business can grow so big that its people lose a sense of the humanness of the workplace.”
But much that can be done about controlling that growth so that morale and workers' interest and pride may be preserved. This is accomplished through sensitive and well-trained middle managers.
They're the filters through which the directives from above pass to the workers, and, conversely, the needs of the workers to top management. Insecure middle managers can mar perceptions workers and top managers have of each other in the organization.
It is difficult for middle managers who are untrained in communication skills to retain their effectiveness when confronted by the needs of the workers which may be contrary to demands of top management.
This is the test of good middle management: to communicate the needs of both parties without distortion and prejudice.
Employee-involvement processes are an excellent means of creating an environment of participation in meetings that formulate the rules of the workplace.
Attendance of top management at several of these meetings as an endorsement and support of the employee participation would be invaluable to the middle managers effectively seeing to the directives from above and the needs from below.
Generally, the American workplace has not developed effective middle managers. They are usually promoted from the ranks of the workers, and many have difficulty shedding that and assuming the vulnerable visibility of the manager.
They need management training, and often that's not provided.
Most steps up the management ladder present challenges. But few are as demanding as those faced by middle managers, especially those closest to the workers. These middlemen are expected to effectively realize their managerial objectives, while nurturing the morale of the workers in order to maintain a high level of quality production.
It would be in the best interest of American industry if middle managers were permitted more latitude to produce in a good environment while their superiors spend their time satisfying stockholders and developing effective marketing, research and development programs.
For new-car dealers, there's a parallel. Virtually every one of their departments is headed by a middle manager each with dual duties running back and forth from each other.
For example, service managers must retain a productive and happy group of technicians, while producing a reasonable profit and good reputation for the dealership, a benefit not just for their department but for vehicle sales, too.
The reputation of a dealership's service department and the reputation of the dealership in general can be a direct result of the manner in which the middle manager (service manager) does his or her job.
In the Navy, successful command of a ship depends on the chief boatswain mate.
He is egalitarian in his relationship with the crew, and acknowledged as the one who makes the ship go. He is the ultimate middle manager, and smart officers let him do his job with a minimum of interference.
Perhaps it's time for America's management to take a lesson there.
Nat Shulman is a retired Massachusetts dealer now living in Hawaii.