Normally, when we want to know the state of the nation’s economy we go to the numbers. Until recently, the numbers have been fairly good.
The stock market had soared. The bond market had been tamed. Unemployment had been coming down.
All in all, it was sufficient to get Barack Obama re-elected. And it made Ben Bernanke look like a wizard.
Yet, things were not as they seemed. Mort Zuckerman, among others, has been exclaiming that we must look beneath unemployment numbers. When we do we discover that labor force participation is anemic and that underemployment is becoming increasingly common.
Something was rotten at the core of the great economic recovery.
Of late, the bond market has signaled that the Bernanke/Obama recovery is in trouble. When your nation is in debt up to its eyeballs a crashing bond market is the last thing you need.
For years, Bernanke was fighting the bond market by printing money. Of late, it seems that he is going to lose the fight. The bond market has been refusing to play with Ben’s funny money.
Of course, there’s more to life and to an economy than numbers. Whatever you think about the blizzard of numbers that quantify the employment situation, it is useful from time to time to ask yourself how real people feel about their jobs.
Are American workers committed to their jobs? Are they dedicated to their companies? Are they doing their best to produce the best products and provide the best services?
Or, are American workers discontented, disgruntled and disaffected to the point of not really caring about anything more than getting off work?
Gallup recently did a survey and discovered that, beneath the numbers the American worker was in a foul mood. Clearly, it has been damaging business and the economy.
Timothy Egan summarized the results:
Among the 100 million people in this country who hold full-time jobs, about 70 percent of them either hate going to work or have mentally checked out to the point of costing their companies money — “roaming the halls spreading discontent,” as Gallup reported. Only 30 percent of workers are “engaged and inspired” at work.
Gallup’s current survey, covering two years, is a follow-up to an earlier poll that found much the same level of passive discontent from 2008 to 2010. Even in an improving economy, people are adrift at work, complaining about a lack of praise, with no sense of mission, and feeling little loyalty to their employer.
The numbers are staggering. If most American workers hate their jobs and are merely going through the motions, then the economy is dysfunctional in ways we do not appreciate.
Many serious thinkers believe that the problem lies in the disconnection between executive salaries and worker salaries. The gulf between the two has never been wider.
Egan entertained this explanation:
You would think the usual suspects were to blame for this sea of seething in the cubicles of America. While productivity per worker has soared over the last two decades, pay has remained flat or gone down. The gulf between those at the very top and those who do all the heavy lifting has never been greater. Too many corporations, especially in a tight job market, promote a view that everyone is replaceable; the workers are mercenaries with bottom-of-the-bin benefits. Take it or leave it.
Those who accept this analysis believe that the problem can be solved by confiscatory taxes on the rich and more labor unions.
Yet, the people surveyed by Gallup did not complain about wage inequality and social injustice. They hated the way they were being managed. They hated being treated as cogs in a machine and not as human beings.
But here’s the surprise: the main factor in workplace discontent is not wages, benefits or hours, but the boss. … The survey said there was consistent anger at management types who failed to so much as ask employees about their opinion of the job. Ever.
“The managers from hell are creating active disengagement costing the United States an estimated $450 billion to $550 billion annually,” wrote Jim Clifton, the C.E.O. and chairman of Gallup.
Regular praise, opportunity for growth, and the occasional question from a higher-up of a lower-down about how to improve things would go a long way toward getting the checked-out to check back in, the study found. Among those who loathe their jobs most, 57 percent said they were ignored at work, and 41 percent said they couldn’t even say what their company stood for. As such, there’s no mystery why customer service is so bad, or being farmed out to robots.
Let’s see. The country is awash in management gurus. The nation’s business schools all teach courses in management. All companies rely on management consultants.
And yet, almost nobody knows how to manage human beings.
For all I know the management courses are so completely quantified that they do not teach the essentials of good management. They do not explain the importance of productive relationships, of face-to-face conversation, of praise and recognition.
I find it hard to believe that business schools fail to teach the importance of informing all employees of the company mission, of helping them to understand how their work contributes, of asking them for their suggestions about how everyone can do a better job.
If they do, then students have clearly missed the point.
It’s also possible that relationships between people in American companies are so completely regulated by bureaucracy and the threat of lawsuits that no manager dares treat his staff as human beings.
Whatever cause, the problem needs to be addressed.