Marriott Alumni Magazine

Fall 1981 Exchange

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THE OVERLOOKED MOTIVATOR Business Stories Alan L. Wilkins Recently a concerned manager I was working with expressed dismay that many of the middle managers in his company really believed that top management followed the philosophy: "The employee can do no wrong." This concern is captured by a story about an event that had occurred three years earlier. It seems that one manager had written a formal complaint about an employee which he put in the employee's personnel file. The disgruntled employee went over his manager's head and complained to one of the corporate vice presidents. The vice president immediately went to the personnel office and ripped up the complaint before even conferring with the manager. The concerned manager was dismayed because, in his almost three years with the company, he hadn't seen anything like this event repeated. "Why is the story so powerful?" was his question, "Why do people continue to believe that what happened three years ago is still the way we do things now?" Stories are one of the most important sources of information for people in organizations about "how things are done around here.” When told by several people, organization stories reflect the beliefs and values of those in the organization. Occasionally these beliefs can inhibit organizational effectiveness. On the other hand, organizational stories may become the best way of passing on a distinctive competence or philosophy which is the key to a company's success. The following story from the 3M company is a case in point. At 3M the eleventh commandment is: "Never kill a new product idea." This orientation toward innovation is supported and passed on by a story about the discovery of transparent cellophane tape. The story relates how an employee accidentally discovered the tape but was unable to get his superiors to buy the idea. Marketing studies predicted a relatively small demand for the new material. Undaunted, the employee found a way to sneak into the board room and tape down the minutes of board members with his transparent tape. The board was impressed enough with the novelty to give it a try and experienced incredible success. Contemporary 3M employees are thus encouraged to be entrepreneurs, to put trust in trying ideas out in the marketplace rather than trusting market forecasts, especially concerning novel products. The story-supported culture at 3M has made the company a leader in new product development. Why Stories? For the new employee, learning the organization is like learning how to fit in and avoid major blunders in a foreign culture. When traveling in a foreign country, it is of course useful to have a map which shows you how to get from one place to another. However, avoiding social blunders and really understanding the foreign culture requires another kind of map-a social map. You need to know how to get where you want to go socially. Similarly, fitting in and being able to get things done in a new organization are not just a matter of learning how to find one's way around the building. And it isn't just a matter of having technical "maps" about how to be an engineer, or how to type, or how to advertise. The new employee needs a social map which will point out the dangerous areas and the safe turf. Organizational stories are an important way to map this social territory. Shortly after starting a new job, most new employees learn that the policy handbook and the standard operating procedures only go so far. New employees soon learn that there are exceptions to the rules. Some rules can be violated without great repercussions and others are sacred. Even more important, the new employee learns that certain ways of thinking and acting (we are a "conservative company," "look busy," "don't kill a new product idea") are really more important to know than rules. One scholar has suggested that these different maps or ways of directing behavior can be categorized into three orders of control: • First-order controls-direct control by a supervisor who tells an employee what to do • Second-order controls-more remote control deriving from standard operating procedures and organizational incentive systems or from an assembly line layout • Third-order controls-control through directing the attention or assumptions of employees. An example of the subtlety of these third-order controls comes from the experience of a high-ran king personnel executive of a company I conducted research for. When he was working in the Far East, he and the land manager were confronted one day with an emergency decision. They tried to get some help on the novel problem-a problem for which formal rules and official policies were inadequate-but were unable to get through. They sat down together, and the first question was, "Well, what would the company president do?" The personnel executive then recalled an experience he had heard the president relate and the conclusion the president had drawn. The example and framework from the president gave these men a sense of where to start and a basis for agreement from which they derived a decision. Upon

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