Monday, August 23, 2004

PART II - Dusty Baker's Cubs:
Employee-Centered Management  

In the previous entry, I kicked off this multi-part discussion of Dusty Baker's 2004 Chicago Cubs, an insightful reader's concerns and questions, and asserted that employee-centered management is, in execution, more complex than just employee-centered or not so. There are other twists that go along with it that can give the the basic approach a lot of different textures. These twists require a manager's attention because the employee-centered approach, while universal in baseball and another handful of cutting-edge endeavors, is one most employees haven't experienced much.

In this post, I'll discuss one of those variables and the reader's question about the Cubs that relates to it.


There are a broad range of employee-centered management approaches and one of the things that differentiates them is how egalitarian or parental each is.

A parental model creates an environment that is nurturing but prescribed. The rules are designed to benefit all, but rules there are and they are meant to be followed for the good of the employee, the department and the organization. The egalitarian model, in contrast, empowers employees to varying degrees. At the extreme egalitarian end of the scale, employees are empowered to do anything not explicitly prohibited.

Very few employee-centered organizations are at either absolute extreme. Most mix styles on this scale based on individual aspects of work.

For example, John "Little Napoleon" McGraw was a maniacal control freak during his tenure as Giants manager/owner (1903-32), dictating not just the normal baseball paternalistic details such as beddy-bye time, but down to what food ballplayers would eat. His pre-game drills were brutal, and he supervised personally a couple of chosen victim/players every day. But he left many in-game decisions to his players, breaking the mode for the era. So individuals were trained to judge when to call for moves we consider the manager's call today, such as the steal or the bunt. In contrast, McGraw's contemporary Connie Mack, reversed McGraw's pattern. Mack liked to hire responsible individuals and give them (relative) personal freedom. But Mack dictated every in-game tactic, down to positioning fielders for specific hitters.

As reader Phong Hyunh said:

I have huge issues with the way he seems to give a "free-er" license to his players than the typical manager.

For instance, how can you not reprimand Carlos Zambrano (and Latroy Hawkins and Kerry Wood, for that matter) for his juvenile, bush league antics on the mound. And the recent story that Moises Alou publicly criticized the team's TV announcers for being too critical of the team, to the point that some on the team didn't want Steve Stone and Chip Caray to travel with them on charter flights. It seems that the team has drifted perilously towards being a bunch of crybabies.

The mound antics are public, open, and we know what those pitchers do in games. We don't know what the Alou comments really were or whether the request to have Stone and Caray separated from the team was stated or in what terms, but these kinds of things do happen in baseball and outside of it, so for the purpose of the discussion let's assume the stories we've read are true.


When you're running a group or entire organization, the benefits of employee-centered management are numerous and mostly enduring. When healthy people who work for you know you consider their interests in your decision-making, they are more enthused/productive, and more likely to cut you slack when you ask them to do something they don't want to do or think is not the best way to do something. Not all employees are suited to egalitarian systems. My own experience with maternalistic organizations like the U.S. Army indicates to me that they actually act as magnets over time, drawing and keeping a disproportionate number of people who need to be parented and repelling eventually, those who need more autonomy.

As a young manager, I quickly saw, enacted and reaped the benefits of employee-centered approaches. I shallowly assumed that employee-centered mandated Egalitarian implementation. And because I was (and still am) strongly biased in favor of hiring independent, self-driven women and men, I had a collection of headstrong people who weren't given many restrictions. I was very focused on Results over Harmony (a later entry in this series will cover this scale). I saw every rule as overhead, drawing attention away from getting work done.

My groups consistently over-performed, but because I didn't impose a lot of rules as long as they were crushing quality and quantity targets, they probably caused a lot of distress not only to slacker or naturally mediocre groups we dealt with (who cares?) but also to diligent groups who worked with us that were more "by the book" or concerned with Harmony.

When we were running environmental consulting projects for the U.S.E.P.A., I added to our team a Renaissance Fellow, architect, planner, designer, college linebacker, perfectionist. He was a volcanic talent, hyper-brilliant, and wholly determined to succeed - and I had always believed that if you had talent and determination, you had to be a winner. The last two facets (perfectionism, linebacker) combined to make him a very difficult guy to work with, because, as it turned out, on a job where "good enough to work" was sometimes good enough, he wanted every deliverable to be of Nobel Prize-winning caliber regardless of how long it took. He blitzed on every play, which is why I called him "Blitz". If the Bush Junior administration had had Blitz running NASA in 2003, the space shuttle would have landed safely. But this project was not about space missions, and he made everyone's life miserable. For example, he stuck his nose into other employees' work looking for flaws and then reporting them, and he believed he had this right because (like a linebacker stunting) there weren't a lot of rules outside of the usual work regulations, and I hadn't imposed specific rules that said he couldn't.

Like a right-handed hitter who can tattoo left-handed pitchers but was weak against righties, he had clear strengths and weaknesses. I was able localize his assignments mostly to spots where his proclivities advanced the group's effectiveness. But my basic setting of allowing talented people to do what they like as long as they produced, very effective in the grand total, was dysfunctional here.


I didn't have the alternative of imposing rules just on him and not others -- well, I did, of course, but varying rules by player is almost certain death to team coherence. You have to make small exceptions for people with disabilites or in cases where someone has a sick child or spouse -- that's accepted, but you cannot give exemptions to stars just because they are stars. The Boston Red Sox' two sets of rules, one for their franchise player Carl Yastrzemski, and one for the rest of the team, was a festering sore that undermined team spirit in small but persistent ways.

Did it cost the Sox a win or two a year? No way to measure it, but in organizations I've consulted to that practiced this behavior, changing it to a uniform set of rules has always improved group performance, usually by getting a 15-25% increase from the 20-35% of the fellow employees who really care.

The Cubs' Moises Alou feeling like he could attack the team's announcers for not being booster-y enough is a parallel example. Maybe Alou was right that it undermined the team's effort, but this is exactly the kind of mission one goes through channels to deal with. Like Blitz, it appears Alou not having a sense of responsibility to the organization as a whole gives an impression to an outside observer that the organization is unraveling, and worse, unraveling over trivia.

If this happened, Baker needs to make clear to Alou that harnessing the announcers is not his job, and that he should focus on his very important jobs -- batting in the middle of a lineup of a team trying to get into the playoffs and playing left field with focus (Alou's defense appears to be an issue -- the Bartman foul ball notwithstanding. For all major league starting left fielders, he has average zone factor, dead-last range factor --- which can be an artifact of many things out of his control -- and the lowest fielding average among starting major league left fielders -- also not a concrete stat, but if the stat says he's the worst, he's very likely not better than average. Note though that official scorers have a strong effect on fielding average, and if Alou has ticked off his home field one, Alou may be getting no benefit of the doubt in half his games. And you'd have to think Alou, with his alleged criticism of the t.v. talking heads, is capable of ticking off his co-workers.)

It looks like Baker has few rules, and strong tendency to stress results over harmony. Not a bad model...during his eleven year tenure, he's has had much success, but would a few more behavior rules help?

Freedom permits creativity, juices inspiration, pushes productivity and egalitarian tones in employee-centered environments tend to create rate-busting effectiveness. Maternalistic / Paternalistic tones in employee-centered environments rein these in some, but the scale isn't binary -- a level of understanding that some rules, especially dealing with issues outside the immediate getting-work-done, are a necessary piece of overhead and that everyone will need to be attentive to them. Even just a few rules can focus people on the idea that rules exist and they need to be attended to.

In the next entry, I'll talk about the third scale, and this one is the trickiest, because when not properly handled, it can turn an employee-centered group into a time bomb as scary as an August José Mesa relief appearance. Scarier than Count Floyd's 3-D showing of Dr Tongue's Evil House of Wax.

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