Note from the Editor: This is the first of series of 6 articles written by the author, Vardar Çobanoğlu. The full series is a compelling piece on Organizational Behavior, Human Resources, and Corporate Management. You can find the author’s other articles here.
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F.J. Roethlisberger addressed his audience at his Alfred Korzybski Memorial Lecture for the Institute of General Semantics, in New York April 24, 1953 and subsequently wrote his HBR article of the same year based on this lecture. The case, “Mr. Hart and Bing” (names and places disguised) he had used in his article, was adapted from a case in the files of the Harvard Graduate School of Business Administration. Based on the present author’s live observations as a corporate executive and consultant as well as others’ similar experiences, this case still bears relevance with the depth and wealth of its content in terms of both the apparent problem and the hidden facts. This is why it is regarded as a classic case in management studies. A brief review of the case, with some inclusions in 1979 by the Organizational Behavior professor F. Bartolomé at INSEAD based on the original text, would be useful in providing a point of departure.
A Case of Misunderstanding, Only?
The shop situation reported in this case occurred in a work group of four men and three women who were engaged in testing and inspecting panels for electronic equipment. The employees were paid on a piecework incentive basis. The personnel organization of the company included a counselor whose duty it was to become acquainted with the workers and talk over any problems which they wished to discuss with him. The summarized statements of “Bing”, the employee, and Mr. Hart, the supervisor, are excerpts from five interviews the counselor had with each of them within a period of about two weeks.
A summarized statement of how “Bing” felt: “According to the system ‘round here, as I understand it, I am allowed so much ‘set-up’ time to get these panels from the racks, carry them over here to the bench and place them in this jig here, which holds them in position while I inspect them. For convenience’ sake and also to save time, I sometimes manage to carry two or three over at the same time and inspect them all at the same time. This is a perfectly legal thing to do. We’ve always been doing it. Mr. Hart, the supervisor, has other ideas about it, though; he claims it’s cheating the company. He came over to the bench a day or two ago and let me know just how he felt about the matter. Boy, did we go at it! It wasn’t so much the fact that he called me down on it, but more the way in which he did it. He’s a sarcastic bastard. I’ve never seen anyone like him. He’s not content just to say in a manlike way what’s on his mind, but he prefers to do it in a way that makes you want to crawl inside a crack in the floor. What a guy! I don’t mind being called down by a supervisor, but I like to be treated like a man, and not humiliated like schoolteacher does a naughty kid. He’s been pullin’ this stuff ever since he’s been a super-visor. I knew him when he was just one of us, but since he’s been promoted he’s lost his friendly way and seems to be havin’ some difficulty in knowin’ how to manage us employees. In fact, I’ve noticed that he’s been more this way with us fellows since he’s gotten married. I dunno whether there’s any connection there, but I do know he’s a changed man over what he used to be like when he was a worker on the bench with us several years ago.
When he pulled this kind of stuff on me the other day, I got so damn mad I called in the union representative. I knew that the thing I was doing was permitted by the contract, but I was just intent on making some trouble for Mr. Hart, just because he persists in this sarcastic way of handling me. I’m about fed up with the whole damn situation. I’m tryin’ every means I can to get myself transferred out of his group. If I don’t succeed and I’m forced to stay on here, I’m going to screw him every way I can. He’s not gonna pull this kind of kid stuff any longer on me. When the union representative questioned him on the case, he finally had to back down, ‘cause accord-ing to the contract an employee can use any timesaving method or device in order to speed up the process as long as the quality standards of the job are met. During the discussion with me and the union representative, Mr. Hart charged that it was a dishonest practice and threatened to ‘take it up the line’ unless the union would curb me on this practice. But this was just an idle threat, ‘cause the most he can do is get me transferred out of here, which is actually what I want anyway.
You see, he knows that I do professional singing on the outside. He hears me singin’ here on the job, and he hears the people talkin’ about my career in music. I guess he figures I can be so cocky because I have another means of earning some money. Actually, the employees here enjoy havin’ me sing while we work, but he thinks I’m disturbing them and causing them to ‘goof off’ from their work.It’s funny, but for some reason I think he’s partial to the three female employees in our group. He’s the same with all us guys as he is to me, but with the girls he acts more decent. I don’t know what his object is. Occasionally, I leave the job a few minutes early and go down to the washroom to wash up before lunch. Sometimes several others in the group will accompany me, and so Mr. Hart automatically thinks I’m the leader and usually bawls me out for the whole thing.
So, you can see, I’m a marked man around here. He keeps watchin’ me like a hawk. Naturally this makes me very uncomfortable. That’s why I’m sure a transfer would be the best thing. I’ve asked him for it, but he didn’t give me any satisfaction at the time. While I remain here I’m gonna keep my nose clean, but whenever I get the chance I’m gonna slip it to him, but good.”
A summarized statement of how Mr. Hart felt: “Say, I think you should be in on this. My dear little friend ‘Bing’ is heading himself into a showdown with me. Recently it was brought to my attention by the quality control checker that ‘Bing’ has been taking double and triple setup time for panels which he is actually inspecting at one time. In effect, that’s cheatin’, and I’ve called him down on it several times before. A few days ago it was brought to my attention again, and so this time I really let him have it in no uncertain terms. He’s been getting away with this for too long and I’m gonna put an end to it once and for all. I know he didn’t like my calling him on it because a few hours later he had the union representative breathin’ down my back. But you know what talkin’ to those people is like; they’ll sometimes defend an employee, even though they think he’s takin’ advantage of the company. Well, anyway, I let them both know I’ll not tolerate the practice any longer, and I let ‘Bing’ know that if he continues to do this kind of thing, I’m gonna take official action with my boss to have the guy fired or penalized somehow. This kind of thing has to be curbed. Actually, I’m inclined to think the guy’s mentally deficient, because talking to him has actually no meaning to him whatsoever. I’ve tried just about every approach to jar some sense into that guy’s head, and I’ve just about given it up as a bad deal. I just can’t seem to make any kind of impression upon him. It’s an unpleasant situation for everyone concerned, but I’m at a loss to know what more I can do about it.
I don’t know what it is about the guy, but I think he’s harboring some deep feelings against me. For what, I don’t know, ’cause I’ve tried to handle that bird with kid gloves. But his whole attitude around here on the job is one of indifference, and he certainly isn’t a good influence on the rest of my group. Frankly, I think he purposely tries to agitate them against me at times, too. It seems to me he may be suffering from illusions of grandeur, ‘cause all he does all day long is sit over there and croon his fool head off. Thinks he’s a Frank Sinatra! No kidding! I understand he takes singin’ lessons and he’s working with some of the local bands in the city. All of which is O.K. by me; but when his outside interests start interfering with his efficiency on the job, then I’ve gotta start paying closer attention to the situation. For this reason I’ve been keeping an eye on that bird and if he steps out of line any more, he and I are gonna part ways.
I feel quite safe in saying that I’ve done all I can rightfully be expected to do by way of trying to show him what’s expected of him. You know there’s an old saying, ‘You can’t make a purse out of a sow’s ear.’ The guy is simply unscrupulous. He feels no obligation to do a real day’s work. Yet I know the guy can do a good job, because for a long time he did. But in recent months, he’s slipped for some reason and his whole attitude on the job has changed. Why, it’s even getting to the point now where I think he’s inducing other employees to’goof off’ a few minutes before the lunch whistle and go down to the washrooms and clean up on company time. I’ve called him on it several times, but words just don’t seem to make any lasting impression on him. Well, if he keeps it up much longer, he’s gonna find himself on the way out. He’s asked me for a transfer, so I know he wants to go. But I didn’t give him an answer when he asked me, ‘cause I was steamin’ mad at the time, and I may have told him to go somewhere else.
I think it would be good for you to talk with him frequently. It’ll give him a chance to think the matter through a little more carefully. There may be something that’s troubling him in his personal life, although I’ve made every effort to find out if there was such a thing, and I’ve been unsuccessful. Maybe you’ll have better luck.”