The Democratic Workplace – The Freedom to Excel

Posted by jlubans on July 31, 2013

20130731-Stakhanov work.jpg
Caption: Work like Stakhanov!

Next month will record another anniversary of the Stakhanovism movement. In 1935 a Ukrainian miner (in the Soviet) hewed 102 tons of coal in a single shift, 14 times the norm. His name was Aleksei G. Stakhanov. Stakhanovism was communism’s answer to capitalism’s piece-rate. Soon after, at Dictator Stalin’s merciless prodding, other industries followed suit with exemplary workers being heralded and rewarded – and elaborate claims put forth of how socialism was outstripping capitalism.
But resentment set in, as it often does when management exploits a worker’s exceeding productivity norms. If a Stakhanovite can produce three times the norm, well, they hammer, that will be everyone’s new quota! There was an expected jealousy over the rewards (a car, travel, visits with Mr. Stalin, lingerie and perfume) for the Heroes of Labor, but the new quotas profoundly embittered workers. In the Soviet, protesting the new norms would get you a trip to a labor camp or a bullet in the head.
There’s a bitter, if comical, ballad* by Vladimir Vysotsky, about a worker who hates the new quotas foisted on him by his mine’s Stakhanovite. The Hero is trapped in a cave-in. As the rescue team descends into the mine, the unhappy worker sings to his fellow miners:

“Our grief, everyone’s grief, is one
and the same.
If we dig him out, again he’ll start filling three quotas,
Again, he’ll start giving the nation coal and giving it to
Us, too.
So, brothers, in order not to work too hard, let’s take it
Easy now – one for all all for one.”

As you can tell, Stakhanovites or America’s “rate-busters” have earned a considerable enmity among their fellow workers.
Well, doing a great job should not result in loathing. You should have the freedom to excel. I recall one very effective library worker who greatly exceeded established norms. Instead of inflicting her productivity on everyone else, we looked at how she managed to do so much more. The Soviets could have done likewise when Stakhanov set his record. He was a hard worker but what enabled him to produce so much more was that he was a very smart worker. The Soviets should have celebrated the teamwork that resulted in Stakhanov’s record setting. Instead of drilling and shoring up as he went along all by himself, Stakhanov drilled while three other workers followed and shored up the mine – that was how he did so much more.

My point is that some of us are naturally quicker, brighter, and more able to discern, to distinguish, and to do certain kinds of work faster than the rest of the population. Few of us can run a 100 yards in under ten seconds. Those that can have some capacity that the rest of us do not. I’ll never run that fast, but I can learn and improve my speed from the faster person’s achievement. Their speed is probably more than just the snazzy spikes! I can look at the sprinter’s stride, her stance at the start, how he finishes, how she trains, and what he does just before the starter's gun goes off. When others develop new ways of doing a job we should be free to use those ideas. Freedom at work includes the option to be a rate buster with impunity.

Getting back to my effective worker – our Stakhanov – we did look at what she was doing and made those ideas generally available. It never occurred to us to even imply new quotas. We trusted that people who were doing similar work would want to improve. Many applied her ideas and we got good results. Word got out about our productivity and I offered to share the ideas. My impression was that some mangers at other libraries were doing the Soviet thing: If X can do this faster, then you WILL, too. They missed the point. If you give people freedom to invent and to innovate, you then must share the results without inducing fear. The higher production – if it is to be had - will follow. This is when managers need to “let go,” quit hammering the obvious message, and trust that good people will do what is right.

*SOURCE: “In Soviet, Eager Beaver's Legend Works Overtime,”
By SERGE SCHMEMANN Special to The New York Times
New York Times, Aug 31, 1985; pg. 2.

Copyright John Lubans 2013

« Prev itemNext item »


No comments yet. You can be the first!

Leave comment