Deming’s wisdom is more important than ever.
If you’re not familiar with Dr. W. Edwards Deming, you’re probably not alone. Many of us have forgotten who he was and the profound influence he had on corporate leadership, especially here in Detroit.
In the day, Deming was largely thought-of as a quality systems guru. In truth, however, he was much more: Deming understood what it took to lead organizations using data and organizational psychology. Deming’s System of Profound Knowledge is a paradigm that forms the foundation of Peter Senge’s “learning organization.”
Core to Deming’s philosophy are his “14 Points for Management”; Number 8, which is what we’ll take-up here, reads, “Drive out fear, so that everyone may work effectively for the company.”
Fear is perhaps the most powerful of human motivations; it can also be the most pernicious. Using fear as a motivator works, but only to an extent. When things need to change, a leader may use fear to motivate employees, but without the means to alleviating the fear, the organization will suffer, and this is Deming’s point. As writer Robert Evans Wilson Jr. notes, “To use fear successfully as a motivator, a solution must be offered with it. A new path to follow. You can tell employees that they need to sell more, but unless you show them how, fear will cause flight or worse: paralysis.”
During the June 21st Congressional hearings on the January 6th insurrection, we saw how fear undermines organizational behavior. To function properly, our election systems – the organizations through which we run our elections – must be free of fear. Wandrea “Shaye” Moss, who is a former Georgia election worker, and testified before the January 6 Committee, exemplifies what fear will do to organizations.
Trump targeted Moss with intimidations and threats. Imagine being a person who, out of a sense of civic duty, takes on the job of being an election worker and is then threatened by the President of the United States (POTUS). Moss testified that her life has been “turned upside down”. According to a report on the NPR website, Moss stated, “’I don’t go to the grocery store at all. I haven’t been anywhere at all. I’ve gained about 60 pounds. I don’t do nothing anymore,’ she added, wiping away a tear.” Moss is also no longer an election worker.
Many of Georgia’s Fulton County election workers have quit, leaving the door open for those unwilling to stand-up to whatever conspiracy theory happens to be floating around this fall. Fear is destroying the organizations that make-up our democracy.
The POTUS is considered one of the most powerful persons on Earth. Up until Trump, the POTUS respected the electoral processes and relinquished power peacefully, either when their term ended, or they lost an election. In other words, the POTUS serves the demos, or will of the people. But what about the leaders of large corporations?
Consider Elon Musk, the richest person on the planet and the head of Tesla, a large corporation. Musk also has millions of Twitter followers and seems somehow addicted to the platform. Not long ago, Musk claimed that “…Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated.” Musk is so obsessed with Twitter that he seems to think debate takes place on a machine that limits the expression of an idea to fewer than 280 characters. He’s now poised to buy the machine he thinks is “vital to the future of humanity”.
That Elon Musk’s ego may be getting in the way of his ability to effectively lead people, or abide by Deming’s management principles, seems somehow lost on the overwhelming majority of us. I know a number of folks who idolize Musk because they think he managed – single-handedly – to save Tesla from the dust bin. In a recent podcast, Musk claimed that as a result of him sleeping on the factory floor for two years, he now “knows more about manufacturing than anyone else.” I’m not sure there’s a soul in SE Michigan, the place that put mass production on the map, who would make such an asinine claim. But we believe Elon, because, well, he’s Elon.
One of Musk’s latest kerfuffles stems from a leaked email that relates his decision about remote work: Working remotely will no longer be tolerated at Tesla. Musk’s rationale seems reflective of his empathy for those workers who must show-up at the factory. It’s questionable, however, whether Musk is all that sincere. What seems to drive Musk’s decision making has little to do with what others think, and everything to do with his singular view of reality, which is most likely bolstered by the “highs” he gets when folks like his Tweets.
The edict, a decision handed down from the high and powerful, will quite often reflect a delusional perspective. Delusional means “having false or unrealistic beliefs”. Despite the fact that many, many corporations are maintaining hybrid, or work from home models, doesn’t seem to affect Musk, nor does the growing evidence that working from home is actually, at least for many of us, leading to greater productivity. I cannot imagine that those who make-up Musk’s inner circle didn’t at least question his decision, and if they didn’t, it’s because they feared the consequences of questioning Lord Musk.
Power is something that ought not be left in the hands of the few. This is the purpose of democratic control: to disperse power. When the few have power, the many will likely live in fear and suffer. We are living at an extremely precarious moment in human history. If we are to have any hope of surviving as a species, we need to stop looking to singularly powerful people for answers. The answers lie with us, not the likes of Elon Musk or Donald Trump. They’re human, just like the rest of us.