Team Is Just Another 4-Letter Word

Old labor joke:

As part of a team-building initiative, a manufacturing company offered $100 for the best money-saving idea submitted by an employee. First prize went to the employee who suggested the award be reduced to $50.

As corny as that well-traveled joke is, it speaks to management’s view of spending money.  And that view is made all the more ironic when you consider that the point of departure—where management began systematically screwing over union workers by cutting into their wages, benefits and working conditions—happened to coincide with the implementation of “team philosophy.”  It’s true.  The moment union members were declared to be part of the “team” was the precise moment they began losing money.

Management isn’t really a team; it’s more an exclusive club.  And an ambitious manager soon learns that the surest way to be guaranteed a promotion is to not ask upper management for additional money—to make do with what he has, to prove that he’s capable of, well, managing.  Which is why the company will welcome any idea an hourly employee has so long as there are no costs attached, and, accordingly, will ignore any advice or observation that involves the expenditure of money.

So when a machine operator who has run the same piece of equipment for 10 years and who, literally, knows the machine inside-out, reports to management that the machinery is physically incapable of attaining the production speeds they’re looking for—not without a major overhaul or the installation of an update package—he will be ignored.

No matter how many times, or in how many different ways the operator attempts to tell the company that the machinery is played out, that it’s reached its ergonomic dead-end, they won’t believe him.  Why?  One, because despite all the rhetorical foreplay, he’s never really been accepted as a “team” member, and two, because his observation involves spending money, which is anathema to them.

If an hourly employee wants to be taken seriously by management, he needs to talk about attitudes; he needs to rhapsodize about such things as building stronger teamwork, instilling pride, and finding ways to improve communication.  Companies love hearing that stuff.  Conversely, if he wants to be ignored or shunned by management, all he has to do is mention money.

As for the aforementioned machine that can’t be squeezed for any more production, only when the engineers tell the company the exact same thing the machine operator told them will they reluctantly place a job-order to get the machine refitted.

The irony is that it’s those very machine operators on whom the engineers rely.  Indeed, engineers reach their conclusions and make their recommendations on the basis of what they see and hear on the factory floor, and what they glean from the machine operators, whom they respect and trust.  But until the observation is made “respectable,” it’s ignored.  A military analogy:  the colonel goes to the major for information, not to the corporal. (On the other hand, the military doesn’t dick around pretending it’s a team, aware that it functions as a chain of command, plain and simple.)

In truth, even though human resources will deny it and call us paranoid for even suggesting such a thing, the concept of the “team” was adopted for one reason and one reason only:  to blur the line between labor and management.  To neutralize union solidarity.  Because companies are terrified of the potential damage that worker solidarity can inflict, they abhor it.

I once had a corporate executive take me aside and inform me that that whole “Us vs. Them paradigm” (those were his exact words) was obsolete.  “It’s outdated, Dave,” he assured me sagely.  “As outdated as the Model-T and the dinosaur.”

If our union members hadn’t had their wages and benefits eviscerated, and their jobs reduced to mindless regimentation, and didn’t now dread showing up for work, I might have agreed with him.

David Macaray is a playwright and author, whose latest book is How to Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows: Weird Adventures in India: Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims When the Peace Corps was New. Everything you ever wanted to know about India but were afraid to ask. He can be reached at: Read other articles by David.