Post-Modern Times: Charlie Chaplin, Taylorism, and Employee Engagement

You don’t have to have seen Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 movie Modern Times to be familiar with its iconic scene. You know the one in which the Little Tramp, Chaplin’s embodiment of the hapless Everyman, is sucked up into the gears of an enormous industrial machine.



Here, courtesy of a 1936 silent film, is a metaphor so accurate that it hardly feels like comedy for a century of workplace dynamics. And not just on the assembly line.  Because whether a metal worker, nurse, marketing manager, or software engineer, you’re no doubt familiar with work as an environment where people are pushed around–or, as is the case with some orgnaizations, left to rot–by forces far beyond their control.  (If your experience of wor, generally speaking, is very different from what I’m describing above, please be sure to leave a note in the comments.)

The question I’m exploring in this blog, and in my research, is: Can we, now, in our post-modern times, and in the midst of a new industrial revolution, on the precipice of AI, stem the loss of human agency at work?

In an earlier post, I wrote about employee engagement as a popular empowerment scheme. Is engagement an effective tool for employee empowerment? Let’s start with the hypothesis that it is. An important data point to understand right away then are the power dynamics of engagement programs.

Modern Times has something to show us about workplace improvement schemes in another memorable scene. Roll the Billows Feeding Machine.

The Feeding Machine is a funny invention. It’s also an on-point send up of the practice of scientific management.

First espoused by Frederick Winslow Taylor at the beginning of the last century, scientific management’s goal was to make the workplace and workers more efficient. The solution involved removing individual discretion in favor of the systematization of work tasks and training. In a Taylorized world, managers and a new breed of support staff, management consultants, decided what people had to do, how best ti do it, and then trained workers on these norms. It marked the birth of organizational effectiveness.

The Billows Machine applies scientific management to optimizing lunch producing disasterous and absurd results.

While the principles of scientific management seem far removed from employee satisfaction metrics of engagement surveys, the two approaches may have more in common than we would want to admit. Here are some obvious similarities:

  • A trendy idea driven by management consultants.
  • Embraced, at least initially in the case of scientific management, as a progressive approach to the workplace.
  • Seen as a solution that promotes productivity in changing times.

I don’t mean to be dismissive of engagement as a model, or cynical about its implementation. Rather, I’m interested in effective engagement models—those that truly inspire people to be their best selves at work.

Let’s keep in mind that Taylor’s paper on the Principles of Scientific Management (1913) opened with the following assertion:

“The principal object of management should be to secure the maximum prosperity for the employer, coupled with the maximum prosperity for the employee.”

And went on to address possible objectors to its whole project:

“The majority of these men believe that the fundamental interests of employees and employers are necessarily antagonistic. Scientific management, on the contrary, has for its very foundation the firm conviction that the true interests of the two are one and the same: that the prosperity for the employer cannot exist through a long term of years unless it is accompanied by prosperity for the employee, and vice versa; and that is tis possible to give the workman what he most wants – high wages – and the employer what he wants – a low labor cost – for his manufacturers.”

Substitute engagement or purpose for high wages above and innovation for low labor cost and is Taylor’s promise starts to sound close to what we’re still working on today.

Is engagement about making work a more fulfilling experience for people or is it about organizational effectiveness? Can it accomplish both missions? And if so, what would it take? These are just some of the questions that I’ll be looking at over the next year.

If you have thoughts about any of this, please share them in the comments.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s