August 2, 2014

Scholtes: The workplace visionary no one’s heard of

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As you can see from recent posts, I’ve got some issues on my mind concerning the nature of the workplace and how we can change it.  It’s no secret that work is broken – it’s demeaning, controlling and the normal mode of doing things seems increasingly out of touch with the development of technology, societal trends, and – at worst – basic human nature.

In recent years, we’ve seen some thought leaders offer up best selling books, visionary programs and torrents of articles and other works describing what is wrong, how to fix it, and attempting to explain the science behind their approaches.  In particular, Dan Pink gave us Drive, Best Buy gave us the ROWE experiment, and Lean thinkers continue to encourage us to think of front-line emplyees first, as in Jim Womack’s Gemba Walk.

What I find interesting is that all of these approaches to improving the workplace, at least in part, have some basis in Peter Scholtes 1998 Book, The Leader’s Handbook.  In the book, Scholtes pulls together theories on motivation and change management, describes new leadership styles that will be required in the 21st century, and discusses the need for managers to understand and facilitate work, rather than control and direct it.

 Scholtes even quotes social scientist Mikhail Czikszentmihalyi directly, discussing the need for flow in the workplace and describing the conditions affecting it.  Czikszentmihalyi’s work is central to the discussion of intrinsic motivation in Drive, and here it is in Scholtes’ book – more than a decade before Drive’s publication.  Scholtes also dedicates a chapter to ”Meaning, Purpose, Direction, and Focus” – which is similar to Pink’s Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose.

There are many parts of Scholtes’ book that discuss workplace culture, and many of these discussions remind me of the changes that the ROWE movement is attempting to create.  Scholtes describes aspects of culture from the employees’ point of view, particularly the interaction of social needs and the sense of accomplishment (or, as I like to call it, work/life synthesis):

  • I can like my coworkers and the company but dislike my job
  • I can like my job and coworkers but dislike the company
  • I can like my job and the company but dislike my coworkers
  • When I like all three, I am more likely to be energetic, committed, and motivated to do good work

These four points, in my mind, are pivotal to ROWE.  People may like the work, and their coworkers, but not the environment – or any combination thereof - and by allowing people to determine for themselves the nature of those interactions, everyone moves from some combination of the first three bullets to an outcome that looks more like the fourth.

Last year, I sent an email to Dan Pink, asking if his own book was the next step from Scholtes’ work.  I received a response, presumably from Mr. Pink himself, who declared he was not familiar with Scholtes.  When I discussed ROWE with Jody Thompson, she was also unfamilar with Scholtes.  I believe both authors are genuine, and rather than discount my admiration for what they have accomplished, it only enhances my appreciation for Scholtes’ vision of the 21st century workplace.  It seems that, at long last, we are starting to realize what he determined we would need to do in order to move forward.  It has been a long time coming and these movements are still in their early stages, however, I think the trend is clear.

Scholtes also discusses the Gemba and the need for managers to be more present in it – and goes into a discussion of why it is important.  Clearly, there is a need to reconcile all of these varying approaches to improving what we know is a broken mindset regarding the nature of work and how people perform it best.  It seems plausible, however, that the foundation for that reconciliation was laid quite some time ago. 

Scholtes passed away in 2009.  Hopefully, he was aware of the work being done that moved us closer to his vision, even if the movers were unaware of him.

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  • Justin Hunter


    Great post. I couldn’t agree more. I had the privilege of knowing him because he was a close friend and colleague of my father, William G. Hunter. Peter Scholtes was an excellent thinker, clear communicator, compassionate guy, great story teller and funny, to boot.

    Used copies of his extremely insightful book “The Leader’s Handbook” are often available for next to nothing on Amazon. They’re filled with great advice. It is the management book I recommend most because (a) it is excellent and still timely, (b) it contains actionable recommendations without being overly prescriptive, and (c) as you point out, Peter Scholtes is not nearly as well known as he should be.

    I would recommend these links to anyone looking for more information about Peter Scholtes:

    - Justin Hunter

    • David M. Kasprzak

      Justin -

      Thanks so much for posting! Color me envious that you were able to know Peter Scholtes. I would relish the chance to spend time with him. I was introduced to his work by accident – it was required reading for an MBA class, as was a video of Scholtes discussing his philosophy. Obviously, I was instantly hooked and I continue to find greater and deeper understanding. Although it is a cliche, I do honestly feel that he was ahead of his time. Fortunately, I think we’re beginning to catch up.