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Editor's Note: Lose Control

​The Industrial Revolution has much to answer for. According to education expert Sir Ken Robinson, the educational systems in Europe and the ​United States have changed little since hordes of workers were needed to toil in factories. As cogs in a larger system, these workers were required to have a core set of skills to keep the engines of commerce humming along. 

“Industrialism needed a lot more manual workers than it did college graduates. So mass education was built like a pyramid, with a broad base of compulsory elementary education for all, a smaller sector of secondary education, and a narrow apex of higher education,” Robinson wrote in his book Creative Schools.

This system, argues Robinson, is ill suited for a modern world that values creativity over rote memorization. By emphasizing reading, math, and science over the arts, this Victorian concept discourages subjects that could enhance creative thinking.

Barry Schwartz says that these Victorian concepts haunt the workplace, as well as the schoolhouse. According to Schwartz, a professor at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania and author of Why We Work, the theories we apply to modern employment can be directly traced to the factories of the Industrial Revolution and the theories of economist Adam Smith.

Smith’s contention was that people are lazy and must be compelled to do work. The type of work doesn’t matter so long as compensation is sufficient to keep workers on the factory line. “And if we structure it in keeping with the false idea that people work only for pay, we’ll create workplaces that make this false idea true,” writes Schwartz. “Thus, it’s not true that ‘you just can’t get good help anymore.’ It is true that you just can’t get good help anymore when you only give people work to do that is deadening and soulless.”

Employees must feel trusted to do good work. “If you think that people lack the skill for wise judgment on the job, you impose detailed rules of conduct,” writes Schwartz. “As a consequence, people never get the opportunity to develop wise judgment. Your lack of faith in the skills of the people you oversee is validated, leading you to impose still more rules and still greater oversight.” 

In this month’s cover story, William Cottringer proposes another way. By distancing themselves from the top-down hierarchy that comes with traditional workplace models, managers can meet employees in the middle. The concept of two-way management empowers employees. But it requires that managers give up some control.

This is a step in the right direction. “[Leadership] is not and should not be command and control,” Robinson said in a TED Talk. “The real role of leadership is climate control, creating a climate of possibility. And if you do that, people will rise to it and achieve things that you completely did not anticipate and could not have expected.”