Enlightened Management Isn’t a New Idea

Man wearing face shield working over table covered in smoke.

In doing research for a chapter on counterproductive work behavior, I came across a 1944 article about employee withdrawal. Writing before I was born, Dorothy Walter Baruch lists organizational practices that shows how enlightened management isn’t a new idea. Baruch, a prominent mid-century author and educational psychologist, wrote a paper during the war about why there was such a high rate of absenteeism and turnover in civilian organizations vital to the war effort. She advocated effective management practices, many of which are standard in organizations today.

The Problem of Withdrawal

Excessive withdrawal, both absence (not coming to work when scheduled) and turnover (quitting the job) can be a debilitating problem for organizations. Baruch discusses the severe problem that was occurring during World War II in industries that were providing essential war materials. She notes how absence rates were as high as 15% of workers not showing up for work each day. She gives as turnover examples plants that were losing as much as 40% of their work force each month. Turnover was even worse for women who she notes were terminating at a rate of up to 68% per month and higher.

Excessive rates of absence and turnover can raise costs and reduce organizational efficiency. Replacement costs for those who quit can be substantial, and for many jobs floaters or substitutes must be available to fill in for those who are absent. The COVID pandemic produced severe nurse shortages that resulted in many hospitals enlisting short-term traveling nurses who were hired at many times the rate of permanent nurses. There are many factors that drive these forms of employee withdrawal, many of which are under management’s control.

Enlightened Management Isn’t a New Idea

Baruch’s analysis of absence and withdrawal factors identified three major domains: Health (both physical and psychological), community issues, and poor morale. She provides a long list of factors that could have been written today rather than nearly 80 years ago. Some of the factors that organizations can impact include:

  • Employee health: Organizations should encourage healthy lifestyle and provide adequate health insurance.
  • Occupational safety: Organizations should provide safety education, safety gear, and enforcement of safety rules.
  • Reduce fatigue: Baruch didn’t use the term ‘stress’, but she calls for a reduction of emotional strain and providing adequate rest.
  • Work-family: Baruch mentions day care and other childcare resources, as well as health care for adult family members.
  • Leadership: This includes a variety of sound management practices including constructive feedback, supervisor support, rewards for performance, and match between talents and job requirements.
  • Participation: Allowing employees to participate by providing input into decisions.
  • Emotional support: Providing counseling for personal problems.
  • Eliminating racial discrimination: Eliminating unfair practices and making sure that decisions are based on job-relevant factors rather than race.

Baruch’s suggestions are in common practice today, and this list characterizes organizations that win “best places to work” awards. Her paper anticipates the work-family movement that would not become mainstream for decades, employee assistance programs that have become standard in large organizations, and the issue of job-relevance when hiring minorities that did not become law in the U.S. until the 1960s. As far as I could tell, this was the only paper about the workplace that Baruch published, and it didn’t receive a lot of attention, perhaps because she was ahead of her time. I was excited to find it, as it shows that enlightened management isn’t a new idea.

Photo by Kateryna Babaieva from Pexels

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4 Replies to “Enlightened Management Isn’t a New Idea”

  1. Hello Paul, I really enjoy reading your blog posts. This one was really interesting, and is a good example of why we psychologists should embrace the importance and usefulness of historical analysis. I was first introduced to idea of looking at psychology through a historical lens as an undergraduate psychology student by Daniel Robinson (who gave a guest lecture at my university in Dublin).

    1. Hi Anthony. It can be enlightening to scan through old journals to see that many of the issues we think are new were dealt with decades ago, and have been lost from the chain of citations. We might think that a certain paper was the start of something, when there are earlier examples that no one knows to cite.

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