Choice Theory in the Workplace - The Practice

Choice Theory: A New Psychology of Personal Freedom - William Glasser M.D. 1998

Choice Theory in the Workplace
The Practice

IN 1942, WHEN my late wife was sixteen years old, she worked part time in the office of a large paint factory. The owner, a wealthy man in his eighties, enjoyed bringing her into his office to tell her stories about how cleverly he had run the factory. His favorite story started in 1932 during the height of the Great Depression. At that time his office staff, about forty people, was managed by a woman who had been with him for years. One day he told the manager he wanted her to start work at eight instead of the usual eight thirty and would pay her for the extra half hour. But she was not to tell anyone she was being paid for the extra time.

In 1932, jobs were scarce; there were ten people ready to step in immediately if there was an opening. Six days a week—they regularly worked Saturday morning—forty employees saw the manager hard at work when they came in. A few came earlier and then a few more. They were afraid to say anything to her, and of course she said nothing. Fearing for their jobs, they began to come in earlier and earlier until, in a few months, they were all coming in at eight and going right to work. When he told my wife the story, the old man laughed and slapped his leg saying, “A half hour free work, twenty hours a day, six days a week out of forty people for nine years.” Then the war started, jobs were plentiful, and the scam was over.


The power of bosses like that old man has now been curtailed somewhat by better times, but boss management, my designation for external control psychology in the workplace, is still very much the norm. Although many school administrators boss teachers and do untold harm to education, they have nowhere near the power that most private-sector bosses have to send the message: I am someone to fear. But if high-quality work is what the manager is trying to achieve, fear is the worst strategy. The core idea of the leader of the world’s move to quality, W. Edwards Deming, is Drive out fear.

For most of us, work is the defining component of our lives. What do you do? is often the first question asked when you meet someone. If you are doing very little, this is a painful question. Unhappiness, not so much with the job itself, but with the person you work for or the people you work with, is a leading cause of low-quality work.

Just as a test, when I began to write this chapter, I looked in the newspaper for an example of this unhappiness, and there it was. A man, thinking he was being taunted and ridiculed at work, killed two fellow workers and wounded three others. Two days later, I couldn’t miss a front-page story about low-level managers being asked to work overtime, up to forty hours a week, or be fired. The old man at the paint company is not as out of date as I thought. Being treated well at work by both supervisors and each other is in all our quality worlds. When a worker, at any level, is discontented, low-quality work is the result.

Although a top manager who bosses sets the norm for the whole organization, in today’s managerial climate blatant bossing does not usually occur at the top. But because it is still a fixture in most workers’ minds, it pervades the whole organization unless the top manager has taken some obvious steps toward lead management. Even if these steps have been taken, it takes several years for this fact to register in the minds of lower-level managers who have known nothing but bossing. The longer a lower-level manager has been exposed to bossing, the more he or she uses it, no matter what is occurring at the top. In practice, this means that the lowest-level managers tend to use bossing the most and are the hardest to reach when an organization is trying to change to leading. In a small company of one manager and two workers, even the senior worker tends to boss the other.

The specific harm of boss management is that it prevents anyone who is bossed, which means most managers and almost all workers, from putting the people above them into their quality worlds. But it goes further than this, creating a dog-eat-dog climate in which trust is the dog that always gets eaten. Low quality and high cost are the prices we pay for all this unnecessary distrust and fear. If we are to have any chance of ridding the world of work from the depredations of boss management, the people at the top need to become aware of its effects and then take active steps to replace it with lead management based on choice theory. As they do, they have to be prepared for a struggle. Lower-level bosses like to boss, and workers don’t mind it too much because it gives them the excuse to play the ancient workplace game: do as little as you can get away with and blame the boss for the low quality of the work.

Boss management is not complicated. Reduced to its essentials, it contains four elements:

1. At all levels, the boss sets the task and the standards for how well the work is to be done and rarely consults workers in this process. The boss does not compromise; the workers have to adjust to their jobs as the boss defines them or suffer the consequences, including losing their jobs when there is no union or contractual protection against this power. The boss fights long and hard for the right to boss without interference. The more he or she bosses, however, the lower the quality of the work.

2. The boss usually tells, rather than shows, the workers how the job is to be done and rarely asks for their input as to how the job could be done better.

3. The boss, or someone the boss designates, inspects the work. Because the workers are not involved in this evaluation, most do only enough to get by and inspectors are continually under pressure to pass low-quality work. This is a deadly quality-destroying combination. Furthermore, in a boss-driven environment, workers who do more than they have to are ostracized by their coworkers. Since the work itself is never in the workers’ quality worlds, the idea of doing quality work rarely crosses their minds. They laugh at the slogans about quality that are a fixture of many modern boss-managed workplaces.

4. When the workers resist the boss, as they almost always do in a variety of ways that compromise quality, the boss uses threats and punishment to try to make them do what he or she wants. In so doing, the boss creates a workplace in which, from top to bottom, the managers and workers are adversaries and fear rules. The boss thinks this adversarial relationship is the way things should be; cooperation with workers is a subversive idea.

In this present era of high employment, it may seem as if I am making too much of an issue of how people are managed. There are plenty of jobs, and the country is prosperous. The major factors that have led to this prosperity are low inflation, stable prices, workers who are not demanding more than small wage increases, and technology that has led to increased productivity at the same or lower cost. Competition has also kept prices and wages in check, and the Federal Reserve Board seems able to adjust interest rates to keep inflationary pressures low. There doesn’t seem to be any popular demand for greatly lower taxes and no wars are in sight, both of which tend to restrain interest rates and keep a lid on inflation. All this has been coupled with a slow but steady deflationary decrease in the deficit.

What we have done, and no one seems sure of how we have accomplished it, is to achieve a good balance of all the factors needed for prosperity. But this balance is delicate. It depends on restraining something that has never in human history been restrained very long, something endemic to business and politics that has destroyed prosperity in every modern society the world has ever known: human greed.

There are plenty of greedy people who, thinking only of themselves, do not even try to understand how fragile prosperity is. Some are demanding lower taxes, others higher wages. Some say there should be more military spending, others less. A popular rallying cry is cut big government, while others say there is a limit, that we must maintain a safety net. If any single group gets as much as it wants, the fragile balance we seem to have fallen into may be destroyed. History will repeat itself: The stock market will falter, and prosperity will be threatened.

The Federal Reserve Board can regulate interest rates, but it can’t regulate the potential for greed that is written into our genes. Coupling a variation of the third false belief of external control psychology—It is right for me to have much more than others—with the genetic need for power, greedy people picture themselves in their quality worlds as deserving a lot more than other people. Historically, the prosperity pictures in the quality worlds of powerful people have never been successfully frustrated.

If these pictures raise their ugly heads too high, the present years of low inflation and high employment will come to a screeching halt. We will then have to repeat the painful process of getting all the prosperity factors back into balance. It took almost twenty years and a war to do so the last time, and the stock market is rolling along with as much or more power as in 1929.

In defense of what seems to be their greed, the people who want a lot for themselves use the I deserve it argument and claim it is their skills that keep their companies competitive. Without these skills, there would be much less job security for their employees than there is now. I can’t fault this argument; look at all the jobs and wealth Bill Gates has created. Who can say that Gates does not deserve the billions he’s made for what he has done? Unfortunately, the main cause of greed has little to do with what anyone deserves. It is the product of the intense need for power in the genes of greedy, successful people. These people, like all of us, are driven by what they feel, and the stronger the need, the better it feels to satisfy it, no matter what others may suffer.

Within reason, taxing seems to be a way to limit greed that most Americans, the greedy are an exception, have accepted. Our rate of tax compliance is among the highest in the world, strong evidence that we are not a greedy people. But it is also well known that the greedy in all societies throughout history have been creative in evading taxes, so taxation has never been as successful a balancing factor as it might be. Political systems with no free elections work badly because there is no way to restrain greed without the ability to pick who governs.

As much as our American system is criticized, we may be among the least greedy people with wealth and power the world has ever known. Europe did not ask for the Marshall Plan after World War II. General George Marshall, a man who seemed to have no greed at all, offered it, and the American people supported it. This leads to the question I would like to try to answer: Will we always have so many greedy people that there is no way to ensure much longer periods of prosperity than we have had?

The answer to that question would be yes if all successful, wealthy people with strong power needs also had very weak needs for love and belonging. People with that profile never restrain their desire for more, no matter how much they have. What prosperity we have had has been due to the fact that besides their strong need for power, most people who have become successful also have a strong need for love and belonging. They built a lot of their success on good relationships with the people they do business with and with the people who work for them.

When some successful people become greedy, it may be that their love and belonging behaviors, which might be strong enough to moderate their greed in a choice theory society, are difficult to express in our external control world. They tend to distrust people who are not their friends and, especially, people who are less fortunate than they are. If the people who are in charge of others, almost all of whom have normal or even above normal needs for love and belonging, made an effort to learn choice theory—and use it successfully in their personal lives—they might attempt to make more friendly contact with the people they manage.

Once you give up external control psychology for choice theory, it is almost impossible for you to come into contact with people who work for you and not think about how much better it would be if we all got along well. If these contacts are satisfying, it feels good, and you will tend to want even better relationships; that’s how our genes work. If Scrooge was able to give up being greedy, there is still a little hope for the world, but something more than ghosts and spirits is needed. We will never make a dent in greed with the psychology we are now using.

We have hardly scratched the surface of the prosperity we could have if we changed from bossing to leading in the workplace. Southwest Airlines is successful because its satisfied employees work hard for a CEO who is not greedy, who does not downsize when other, more greedy, managers would. I am not so naive as to claim that people will not work hard for bosses. Many will because they see themselves as hard workers, no matter how they are treated. They will give their hands and, even, their brains to a boss. But they will give their hearts only to a leader, and the feeling we experience when that happens is something a boss will never know.


Lead management is to boss management as choice theory is to external control psychology. While it is effective anywhere it is used to manage people, it is much easier to practice in the work-place than in schools because there are few on-the-job equivalents of schooling. Some things you are asked to do on the job may not be pleasant, but everything you are asked to do has some value in the real world. Also, you are paid to work, and on most jobs, although you can be fired, there is no failure in the sense that you are failed in school for refusing to do what makes little sense to you. What makes work more difficult than school is that, unlike school, almost all jobs depend on people working together. Even if you want to do your best at work, you may be frustrated because others you depend on are not doing their share. But when others are doing their share, working hard together for a good manager can be one of life’s most satisfying experiences.

What makes boss management so destructive is that it focuses on individuals and pits them against each other, as was done in the paint factory. What makes lead management so successful is that it focuses on creating a cooperative system and on the belief that if you treat people well and explain what you want them to do, you can trust them to do a good job. In the following four elements of lead management, you will continually see that the message, We care about you, is central to this effort. Lead managers know that caring costs nothing and has a huge return. Lead managers keep asking themselves the core choice theory question: If I do this, will I get closer to the people who work for me or further away? If the answer, which is usually obvious, is further away, they don’t do it.

Lead managers also know choice theory and use it in a way that is apparent. But as it is being used, it is extremely effective to teach the workers choice theory so they understand that this is something that can be both learned and used. A good way to do this is to offer to teach choice theory to the workers and their spouses at a company-sponsored seminar. This way they all see that it is not just another company gimmick but a genuine attempt to help them succeed not only at work but also with their partners and children.

Lead managers know that the core of quality is managing workers so they put the manager; each other; the work; the customers; and, in private industry, the stockholders into their quality worlds. That is, all who are involved must get close and stay close. As in every other area discussed in this book, good relationships are the key in the workplace. There are four elements of lead management that parallel what I described as boss management:

1. Lead managers engage all workers in an ongoing honest discussion of both the quality and the cost of the work that is needed for the company to be successful. They not only listen but continually encourage the workers to offer them any suggestions that will improve quality and lower costs.

2. The lead manager, or someone designated by him or her, models the jobs so the workers can see exactly what the manager expects. Even as the lead manager is doing so, the workers are encouraged to give input into how their jobs may be done better. In this way, the manager works to increase the workers’ control over their jobs.

3. The workers are responsible for inspecting their own work with the understanding that they know best what high-quality work is and how to produce it at the lowest possible cost. But the manager makes it clear that quality takes precedence over cost. In practice, when the workers are given this assurance, quality goes up and costs go down. High quality depends on a level of trust between workers and managers that cannot be achieved by bossing.

4. The lead manager uses every chance he or she has to teach that the essence of quality is continual improvement. Unlike schooling, everything that is done in any job can be improved or done more economically. The managers make it clear that their task is to facilitate improvement by providing the workers with the tools, training, and a friendly place to do the work. When the company is making higher profits because of increased quality, the lead manager sets up a compensation system in which the workers share some of what their efforts have made possible.

The strongest argument for lead management in the workplace is that because it is both more productive and leads to higher-quality work, it saves money. This is money that boss-managed companies must spend. There is no difference in the actual cost of labor and material between competitive companies. Ford and General Motors pay similar wages and buy steel and tires at the same price. It is the other costs, beyond the actual cost of labor and materials, that are so much lower in a lead-managed workplace than in a boss-managed workplace. Many of these costs are tangible. Bossing leads to increased worker’s compensation claims and to more theft, absenteeism, abuse of sick leave, lateness, difficulties with unions, violence, and harassment, sexual and otherwise. But even more costly are the intangibles, such as obstruction, that are common to boss management.


Whether it is within the company or in how the company deals with the people it does business with, including, unfortunately, its customers, obstruction is a huge but intangible cost. The more workers are bossed, or in many instances even when they are not bossed but are so used to being bossed that they perceive every request as bossing, the more they enjoy using what little power they may have to obstruct. You can hardly go through a day at work without meeting someone whose mission in life seems to be saying, I’m sorry, I can’t do that; it’s against company policy; I don’t have the authority; You’ll have to wait; and, often, just plain no.

Playing it safe and enjoying it while the company grinds to a halt is the goal of obstruction. Workers in many modern boss-managed companies are told to use their initiative and make decisions-it’s become the thing to tell them-but no one knows the choice theory that explains why it is the thing to tell them. As soon as workers at any level in a boss-managed operation take the initiative in an effort to keep the machinery going smoothly and something goes wrong, they are punished. This has to happen only once for the word to get around that it’s safer to do nothing or to say no. Let the boss figure it out; that’s what he’s being paid for guides the worker no matter how it hurts what the company is trying to do. I had the following conversation with an airlines counter woman a few years ago.

“Here’re my thousand-mile upgrade certificates. How many will I need?”

“You’ll need three, but you’re OK; there are three here.”

“Wow, three. How far is it?

“It’s a little over two thousand miles.”

“Do you give me change? I mean, can you at least give me a five-hundred-mile certificate back? You sell those.”

“No, you can buy a five-hundred-mile certificate and use it now to save the miles, but that’s the best we can do.”

“Does that seem fair to you?”

“It’s company policy; there’s nothing I can do.”

“Do other customers complain, or am I unusual?”

“They complain all the time.”

“I’ll bet your company has meetings to get input from the staff. Do you have these meetings? Most big companies do nowadays.”

“Oh yes, sure; we have them.”

“If there are a lot of dissatisfied customers, would you bring this issue up? I think the policy makers ought to have some feedback, don’t you?”

“I’m not concerned about the policy makers. I’m not going to bring it up, not a chance. I keep my mouth shut unless they ask me a question.”


“I’ll be marked down as a troublemaker, not a team player. They are always laying off; I’d be the next one to go. I’m sorry, it isn’t worth it.”

This woman’s attitude is an example of the boss-management use of what could be a good procedure in a company that is trying to improve the way it manages. The woman won’t open her mouth at those meetings if it could be construed by anyone above her that she was criticizing company policy. The company is getting nothing more from her than the use of her hands. Her brain is not on board, and her heart, which is what the company in that competitive business needs so desperately, will never be the company’s.

But the habit of saying no extends far beyond what happens inside the boss-managed company. Workers often say no even when they are asked to do something they are paid to do as long as there is no way to check up on them. Since there are many instances in which it is hard to check up on them, customers can be very frustrated.

In dealing with their customers, many hotel employees delight in saying no. No is always safe, and they use it a lot. Some variation of what I am going to describe happens to me in hotels several times each year; it is only June, and it has already happened three times this year. The cost of this obstruction must be staggering. Keep in mind that if it happens with customers, it must also happen with coworkers who are as much the victims of this obstruction as are customers.

I was giving some seminars with my colleague, Dr. Chester Karrass, and we were working at a huge New York hotel. Karrass’s office had shipped three boxes of supplies to the hotel, and when I checked in, I wanted to get the supplies in hand. I had learned enough about this problem not to wait until the last minute. At the convention center in the hotel, a woman told me that the supplies were in a receiving room; all I had to do was call the clerk and he would bring them to my room. I asked the woman to stay with me for the next few minutes while I called in case there was any difficulty.

“Hello, this is Dr. Glasser. Three boxes marked Karrass Negotiation Seminars have been sent to the hotel. I’d like them brought to my room.”

“Sure, Doc, tell me again what they’re marked. And are they large or small?”

“They are about ten inches high, a foot wide, and about eighteen inches long. They are marked with a stencil: KARRASS NEGOTIATION SEMINARS, BOX 1 of 3, 2 of 3, and 3 of 3.”

The man was gone about three minutes; when he came back on the phone, he said cheerfully, “Sorry Doc, they’re not here. If they come in, I’ll get right in touch with you.”

On the basis of a lot of experience, I said, “OK, that was your first look. I’d like you to take another look; this time, look all over the room. Could you tell me what you are looking for so I’m sure you understand what I want?”

“Sure, Doc, three boxes marked with some kind of a seminar, Karrass, is that it?”

“Yes, KARRASS. Please take another look. They were sent over a week ago from Los Angeles.”

This time he was gone almost five minutes and then he said, still cheerfully, as if humoring a child, “Sorry, Doc; they’re just not here.”

I said, “I still think they may be in the room. Would you mind taking one more look? I really need to locate them.”

The young woman who was still with me looked at me as if I were crazy. The man had looked twice, what more did I want? This time he was gone only about twenty seconds; when he got back on the phone, he said, still cheerfully and with no apology, in a tone of voice that sent the message that he was happy for me that he had taken another look, “Yeah, Doc; they’re here. The damn things were right under my desk. Where do you want them?”

I told the young woman that she should keep this incident in mind and tell customers to be persistent. She was amazed, but not amazed enough to ask me how I knew to do what I did or anything about what happened. I could see that getting boxes for her customers from the receiving room was not really her concern and that she was certainly not going to do anything to improve the situation. Both the man and the woman had no part of their jobs in their quality worlds. The way that hotel is managed, they never will.

This incident, and the thousands like it that occur day after day all over the world, is typical of a boss-managed workplace. No one had ever sat down with that man and explained to him what his job was and worked with him supportively to help him understand it and do it better. By the time I talked with him, that kind of an intervention might have been too late. He would take any intervention as criticism and might do less than the little he was doing. Because of the pleasant way this man dealt with his inadequacy, I think he was not being too severely boss managed—managed by neglect may be the more accurate description—and his manager might be quite open to making this change. Still for lead management to work its way into a workplace will require a lot of effort. Putting a whole new psychology and the skill to use it into place is a big step. But if that step was taken, the hotel would make a lot more money than it is making now.


Although most of the tangible workplace problems could be substantially reduced by a change to lead management, the problem of how to deal with pain, weakness, or the more obvious psychological complaints that accompany or follow an injury on the job is more complicated. The better the relationship the workers have with their managers, the less these complaints will surface or persist, but good relationships will not prevent all injuries. When an injury occurs, there is always the problem of how to tell if the complaint is actually part of the physical injury or is the worker’s way of restraining the anger at being injured. Or the way the worker is asking for more help or more compensation than he or she is being offered. Or if the worker is using the complaint to avoid having to go back to a job he or she hated and/or feared.

The present way to deal with these complaints is adversarial. The insurance company tries to settle the complaint with no further treatment or to fight it if it is seen as excessive. The worker tries to get better treatment or more compensation for his or her injury. I spent nine years early in my career treating these situations, and I can say that the adversarial way they were and are still handled does not serve the injured worker very well. The worker’s physicians, lawyers, and psychiatrists do battle with the insurance company’s equivalents. In my experience, the worker’s interests are often subordinated to those of his defenders and their opponents.

While I worked for insurance companies, I kept the workers’ interests in mind. I told the companies it would cost them less if they would allow me to work honestly with the injured workers, arrive at some conclusion about the cases, and then back me up. Some did, and I was able to do a lot with those workers using reality therapy and trying to persuade each one to look beyond immediate compensation to what was best for him or her in the long run. But whether or not the insurance company agreed, I was always honest and I was still able to help many of them.

One man who had injured his back on the job had been hospitalized for a while but still suffered pain and was not able to return to work as a laborer. He didn’t have much education and had a hard time grasping what was going on. He was especially confused by the adversarial system he was immersed in. I was called in by the insurance company to try to get him to go back to work. But I was also allowed to work with him to think about settling, although I never negotiated an actual settlement.

I first saw him during one of his many hospitalizations. I worked with him for about six weeks, talking to him once a week. He was about forty-five years old, divorced, and living alone. He had worked as a laborer for a construction company and had injured his back picking up some heavy concrete forms. He had not worked since the injury a year before and was struggling to live on his temporary compensation. This was his fifth or sixth hospitalization. There was not enough X-ray or physical evidence to consider back surgery.

“John, I’m Dr. Glasser. I’m the psychiatrist here, and your insurance company asked me to see you. I’d like to hear your story.”

I made no effort to hide the fact that I worked for the insurance company, but I also did not ask him how he felt. He did not seem to be in any acute pain. He was able to walk into my office from his room in the hospital, and I did not want to suggest, by asking that common question, that I expected him to tell me how much it was hurting. I also told him I wanted to hear his story. In most of the cases I dealt with, the lawyers sent these people to physicians who tended immediately to focus on the pain and, by this focus, emphasize the patient’s inability to work. I was going to be different. He said, “You’re another psychiatrist. Why do you have to see me? I hurt my back, I’m not crazy.”

“I see people who have been injured and are also very unhappy. Pain is usually a part of that unhappiness. But I want to hear the whole story. I want to know what you think about all that’s happened, not just where it hurts. And I want to hear what you want. It can’t hurt you to tell me.”

“Are you trying to take away my money?”

“That’s not up to me. I’m trying to find out if I can help you. If you tell me your story, maybe I can.”

He was reassured by my telling him I could not take away his money. He was also reassured by the fact that I wanted to listen to his whole story. In the area of workers’ injuries, for workers of his educational level, my offer was unusual, and I was sure that he wanted to tell it to somebody. His story was simple. He had bent over to pick up the concrete form and as he started to lift it, he heard a “snap” and the pain started. That was the last day he worked. That story, including the “snap,” was the typical story of a man living alone who had only a few friends to have a beer or two with. He had no money, a minimal apartment, an old car, and no family. He had not liked his job that much but he did miss going to work.

“If your back didn’t hurt, would you like to go back to work?”

“Not on that job. It was too hard. I’m getting too old to do that kind of work.”

“OK, not on that job. What kind of job would you like?”

“I can’t work; it’s my back, it hurts too much.”

“I’m not talking about what you can’t do. I’m talking about what you’d like to do. Do you ever want to work again?”

“Of course I want to work. I grew up on a farm; I’ve been working since I was a kid. I wasn’t good in school but I always did a good job where I worked.”

“I can see that. You look like a working man.”

That was the truth. He just told me that he had always worked and that he’d done a good job. Most of the laborers who were injured told me a similar story. This persistent back pain puzzled him, but there was still a picture of him working in his quality world. I then went through his positive past with him and asked him to tell me when he had worked hard and felt good about himself and was convinced he had done a lot of good work. I thought that there might be someone on this job whom he had not gotten along with and that this relationship might have something to do with his injury. It was a common element in these cases.

“I am a working man, that’s it. I’m going nuts sitting around. My lawyer says I should be real careful, to get a lot of rest. That’s all Iget is rest.”

“On this last job, the one where you got hurt, tell me about the guy you worked for. What kind of a guy was he?”

“He was OK. He didn’t talk to me much. There was always work, and I did it. Sometimes I needed some help; some of those forms were real heavy. When I asked for help, he said, I’ll see, but nothing ever happened. The funny thing is that the day I got hurt I wasn’t lifting that much; it just went snap.

Another common story. Lonely, not much help from the boss—just a pair of hands doing a hard, lonely job. That snap is something that back-injured people talk a lot about. I heard about many snaps when I dealt with them. It seems to be more a sign of psychological than physical involvement.

“Anyone else get hurt on that job?”

“Yeah, a few weeks before I got hurt, a guy fell when some scaffolding collapsed. Not far but he got hurt. He hasn’t been back. Kind of like me; I haven’t been back either.”

All the pieces are in place. Lonely, no help, no interest from the boss, a guy got hurt. He knew about injuries and compensation, not much, but it could all add up. He’s probably not too hurt to do some kind of work, but since he doesn’t think he’ll find anything, he needs the injury; it’s all that allows him to keep the picture of himself as a man who has worked and still wants to work in his quality world. And he’s also tired of doing hard, lonely work. Unless he can see himself doing something else, this will be his last job. I won’t talk about this laboring job anymore. There’s nothing there for him. There may be nothing anywhere for him.

Staying in the hospital was costing five hundred dollars a day. There was no reason for him to stay longer except to talk to me, so I agreed to see him as an outpatient. He could drive in, and I arranged for the insurance company to give him twenty-five dollars to drive himself in and back. He could use the little money he would have left over. Each week he talked a little more about what he would like to do and less about his back pain. He liked seeing me, but he couldn’t see me too much longer. I couldn’t help him as long as his case was pending. It was costing money that might be better used in the settlement, but insurance companies do not look at it this way. I also got the feeling that he was ready to make some kind of a settlement, but the case had to go to a hearing and one was scheduled. We had a good relationship, and he was happy I was going to testify at the hearing. I told him that I was going to recommend that he was able to do some kind of light work but I didn’t know what. I asked him if that was OK.

He said, “It’s OK. You do what you have to do.”

“The other doctor is going to say that you can’t work. He may be right. None of us knows. You know we don’t know. If you could be helped by any one of us, we wouldn’t be talking.”

There was no anger in the man. He was totally confused and tired of the whole thing. I believed that what I did was good for him, but I thought that if he could get out from under the whole thing, he’d be better off, both psychologically and physically. I decided to recommend that the insurance company give him enough money so he could stay out of the hospital for a while. The hospital was costly and bad for him, but each time he ran out of money, his pain got worse and he was readmitted.

Two weeks later I went to the hearing. When John was put on the stand, his attorney questioned him about how he was doing. He said that his back still hurt. His attorney then asked if he thought he needed more medical care. John’s response threw the room in an uproar. He pointed to me and said, “I don’t need any more doctors. They can’t help. That doctor, Dr. Glasser, he’s the only one who cares about me. He says he can’t help, but if I see anyone, he’s the only one I want to see.”

The hearing officer told John to keep quiet and get down from the chair. John again pointed to me, repeated what he had said, and then got down. His attorney told him to keep quiet and looked at me as if I had done something terrible. The insurance attorney suggested that a settlement should be worked out, and the two attorneys went to work on it. The insurance attorney told me I would not have to testify. John got up, thanked me, and shook my hand. He told me again I was the only one who cared.

I didn’t feel very good. I was worried that I had screwed up his case. But the insurance attorney said what I did wouldn’t affect the settlement. I would talk to these men in a caring way and suggest that they could do something more than they were doing. My care was not phony, I was not protecting the insurance company. These men were the victims of an external control adversarial system that does not care about injured people. The more adversarial it gets, the worse it is for the patients. I have no suggestions except that the sooner I see people like him, the more effective I can be. The man was injured, and by the time I saw him, he was choosing paining. That the pain was psychological does not make it hurt any less.

John’s boss was not a cruel man. He did what he had always done with the people he hired. He had no idea how important half a minute of attention a week could be to this lonely man. That job was the only picture in John’s quality world that he had a chance of satisfying, but he still needed a little attention if he was to satisfy it and hang on successfully to that hard job. Is it too much to ask that people who manage workers learn enough choice theory to give them this small amount of attention? A few minutes a day doesn’t cost anything.

When John got injured, his boss had to spend more time on this claim and going over the site with the safety engineer than the minute or two that might have prevented or shortened the pain. The lawyers and doctors who made a living fighting over his pain were of no value to him or to anyone else. Greed was very much alive on all but his side in this case. John was not greedy. He deserved better than what he got at work and after his injury. The whole procedure has been distorted to the point that it no longer does what it was designed to do. But as long as external control is the psychology of the workplace, it is all we will have.


Deming is supposed to have said, No human being should ever evaluate another human being. I totally ascribe to this belief. He meant that no person with some power should ever make a formal evaluation of a subordinate. Obviously, no one can stop any of us from doing so informally; we do it all day long. We’d be much better off if we didn’t, but that is not what I am trying to explain here.

No matter how much a manager tries to lead manage when he gives the usual annual revue to a subordinate, he is cast into the role of boss manager. This yearly obligatory task that many companies, private and public, large and small, insist that a manager perform may undo a great deal else that the manager has been trying to do all year. All workers hate these evaluations, as do most managers. Only unthinking bosses like to do evaluations; it gives them the feeling of power that means so much to them, especially since they can disguise their real motives under the pretense: I’m trying to help you.

Workers hate this pretense because they are well aware that their managers have no real way to know what they are doing and tend to try to make a few points, bad or even good, that may have nothing to do with the workers’ actual performance. Even if the managers say something good, the workers know that they could just as well have said something bad; they had no accurate information either way. What the workers do is protect themselves as much as possible, no matter what effect it has on the company. This procedure perpetuates a climate of distrust in the workplace. If a worker believes the review was inaccurate, as many do, he or she and the manager will be separated and never trust each other. Companies lose a lot of money because of this phony procedure that has nothing good going for it. It is one of the few things we routinely do in industry that is completely ineffective.

What is needed instead is for the company to provide a yearly opportunity for each employee to talk to his or her manager about how they both could do something to improve the company. Instead of performance evaluations, these yearly discussions might be called company solving circles, the workplace equivalent of marriage and family solving circles.

In a lead-managed company, the manager would call the employee in and say, “I’d like you to tell me what you think you might do to improve things around here and what you think I might do to help. It’s not important that we come up with anything great, but this is the time for us to level with each other and talk about what you want and how I might help. It’s not the time for each of us to talk about what anyone else is doing, that we can talk about when we get together at our monthly meetings.” Obviously, once this type of meeting became routine, this long-winded preface would be unnecessary.

The following is an imaginary dialogue with the airline desk clerk who wouldn’t say anything about my mileage problem to anyone in the company. This dialogue assumes that the company has been moving in the direction of lead management and that the level of fear in the company is much lower than when I initially talked to this woman. I’ll call the clerk Nancy and the manager, Susan. In a lead-managed company, workers and managers are on a first-name basis.

“Nancy, this is the time for us to get in the circle again. What’s on your mind?”

“I’m taking a chance, when I tell you this, but the way things have been going, I think I can do it.”

“That’s the purpose of what we’ve been trying to do. Get rid of all the fear that was killing things around here. I’d very much like to hear what’s on your mind.”

“OK, Susan, this is it. I want more say about what goes on when a customer makes a complaint or asks for something that’s out of the ordinary. I feel like a fool saying it’s company policy over and over when that’s the last thing customers want to hear. This is a fast-moving business. The plane is leaving in a few minutes, and the customer has a gripe. I know my job. You know I know my job. I’ve been behind that counter for eleven years. I might make little mistakes, I’m not perfect, but right now I think I’m making mistakes all day long because I see dissatisfied customers walking away from the counter. Even if it gets fixed later, that customer is going to remember his dissatisfaction much longer than the once in a while we fix something.”

“Give me an example.”

“OK, it’s that mileage thing. We give out thousand-mile upgrades, and the customer is traveling eleven hundred miles. It takes two upgrades. He has to spend two thousand miles to use eleven hundred. I’d like to tell him, ’We don’t have hundred-mile refunds, but I can give you back a five-hundred upgrade in change.’ Susan, we still make four hundred on the deal. I’d like to be able to make that decision. I might not make it for everyone, but there are times when I’d like to do it and I can’t, and I feel like a flunky.”

“That’s a few steps above me. I can’t give you that permission.”

“You see, that’s it exactly—you’re in the same boat I’m in. But you could do something. When you get in the circle with John [Susan’s manager], will you tell him what I’m asking? Not just for this but for a lot of things. If you’ll do this much, I’m willing to write out a list and give it to you. But first I want to find out how the land lies. Don’t leave me hanging. Tell me what happened so I know this solving circle is working. And if you don’t tell John who’s making this request, that’s fine with me.”

The higher the request has to go, the more fear there will be in asking for it, but what Nancy is really asking for is some feedback, that something real is happening, that the solving circle is not just some management consultant’s daydream that no one at the top is taking seriously.

Susan said, “I think you’re on to something. But if we give you more power to make decisions, how will we know what you are doing, how far you are going to go?”

“I’ve thought about that. I’ll make up a lavender form so you can see it real easy. Then, whenever I make a decision that I couldn’t make before, I’ll write it down. I’ll do it when I’m not busy or at home. I don’t think it will be very often, but it’s the idea that I can’t, that I’m a little child who has to ask the teacher to go to the bathroom, that’s what I’m talking about. Do you understand? This has been on my mind for five years. It feels good to tell it to you.”

“I’m glad you did. I’ll talk to John.”

“Susan, level with me, I need this job. Do you see what I just said as out of line? Am I now a troublemaker in your book?”

“Nancy, I’m going to give you a letter confirming this conversation, saying you did just what we want employees to do. It’ll be just between you and me. Is that OK?”

“It’s more than OK. I just wonder why you have to keep it between you and me.”

“Nancy, these things take time; it’s the best I can do. When I give you that letter, I have to trust you, too. You see that, don’t you?”

“It’s a tough world, isn’t it? You’d think that all of us would be on the same side, but it isn’t that way, is it? If all we had to worry about is our competitors, we’d have a much easier job, wouldn’t we?”

“Isn’t that the truth?”

I am always amazed at the amount of fear in the world. External control confirms what Pogo said so clearly, “We have met the enemy and they is us!”