Vance Packard, The Hidden Persuaders, 1957.
18. Molding "Team Players" for Free Enterprise
"People: Make Them Work, Like If."
-- Headline, Iron Age.
The trend in American society to the other-directed man -- the man who more and more belonged to groups and played on teams -- was welcomed and abetted by a large segment of United States industry. People who coalesce into groups, as any general knows, are easier to guide, control, cope with, and herd. The "team" concept was an aid, if not an outright necessity, to the big business, big labor, and big government that came increasingly to dominate the American scene at mid-century. Charles Wilson, a graduate of big business who went to work for big government as Secretary of Defense, summed up the new thinking when, in 1956, some of his leading subordinates were airing their feelings. He was reported growling: "Anyone who doesn't play on the team and sticks his head up may find himself in a dangerous spot."
Early in the fifties Fortune magazine, which has frequently articulated the conscience of big business, viewed the trend uneasily and used the Orwellian word "Groupthink" to describe much that was going on. It suggested that businessmen while deploring creeping socialism in Washington might well look at some of the "subtle but pervasive changes" going on right in their own backyard. Its writer, William H. Whyte, Jr., stated: "A very curious thing has been taking place in this country almost without our knowing it. In a country where individualism -- independence and self-reliance -- was the watchword for three centuries the view is now coming to be accepted that the individual himself has no meaning except as a member of a group." He said that a "rationalized conformity" was coming more and more to be the national ideal and cited the appearance in growing numbers of "social engineers" willing and eager to help business managements with their personnel problems. These social engineers, he pointed out, bore some resemblance to the students of human relations of the Elton Mayo School who did pioneering work in diagnosing factors that cause us to work most enthusiastically. "But where the latter shy at the thought of manipulating men," he added, "the social engineers suffer no such qualms." (In early 1957 Mr. Whyte spelled out his apprehensions in his book The Organization Man.)
This trend to the other-directed person was a fact of deep interest to every persuader interested in more effective manipulation of human behavior. It showed up in many areas of American life, even in our novels, TV shows, and children's books.
Social scientist David Riesman devoted a section of his The Lonely Crowd, which blue-prints the trend to other-directedness, to an interesting analysis of one of the best-selling children's stories of mid-century, Toodle, the Engine, issued by the hundreds of thousands as a Little Golden Book. Toodle is a young engine who goes to a school where the main lessons taught are that you should always stop at a red flag and never get off the track. By being diligent in those two respects, he was taught, he might grow up to be a main streamliner. Toodle in his early tryouts conformed to the rules for a while, but then he discovered the fun of taking side trips off the track to pick flowers. These violations are discovered, because of telltale signs of meandering in the cowcatcher. Toodle's waywardness presents the town of Engineville with a crisis, and citizens assemble to scheme ways to force Toodle to stay on the track. Still he keeps going his own way. Finally they develop a strategy to keep him on the track. The next time he leaves the track he runs smack into a red flag. Conditioned to halt at red flags, he halts, turns in another direction only to be confronted by another red flag. Red flags are planted all over the landscape. He turns and squirms but can find no place to romp. Finally he looks back toward the track. There the green and white flag is beckoning "go." He happily returns to the track and promises he will stay on it and be a good engine for ever after, amid the cheers of the citizenry. Dr. Riesman concludes: "The story would seem to be an appropriate one for bringing up children in an other-directed mode of conformity. They leam it is bad to go off the tracks and play with flowers and that, in the long run, there is not only success and approval but even freedom to be found in following the green lights."
In its study of the "space" shows on television, Social Research noted that this same other-directedness is glorified. The team is all-important and the shows' appeal is based, it concluded, on the child's "lack of confidence in his own ability to cope with situations that can be overcome by his 'gang' or 'team.' " The crisis or basic dilemma arises when the individual becomes isolated from his team and has to fight evil alone.
A professional persuader who devotes much of his effort to persuading people to support worthy causes observed that mid-century man is more easily persuaded to "follow as one of a crowd under a leader than to work alone for the same end." (John Price Jones in The Engineering of Consent.) And an M.R. enthusiast at one ad agency pointed out that the public service ad company urging people to "Take somebody to church next Sunday" owed much of its potency in increasing churchgoing to its other-directed appeal.
A picturesque manifestation of this trend to other-directedness can be seen, I suspect, in the small matter of laughter on television. It has been discovered, or purportedly discovered, that people are more apt to laugh and enjoy themselves if they hear other people laughing. Since live audiences are often bothersome or difficult to manage (because of all the cameras, etc.) the trend in TV has been to the canned laugh, a laugh reproduced by recording from some previous happy crowd, or synthetically manufactured. The president of one network defended the canned laugh by stating: "No one likes to laugh alone." An "honestly made laugh track," he said, can project you right into the audience to enjoy the fun.
As a result of this need for canned laughter companies have sprung up selling laughs by the platter, with such labels as "applause"; "applause with whistles"; "applause -- large spirited audience"; and "large audience in continuous hilarity." TV comedy writer Goodman Ace explained how this works when he wrote in The Saturday Review (March 6, 1954): "The producer orders a gross of assorted yaks and boffs, and sprinkles the whole sound track with a lacing of simpering snorts." On another occasion he said that the canned laugh is "woven in wherever the director imagines the joke or situation warrants a laugh. It comes in all sizes and the director has to be a pretty big man who can resist splicing in a roar of glee when only a chuckle would suffice." Among the major shows that have been mentioned as regular users, at one time or another, of the canned, or semi-canned laugh, are the George Burns show and the Ozzie and Harriet show.
With the growing need for synthetic hilarity in precise dosages more refined techniques for producing it were developed. One network engineer invented an organlike machine with six keys that can turn on and off six sizes of laughter from small chuckles to rolling-in-the-aisle guffaws. By using chords the operator can improvise dozens of variations on the six basic quantitative laughs. Also according to Newsweek the producer of the I Love Lucy show developed a machine that can produce one hundred kinds of laughs.
In industry, which is our main concern here, the stress on team playing coincided with the appearance of psychologists and other "social engineers" at the plants and offices. They brought to bear on sticky personnel problems the insights of group dynamics, sociodrama, group psychotherapy, social physics. As Fortune put it: "A bewildering array of techniques and 'disciplines' are being borrowed from the social sciences for one great cumulative assault on the perversity of man." The magazine protested that group-conference techniques had taken such a hold that in some companies executives "literally do not have a moment to themselves." If an employee becomes disaffected by company policy or environment, the social engineers feel it their duty to help him get rid of his mental unhealth. Fortune quoted one social engineer as stating: "Clinical psychologists have had great success in manipulating the maladjusted individual. It seems to me that there is no reason we shouldn't have as much success applying the same techniques to executives."
The growing insistence that management people be "team players" started producing business officials with quite definite personality configurations. This was revealingly indicated by Lyle Spencer, president of Science Research Associates in Chicago, when he made a study of the Young Presidents' Organization. These are men who became presidents of their companies before they were forty. Necessarily, or at least consequently, most of the young presidents are heads of relatively small companies rather than the big ones. In commenting on the personalities of these young presidents Mr. Spencer said, "They are less team players. One thing prevents them from being president of General Motors. They haven't learned to be patient conformists. They have lived too long free wheeling."
The growing trend of companies to screen employees for their team-playing qualities showed itself in a variety of ways. Dun's Review and Modern Industry in February, 1954, stated: "In reference to an applicant for a job or a prospect for promotion: is he the kind of man who will make a good team member, make good. . . . The way the individual fits into the teamwork of industry is so important to management as well as to the individual that what the psychiatrist can tell about the individual becomes important to the group."
Iron Age in an article entitled "Psychology Sifts Out Misfits" told of Armco Steel Corporation's new enthusiasm for psychology, which the journal described as "a fancy word for a technique that lifts the 'iron curtain' that humans often hide i behind. . . ." (Increasingly industrial employees were finding, to use a popular phrase, that they had "no place to hide.") The pay-off for Armco, the journal said, was that the company had been able to cut from 5 to 1 per cent the number of new employees who turned out to have undesirable or borderline personality faults. One of the things employees were tested for at Armco, it said, was "sociability." The report stated that 20,000 employees had been "audited" on their personality traits to determine who would get promotions and assignments to more important jobs.
On the West Coast an electrical association was lectured by a psychologist on how to handle stubborn people. Among the unfortunate traits that characterized these stubborn, unruly people, he said, was that they were "sensitive" and "touchy." He added that it "is unfortunate, time-consuming, and perhaps infantile, but it is often necessary to come up on the blind side" of such people to soothe them.
A personnel executive of Sears, Roebuck in writing a booklet for the guidance of hundreds of thousands of American school youngsters stressed the thought that, "When you take a job you become a member of a working team. . . . Don't expect the rest of the group to adjust to you. They got along fine before you came. It's up to you to become one of them. . . ." As David Riesman observed in another connection, "Some companies, such as Sears, Roebuck, seem to be run by glad handers. . . ."
An indication of the ways the depth approach to employee relations was put to use is seen in these developments. Science Research Associates, Chicago, which has a dozen Ph.D's on its staff, began offering businesses the services of "trained, experienced psychologists and sociologists" for these functions, among others: evaluating candidates for executive positions; finding out what employees think about their jobs and company, evaluating the performances of employees more effectively.
Several companies were reported employing a psychiatrist on a full-time basis. And increasingly employees began being psycho-tested in various ways while on the job. At a Boston department store girl clerks had to wait on customers with the knowledge that a psychologist was somewhere in the background watching them and recording their every action on an instrument called an "interaction chronograph," which recorded data on a tape recorder. The notations made of each girl's talk, smile, nods, gestures while coping with a customer provided a picture of her sociability and resourcefulness.
Industrial psychologists were bringing the depth approach to labor relations. One of the most successful practitioners, Robert McMurry, reportedly received $125 an hour for giving management people fresh insights into the causes of their difficulties with labor. Purportedly when workers join unions they do so to win higher pay, greater job security, and other tangible benefits. Dr. McMurry concluded, after sizing up the situation at more than 100 companies where he had served, that these very often were not the main reasons at all. The more important reason, he decided, was that the workers felt an unconscious urge to improve the emotional climate of their jobs, and often struck just to give vent to unresolved, aggressive impulses. He summed up his "psycho-dynamic" conclusion about the root of much of the trouble he had seen in these memorable words:
"Management has failed to be the kindly protective father, so the union has become the caressing mother who gets things from that stinker of a father." He found that about 5 per cent of all workers were chronic malcontents. Nothing much could be done that would please them. But for the other 95 per cent he felt a great deal could be done by modifying the emotional tone of their place of employment to bring more harmony.
One firm that provides psychological bug-hunting services to industry cited the service it performed in trouble-shooting an employee problem in Ohio. An employer there received the sad, and to him baffling, news that the white collar workers at his plant were so unhappy they were on the verge of joining the factory workers' union. He sent an appeal to the depth-probing firm to find out what was wrong and whether anything could be done to keep these people out of the workers' union. A team of two psychologists and one sociologist cased the plant and asked a good many questions. They found that some of the malcontents were women who worked in a dark, isolated area and felt neglected. Their morale went up when they got Venetian blinds, better lighting, and certain privileges. Other unhappy employees felt lost at their jobs in large departments. When they were divided up into teams, they acquired more identity.
Most of the manipulating of personnel in industry, I should stress, was done to achieve the constructive purpose of making employees happier and more effective at their jobs. Very often this simply involved giving them recognition and individual attention or recognizing that status symbols can become enormously important to a person caught in a highly stratified company, as with the case of a man who had all the seeming status and privileges of his peers but still felt grossly unhappy. Investigation turned up the root cause: his desk had only three drawers while the desks of associates in comparable jobs had four drawers. As soon as he was given a four-drawer desk his grousing ended. Some of the advice given management by psychologists, I should also add, has been in the direction of urging the companies to give employees more freedom and individual responsibility as a means of increasing efficiency. Few of us would argue with that.
The more outright manipulation and depth assessment, interestingly enough, was being done by companies with their own management personnel. Early in the fifties Fortune noted that "nothing more important has happened to management since the war than the fact that many companies have begun to experiment psychologically on their supervisors and top executives." It cited as companies doing this: Standard Oil of New Jersey, Sears, Roebuck, Inland Steel, Union Carbide and Carbon, General Electric. The psychological services provided by management-consulting firms grew apace. The major consulting firm of Stevenson, Jordan and Harrison, for example, had no psychological service until 1940 but by 1945 it had thirty psychologists on the staff. One of those, Perry Rohrer, then departed (reportedly with eighteen staff members) and set up his own firm, which by the early fifties had diagnosed the key personnel of 175 firms. In these early days one of the significant developments was the construction of a depth test (by Burleigh Gardner, Lloyd Warner, and William Henry) for spotting the officials of a company who were the real comers. One crucial trait they must have, they found, was a respectful concept of authority. "He accepts it without resentment. He looks to his superiors as persons of greater training . . . who issue guiding directives to him that he accepts without prejudice." And the report added: "This is a most necessary attitude for successful executives, since it controls their reaction to superiors." The authors proceeded to cite case histories of men who seemed magnificently fitted for leadership but upon psychological analysis were found unfitted because they had poor concepts of authority. One saw his associates "as competitive persons whom he must outwit. He had no clear-cut image of superiors as guiding or directing figures." Another man, alas, had a concept of authority by which he placed himself at the top of the heap: "Unconsciously he felt himself to be better than most of his superiors." That discovery evidently finished him.
Some companies began giving all candidates for executive jobs psychiatric tests such as the Rorschach (ink blot) analysis of their emotional make-up to spot neurotics and potential psychotics. A pencil company which did this reported that it frequently paid off and cited the instance of discovering that one man had a conspicuous tendency to narcissism. He was not dropped but rather given special handling -- all the praise that his self-centered nature seemed to need.
To show its management readers the benefits of a complete psychological analysis of all key officials, Fortune in July, 1950, showed a chart prepared on one company by staff psychologists of Stevenson, Jordan and Harrison. The chart showed graphically -- with dots, blocks, and arrows -- the findings on forty-six top supervisors and executives of the company. Each rating was based on long interviews and testing. Those dots, blocks, and arrows stood for such things as effectiveness in job, emotional adjustment, etc. Their color was what was significant. Colors ranged from blue (outstanding) down through black and yellow to red (just about hopeless).
Not surprisingly the rating for the president of the firm, to whom the report presumably was submitted, was "outstanding" in his effectiveness in present position. Several others had blue dots, too. A reader might start feeling sorry for the comptroller of the company who had a yellow block, black dot, and yellow arrow, which when translated meant: "Below average . . . working at his potential level. . . . Below-average adjustment; requires major development aid." Worst off in the upper level was the director of industrial relations. We should hope he doesn't have ambitions because on the chart he had a red block, arrow, and dot, meaning: "Unsatisfactory in position. . . . Potential worth doubtful. Severe maladjustment; unprofitable to attempt correction."
Once the diagnosis is completed, the report added, the "development" or therapy begins. Said one psychologist of another firm: "To leave a man unaided after he has bared his problems is to invite frustration and confusion." Mr. Whyte, in his book The Organization Man, tells executives how they can outwit the psychological tests by cheating.
Some of the efforts to assess and remold management men are being done under concealed conditions. Psychologists often get at the subject to be appraised or molded at a golf game or over a drink. One of the larger psychological testing services in the United States provides businesses with a special psychological test form specially designed to permit an appraisal of intelligence without the subject's awareness. He thinks it is just a routine form. The head of one psychological testing firm advises me that he is often called upon, where an important promotion is at stake, to assess the prospect without his awareness. He says that one of his standard approaches is to talk with the man after he has had a couple of Martinis so that he can appraise the man's personality while his basic emotionality is closer to the surface.
One psychological technique that came into wide industrial use to modify the behavior and attitudes of key personnel was role playing of two or more officials before an audience of colleagues. Literature of the personnel world contains many references to role playing. The journal Advanced Management carried an enthusiastic description of the benefits of role playing in a 1954 issue. An executive of a large insurance company related: "We needed a motivating device, something with a 'kick.' Role playing looked like the answer. It helps people get their feet wet and at the same time teaches at the emotional level." Before an audience of associates one official would play the role of boss ("counselor") and another the role of subordinate ("counselee") while they discussed the subordinate's behavior or problem. What the boss didn't know was that the play subordinate had gotten a "hidden briefing" on how he was supposed to perform in the interview. As the official enthusiastically explained: "Here we slipped in a 'kicker' -- a motivation not known to the counselor." The official cautioned management men that such hidden briefing "is not to be advised if the counselor is uninitiated or sensitive. It can be rough on him." But he was enthusiastic about this "trial by fire" technique of indoctrination and exulted that it is the "sort of stuff you can't get from books."
Even a man's home life at many companies began being scrutinized to see if it conformed to the best interests of the "team" or company. A business writer for The New York Herald-Tribune reported in the early fifties on the great man hunt for qualified executives that was being carried on by professional recruiting firms which had come into existence for this specialized purpose. He related some of the qualities they were looking for in the modern executive and said, "Another point of equal importance is the wife. That is being emphasized more and more. Professional man hunters place family adjustment high in job qualifications. The same story is being told by all firms in this field, including Ward Howell, Handy Associates, Inc., Ashton Dunn Associates, Inc., Boyden Associates, Inc., or Sorzano, Antell and Wright. Important men may not be recommended for higher priced jobs because the wives may be too flirtatious or she may not drink her cocktails too well, or she may be an incorrigible gossip. Investigations in this respect are quite thorough."
Psychological consultant James Bender advises me that a major producer of cellucotton products asked him to help set up a manpower program built around wives. He said that before the company hires an executive or salesman the man's wife is interviewed, as the last step before the hiring decision is made. It is a mutual sizing up, he explained. The wife is apprised of what the job may mean in terms of demands on the family life and inconveniences such as moving, husbands being away a good deal, etc. He said that in a few cases wives after the interview have persuaded the husband not to take the job. "And in a few other cases we have decided -- after sizing up the wife -- not to hire the husband."
Some of the companies tend to look at the wife as a possible rival to them for the man's devotion. Fortune, in a remarkable article in October, 1951, detailed the growing role of the wife in company thinking. It surveyed executives across the nation and quoted one executive as saying mournfully: "We control a man's environment in business and we lose it entirely when he crosses the threshold of his home. Management therefore has a challenge and an obligation deliberately to plan and create a favorable, constructive attitude on the part of the wife that will liberate her husband's total energies for the job."
What were the main traits corporations should look for in the wife? Fortune continued: "Management knows exactly what kind of wife it wants. With a remarkable uniformity of phrasing, corporation officials all over the country sketch the ideal. In her simplest terms she is a wife who is (1) highly adaptable, (2) highly gregarious, (3) realizes her husband belongs to the corporation."
The Harvard Business Review put the demands of the corporation even more vividly in carrying a report on a study of 8,300 executives made by Lloyd Warner and James Abeg-glen. It stated that the mid-century American wife of an executive "must not demand too much of her husband's time or interest. Because of his single-minded concentration on his job, even his sexual activity is relegated to a secondary place."
Becoming a successful team player clearly can have its joyless aspects. In July, 1954, a magazine published primarily for businessmen, Changing Times, took a look at the "World of Tomorrow." By tomorrow it meant a decade hence, 1964. It explained that big business, big government, and big unions would tend to level people down to a common denominator where it will be harder for a man "to be independent, individualistic, his own boss." An upper level of scientists, engineers, and businessmen will pretty much run business and industry. It then explained: "They themselves will be more highly trained technically and less individualistic, screened for qualities that will make them better players on the team. . . . Almost everybody will have to go through extensive psychological and aptitude screening. No longer may the bearded scientist fiddle with retorts in his cubbyhole. . . ."
Perhaps that day when there would be no place for an individualist to hide was not as far off in the future as Changing Times seemed to assume. At graduation time in 1956 Newsweek ran the results of a survey on what kind of college graduates (especially traits) industrial recruiters were looking for. It reported that the words "dynamic conformity" kept cropping up as the recruiters outlined their specifications, and explained:
"Industry's flesh merchants shy off the bookwormy . . . and the oddball. 'We'd rather have a Deke than a Phi Beta Kappa,' they report. 'Let the freaks go into research.'"
Even there, in research, apparently, they shouldn't assume they can go off in some retreat by themselves. "Team research" is the coming thing.