33: Foreman – Master and Victim of Doubletalk

To open Season 4, this episode covered Fritz J. Roethlisberger’s classic 1945 article from Harvard Business Review (HBR), “The FOREMAN: Master and Victim of Double Talk.” The article resulted from a study concerning the dissatisfaction of foremen in mass production industries at the time. Foremen suffered under low pay and poor wartime working conditions. Meanwhile, management addressed the foremen’s concerns through short-sighted “symptom-by-symptom” corrective actions to little effect. As a result, foremen were leaning toward unionization, while management found itself unable to keep pace with the social implications of rapidly advancing technologies on the supervisory structure.

Fritz Roethlisberger

Roethlisberger’s essential question was this: “Can management afford not to take responsibility for its own social creations – one of which is the situation foremen find themselves?” The foreman had to lead workers toward fulfilling production requirements under increasingly complex conditions, requiring greater knowledge and skill than foremen past and yet under intensifying restrictions to their autonomy and decision making, along with a wider network of supervisors and administrative staff that the foreman must report to.

The result were conditions where the foremen became insecure due to micromanagement and being held liable for problems or issues beyond their control. The foreman could not avoid these interactions, and thus was forced to “become a master of double talk,” advising superiors of the situation at the front in ways that avoided or mitigated criticism from them. Thus, the foreman also became a victim of double talk, of a ballooning culture that saw employees as little more than cogs in the machine and foremen as barely more, yet the foremen still had to “deliver the goods.” Roethlisberger’s account of the foremen’s conditions and the roles they play in the firm are compelling and troublesome indeed, and led him to recommend an entirely new form of administrative structure with administrators being far more connected to the workers and serving as enablers to the foremen.

 “The FOREMAN: Master and Victim of Double Talk” continues to be popular in reprints and HBR considers it a classic of the journal. It also represents a recurring challenge for firms facing disruptive technologies or their rapid evolution – how do administrators keep pace with the social changes that result, so that direct supervisors remain enabled and empowered?

Join us as we talk about the article and its implications for present-day managers and firms!
Note: Scroll down further to see a Figure from the text that we referenced often.

You may also download the audio files here:  Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 

Read with us:

Roethlisberger, Fritz J. “The foreman: Master and victim of double talk.” Harvard Business Review 23.3 (1945): 283-298.

To know more:

Storberg-Walker, J., & Bierema, L. (2006). “Another look at a historical foundation of HRD: F.R. Roethlisberger’s foreman.” Paper presented at the AERC, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Figure 1. Forces Impinging Upon the Foreman (from the original text)