| One of the great perks
I looked forward to when I turned sixteen was being able
to give up my paper route and get a regular job. Paper
routes are okay, but for a young, timid kid who was afraid
to ask for money, it often proved to be a non-profit operation.
At age sixteen, I could get a social security number,
which meant that I could go get myself a real job.
The first day of summer vacation that year, I retired
from the paper route that had been in my family for nearly
a decade (passed down brother to brother) and I became
a free agent. I had always wanted to be a carpenter. I
don't know if it was because I just liked the idea of
working with wood, or if the ability to use noisy, masculine
tools like a hammer and a power saw just made me feel
more like a man, but, at sixteen, I saw carpentry as the
I didn't have much of a plan, so I simply drove around
to different construction sites that I found on the outskirts
of Greensboro, North Carolina. I would walk around the
site, telling whoever I saw I was looking for a job, and
eventually, just like an alien is always directed to the
leader of a country after deplaning from his flying saucer,
I would end up talking to the foreman on the site.
In North Carolina at that time, there were no construction
unions; hence, almost anyone who owned a hammer and a
screwdriver could call himself a carpenter and have a
fair chance of getting hired. Minimum wage was $1.25 an
hour; most "unknown" workers, however, started even lower.
One Mr. O.J. Wray decided to take a chance and hired me
at $1.10 an hour to work as a finish carpenter's helper.
I actually didn't even own a hammer at that point.
When O.J. told me my job title, at first I imagined working
alongside a journeyman carpenter as his apprentice, and
learning the skills of the ages. (Why, I bet by the end
of the summer I would probably know enough to build my
own house! My mom would be very proud.) What I found out,
though, was that a helper basically was assigned to do
hard or dirty jobs others didn't want.
Initially, I cleared out leftovers from inside the house
and piled them in scrap heaps, swept dust from the floors,
and cleaned out corners where "other carpenters" had taken
a pee -- with only occasional chances to work with anyone
who actually made things from wood.
One morning, I was finally given a chance to advance my
skills. O.J. needed someone to put down the plywood under-flooring
for linoleum that was to be laid in a kitchen and dining
room. O.J. was not given to wasting words or time. He
told me to bring my tools (by this time I had acquired
a hammer, a nail set, and a screwdriver) and follow him
to another house in a nearby development, where O.J. gave
me my first taste of on-the-job training.
In the house, we found a stack of A-D grade, 1/2-inch
fir plywood, along with a box of 8-penny, cement-coated
nails. O.J. slid a sheet of plywood off the top of the
stack, moved it in position along one wall and sank nails
every four inches around the edge and every eight inches
through the middle, permanently bonding it to the 1-by-4
fir sub-flooring. I was amazed how he rarely took more
than two blows of the hammer to drive a nail, one to set
and one to sink, with no apparent effort. When he had
me do it, I took about ten hits with the hammer for each
After taking a little time out to ridicule my hammer technique,O.J.
took a look at the pile of plywood, noticing that the
good, or "A," side of the next piece was up and that the
"D" side (with all the knotholes) was down. He gave me
explicit instructions: "Take that plywood off the stack
just as it sits -- do NOT turn it over."
O.J. left me there alone to finish laying the kitchen
and dining area that morning, before lunch. Although it
bothered me when I saw that many of the sheets had knotholes
showing on the top, I was desperate to prove I could do
a good job, just as I had been told, and I wasn't about
to turn one of the sheets over and get chewed out for
it. I assumed that O.J. knew something about the wood
that I couldn't comprehend, and that the holes in the
top didn't really matter once the matting and linoleum
were laid over them.
To avoid the ugly part of this story, just let me say
that it took me three days to get up what only took me
three hours to put down. I learned a great respect for
cement-coated nails. Using a crowbar, each sheet of the
fir plywood came up in small pieces, and most of the nails
had to be pulled out separately.
of the largest morale breakers you can have in an
organization is a manager who gives an employee
an unsolvable problem.
What made it worse for me, though, was the shame and unfairness.
O.J. had come back late in the day to see what I had done.
He assumed that I had ignored his instructions about turning
the plywood over, and he never deigned to speak to me
directly again. Instead, he talked about me to the other
carpenters, ridiculing my skills and intelligence.
The other carpenters, of course, wouldn't believe my protests
about doing just as I had been instructed; they simply
smiled and shook their heads when I tried to explain.
I ached for the chance to explain myself to O.J., but
he never even acknowledged my presence after that event.
The humiliation was so bad, the next rainy day I left
and went looking for another job.
O.J. made several mistakes. Obviously, he failed to explain
to me his goal, or aim, of creating a perfectly smooth
surface for the linoleum, so that holes and gaps would
not show through the flooring later on. Secondly, he wrongly
assumed that all the "A" sides of the plywood faced up.
Old O.J. jumped to the conclusion that because the first
three sheets of the stack had the "A", or smooth side,
up, that all the rest of the sheets shared the same orientation.
In fact, they did not; most of them had the "D" side up,
with lots of voids where knotholes had fallen out.
But an overarching mistake, and one that was a little
less visible (but more endemic throughout the business
and government world) was that he "overconstrained" the
problem. Left to my own intelligence, even without telling
me to put the smooth side up, I would have flipped over
the plywood that was upside down, just because it looked
bad to me. But, because he constrained me with explicit
directions not to turn the plywood over, and because I
had no direct access to him to challenge this constraint
when it became a problem, I was unable to solve the problem
using my own brain.
I have seen this situation of over-constraining a problem
by absent decision makers, preventing its solution, played
out over and over in many organizations. To me, this is
a form of delegating responsibility without authority.
This paradox is also a predominant source of stress at
work, and is perhaps one of the largest morale breakers
you can have in an organization: a manager who gives an
employee an unsolvable problem.
In my early days of running a division and having my own
employees, I'm sad to say that I emulated that behavior
more than once. At the time, I rationalized it. Now, I
know how wrong I was, and how I may have ruined the morale
of employees who only wanted to do good work. I recognize
that almost every time I didn't get what I wanted from
an employee, it was because they didn't understand what
I really expected from them, they didn't understand how
to provide it, or there were constraints placed on them
that stopped them from doing a good job.
I am sure O.J. is long dead and gone. He wasn't young
when I worked for him. I think he would have been amazed
to learn what a long-lasting effect his behavior that
week in 1963 had on me.
|Read more about career development:
Ray Morgan is head of Morgan Aircraft & Consulting
and a senior technical advisor to NASA. He has published
several articles in ASK Magazine. His most previous
Charts Take Precedence," appeared in Issue 11. Along
with Scott Tibbitts, Morgan joins W. Scott Cameron and
Terry Little as feature writers for ASK, who will
now appear in alternate issues.