Many Boeing employees are greeting the company’s centenary with a mix of pride in its innovative legacy and deep concern about recent trends and what these portend for the future.
Over the 20 years of our workplace study of Boeing, employees repeatedly told us that the culture changed, often for the worse. Boeing transformed from a “family-like” company that valued its employees to one that treated them like “disposable commodities.” In response, many employees became disengaged and disenchanted.
Looking ahead, we wonder if companies with seemingly large numbers of dissatisfied, distrustful and disengaged workers can enjoy continued success.
A tempting response is: “maybe yes.” After all, despite the bad blood and the union-management conflicts at Boeing, its order book is full and its profits and share price are near record levels.
This may lead top executives to believe that the importance of corporate culture on company performance has been oversold. What’s needed, they may surmise, is tough, hard-nosed management, using a mix of incentives and fear, to induce the required effort from their workforces.
Boeing provides good wages and benefits (though these are under threat) and generous education and training opportunities. These are attractive inducements to do one’s job competently enough and to stay at the company. And when needed, management can resort to actual and threatened movement of jobs to achieve its objectives.
Technological shifts may also be convincing company leaders that workplace culture will matter less in the future. As robots and digitization make work more routine, management may only worry about motivating the top 10 percent who design and develop these technological systems.
Companies also may be banking on generational turnover. Our research showed signs among recent Boeing hires that the new “bottom line” corporate ethos increasingly meshes with the the expectations of millennials. They seem to have more self-reliant, individualistic attitudes than the baby boomers they’re replacing and may worry less about the loss of family culture.
There is also the fact that workers often can and do find space, even in the most hierarchical organizations, to inject their own meaning and purpose into their work lives. Many Boeing workers are angry as outsourcing increases their insecurity and erodes the core competencies that made Boeing a leader in aerospace innovation.
Yet many also speak about pride in their work, and in seeing planes they’ve helped build flying overhead. Others find meaning in mentoring younger colleagues or relish the challenge of designing sophisticated machines made of thousands of parts. In other words, they find ways to bracket their feelings about top management and still do quality work.
But while financial results at companies like Boeing suggest they can succeed in the short run, there are concerns in the longer view associated with not nurturing worker-friendly cultures. The global business model Boeing adopted for the 787, with its resulting delays, billions in cost overruns and disregard for “tribal” knowledge, may seriously hamper Boeing’s ability to invest, innovate and compete in the future.
And while relying on the goodwill of employees has papered over some of the morale problems, one-fifth of the staff who responded to our survey said they work to their full potential only 50 percent of the time. Others increasingly see Boeing as “just a paycheck” and would readily move to other firms.
And millennials will age, form families and settle down, making it likely they too will seek more job security and a healthier work environment.
Financial numbers tell part of a company’s story. But our research suggests there are real (though difficult to measure) benefits in having a stable, experienced, harmonious and committed workforce —benefits that, in the long run, are likely to affect a company’s competitive and financial performance.
To achieve those benefits and ensure continued success, workers tell us, requires a culture that shows a company respects and truly values its employees.
Leon Grunberg is professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma. He wrote this in conjunction with co-researcher Sarah Moore, professor of psychology at UPS.