The Art of Handling Men

James H. Collins in Saturday Evening Post September 1 1907

The Art of Handling Men

James H. Collins in Saturday Evening Post September 1 1907

The Art of Handling Men

By James H. Collins in Saturday Evening Post

IN a Ouida or Corelli novel there is usually a point at which the tall, blond hero, erect as a Greek god, appears in the wild mountain pass, breasting the raging thunderstoom, and raps at the monastery gate for shelter.

The hero wants more than shelter. He is weary of life—bored with the world—blase. He wants a solitary retreat far from the maddening crowd. A mysterious burden rests on his soul. The good monks see this the moment they let him in the outer portal, and respect his reserve by maintaining silence.

The hero is tired of life partly because he has been everywhere and seen everything. But there is more than that. He has also become sated with his knowledge of men. Perfidy of man as he has found them—that is his ailment. He has looked men over in all lands and environments, from formal London drawing-rooms to the Bedouin in his tent. He finds them a pretty poor lot. They have sickened his soul. And so we discover him making his way against the thunderstorm in the Far Carpathians.

“Zip ! Ker-rip !” goes the lightning. “Boom! Bang! Boom!” echoes the thunder. But when it comes to a choice between untamed elements and the perfidy of men the tall, blond hero doesn’t hesitate a moment. Give him the elements.

Thousands have read this glorious stuff, their happiness not marred by the two tiny bits of external evidence that vitiate it—first, that Ouida and Miss Corelli are both ladies; second, that they are maiden ladies.

Alas for good, stirring romance ! The men who come most widely into contact with men as God made them have the most optimism on the subject, and seldom take to the hills.

Not long ago Judge Cowing retired after twenty-eight years on the Bench

in New York City. He had tried fifty thousand criminal cases, sent three murderers to the electric chair and six. to the gallows, put firebugs, thugs and swindlers in prison for terms aggregating many centuries. He had sat in judgment on the lowest of men in their least attractive circumstances, dissecting diseased character, probing vicious motives. Yet he finished it all a kind, elderly man, and said he thought, on the whole, both men and the world were growing better—population grows faster than crime.

For sixteen years the watchman of a New York bakery has dealt' out half-loaves of bread at midnight to a line of from three hundred to seven hundred outcasts. “Captain” Henry’s opportunities to sicken of humanity have been exceptional. He ought to be tall and blond like a Greek god, and should have taken to the Carpathians long ago. In temperament, however, and also in physique, “Captain” Henry probably resembles no one so much as Santa Claus.

Testimony of policemen, ambulance surgeons, charity workers and prison officials all go for the same thing. The more one sees of even the worst of men at close range, the better one likes his kind. It is the exquisite who acquires a morbid dislike for humanity, and it has to be cultivated at long range.

How much does a man have to know about men to manage them ?

Or can they be handled by a routine system regardless of the human quality—managed with a card index?

Is it true, as the cynic asserts, that men have to be moved by springs of self-interests, through their pockets and stomachs?

Every thousand men is likely to show one who is regarded as a born master of his kind. Every generation produces a few masters, and once in an age comes a Napoleon. How

much of this capacity is really inborn ? How much can be acquired.

These are very serious questions to-day in our industrial civilization. Where once industrial life crystallized in small groups, and the master worked with his men and knew them, now we have gigantic masses of workers that compare with large armies. The Pennsylvania Railroad has one hundred and ninety thousand employes—more than were engaged on both sides at Austerlitz. With their families they would populate St. Louis and Cleveland. The Steel Trust has an organization more than four-fifths the military peace footing of Great Britain. In many ways the new order is an improvement. Sociologists, for instance, regard the sweatshop as a relic of the old industrial life, and look to the new to abolish it. But these great organizations have grown so fast that much of the personality, the human contact between master and man, has been eliminated. The problem to-day is to restore that element. Hundreds of corporation presidents, manufacturers, transportation officials and merchants are experimenting upon it, each in his own way.

It is not too strong an assertion to say that fifty per cent, of all the labor troubles grow out of purely human issues. If a strike results, the demand may be for shorter hours or more pay. Yet this is often merely the economic expression of a purely human grievance—“ten cents more a day” gives a better face to “discharge the foreman.” The hundreds of labor troubles that never come to a strike—the sort that are being dealt with more effectively every day—are even more largely based on human issues, and settled on that basis.

A strike descredits organization. It may culminate in an economic demand, but it indicates that human touch has been lost somewhere between the head of an organization and its hands. In pathology this nervous disorder is called “lack of co-ordination.” Unjust working conditions, favoritism, tyranny of petty bosses have gone on unknown for months. Suddenly comes industrial war, with

its immense bill to pay in money, comfort and even life, with a civilization tied hand and foot to its routine. Settlement means overhauling the organization on a human basis, man to man.

Matters are further complicated in this country by race problems. Get together a force of one thousand men nowadays in America, especially in the east, and you have a very comprehensive ethnological exhibit. None of the big contractors, would be at all astonished if a blue-painted Piet applied for work on a tunnel or foundation job. Carry the principle up among the salaried workers and the raw material is just as diversified, even when more refined.

A man born with the gift of managing men seldom has difficulty in selling it. A census of the great industrial executives would show that threefourths have this, knack, or have approximated it. Most of them began where they handled a force of men, kept it running peacefully (the various races working in accord), and advanced records of production.

Abraham Lincoln wanted ability in his cabinet and stepped over party lines to get it. Two of its seven members, Seward and Chase, had looked for the Republican nomination of i860, and both underrated Lincoln. Stanton, the fiery Democrat, not only underrated but despised him, and had humiliated him years before. All three were temperamentally opposed to one another, and each of the trio went to Washington in 1861 expecting that Lincoln would be a figurehead, and he the power behind the throne. Without humiliating these able men, Lincoln showed, within a month, that he was master. He could have crushed the idol Seward with documents of his own writing; those documents never saw the light till both were dead. He kept the heavy, earnest Chase in harness, despite ingrained antipathy, and the bear, Stanton, virtually worked out his lifeenergy caged in the War Department.

Was this power of mastery born in Lincoln ?

It is said Mr. Schwab’s personality

is so magnetic that the day he visited a steel plant its output increased. It is also said that Mr. Corey, another head of the Steel Trust, is so striking ly opposite in this respect that his visit might mean a decrease. Corey started in the laboratory. Schwab began as a stake-driver. Corey superintended mills, but his disposition was to number men. Schwab called them “Bill” and “George.”

Is Schwab’s power inborn ? Has some mysterious element of personality been denied to Corey?

Ask the executives of great manufacturing, transportation and mercantile organizations, and they will commonly say: “Yes, some men have it, and some haven’t, and that’s all there is to the matter.”

Watch laborers and mechanics rise, one after the other, to be tried as foremen. Some pass this first peak of promotion easily and are off up a long grade to larger responsibilities. Others sink back in a few weeks through incapacity, vanity, lack of aggressiveness, lack of tact and generalship. See the youngsters brought from college and set over a handful of men. Some bring them together as a teamster gets a united, even pull from sixteen horses, while others flee in a few days as if from a hell.

Men who have this gift are not often able to deduce any principles from it. Men who haven’t are certain there can be none. “Only one thing is absolutely sure,” said an old superintendent. “When you find a man that makes good in this way he is usually an Irishman.”

But an examination of the methods of men who handle men seems to show that there are really basic principles. The ideal manager over a big working force is generally warm-blooded, offhand in speech, and lives among his men. Being “out on the job” at all seasons is a vital part of mastery— some famous contractors can handle men in evening clothes so long as they can be on the job. But deduct this human quality, and much is still left.

President Winter, of the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Co., says there are three principles. Before men will work for

you they must understand: first, that you are going to be boss ; second, that you know your job and theirs; third, that you are square. He is an experienced railroader, a Westerner, and now has 14,000 men under him, operating more than 250 miles of street railway. One of the penalties of a high corporation position, he says, is that you lose the close contact with men—for ten years he hasn’t been as close as he wanted to be.

The problem of how to be boss is almost invariably the first one met with and mastered. It is very often solved by a fist-fight in actual practice, or, if physical prowess is not called into play, there is a battle of character against character. Secretary Seward so thoroughly misjudged Lincoln that he drew up a complete administrative and foreign policy of his own and sent it to the president. Lincoln met Seward with a letter containing little but courtesy and expressions of appreciation; Seward’s policy was even commended in part and the offensive portions disregarded. But the hand of iron was there, and Seward wrote to his wife : “Executive skill and vigor are rare qualities ; the president is the best of us.” Schwab took charge of the Carnegie plant after the Homestead strike, when it was disorganized and an inferno of hatred. His fighting strength lay in optimism, and he turned this misdirect energy into the production of steel. The basis for warfare was there, but the actual fight was made on character.

Introduce a new head or sub-head into any working force, from a halfdozen bindery girls to a railroad division, and that force instinctively braces itself for a trial of strength with the newcomer. Then follows a shock, and one or the other wins. There can be no compromise. The new superintendent may display ability by instantly singling out a group of malcontents for discharge. He may isolate a nasty little group of grievances and abolish them. “When I was in the railroad business,” says one corporation executive, “I kept an eye out for trouble and adjusted it.” Being an acute “trouble man” is a

large factor in management. Many an executive is treating symptoms, never finding the seat of the disease. A large engraving plant had a halfdozen strikes in two years. Each was settled, but trouble soon came again. The proprietor was certain discontent had become blind and chronic. A “business' doctor” came into this plant, overhauled its system, righted some obscure evils, introduced a profit-sharing plan, and there has been no trouble since. Complaints and grievances cropped out like boils in a Massachusetts factory, and finally a regular “hospital” had to be established for their treatment in the shape of an arbitration committee of the hands. At the start, this committee was very busy. All the energy of the plant seemed to run to “jawing.” But complaints became fewer and fewer, and now this committee is a safety-valve that diverts all undue pressure.

Knowing your job and theirs is part of the art of being boss. Until men recognize that a foreman, superintendent or manager is master of his business, he will get neither sympathy nor respect. Being square with employes is as important and far more difficult. It is easy enough to deal out justice to men under your eye. But how can it be managed over a system of 11,000 miles of railroad, or in a department store where the distance between the proprietor and some of his people is so great that one of them may starve to death without his knowing it until the newspapers begin to castigate him? Such a case happened in New York a few years ago, and to-day every employe of that merchant is required to keep at home a postal card, addressed to the store, upon which a report of sickness must be mailed.

Arbitration is glibly recommended as a universal panacea for labor troubles. It is a fine theory. It works well in practice, too. But it doesn’t fit all cases or classes of men. There is a vast difference between the indoor force of a great store and the outdoor force that puts up a skyscraper.

The human touch in some organizations is a real element because these

organizations are stable. Men come into them and stay because the work calls for skill, wages are good, employment is steady all year round, and there are promotions for exceptional ability. But how is human touch to be established and maintained in an organization of 15,000 street car men, for instance, drawn from a restless city population, migratory by instinct ? Twice as many trainmen are needed in summer as in winter. The work is of a character that requires a not very high degree of skill, with consequent smaller pay, and a thousand and more outside demands for men are also eating up the organization.

How are petty bosses to be controlled? President Vreeland, of the New York surface car lines, says that wonders may be worked through firmness and intelligent sympathy with men by an executive who knows the kind of lives they lead, the anxieties that they carry about, the ambitions they have for themselves and their families. But to find petty bosses with this sympathy is a crucial matter. For lack of them many a system breaks its own weight. A force of 15,000 men must be estimated in the mass for so many potential units of production. Select subordinates unwisely, and the force will not produce normally.

In a Boston store where a board of arbitration sits on the appeal of every discharged employe, two-thirds of those who appeal are reinstated because it is found that subordinates have been unjust or worked out a grudge. When the late Colonel Waring took charge of the New York street cleaning department, his thousands of sweepers and drivers had known nothing but a system of political pulls in righting grievances. He introduced the practice of hearing appeals on discharge cases. In a short time he was hearing very little else. Thereupon he issued an order establishing a “committee of 41,” each sweeping section, dump and stable electing a member. A meeting place was provided, and the committeemen’s wages went on while they sat. This committee held three meetings a month to hear appeals, deciding about half.

Those that could not be decided were referred to a “board of conference,” made up of five men elected by the committee and five from Waring’s office. It sat once a month.

At the first meeting a sweeper was made chairman and one of the commissioner’s men secretary. “Look out for Waring—it’s one of his tricks,” said the politicians. But the sweepers themselves saw the justice of the system, and, whenever a malcontent rose in their ranks, they converted or eliminated him. In the first year, out of 345 cases the committee settled 221. Of 124 passed to the board, 22 fines were reduced or remitted, 13 sustained ; 8 discharged employes were reinstated and 17 denied reinstatement. Twenty-four practical suggestions for improvement of the service also came up through this committee. The presence of a committeeman in each section of the service acted as a check on foremen and even reduced the use of profanity.

These are a few ways in which the principle of “Be square” is worked out in actual practice. All over the United States to-day are found others, devised to fit individual needs. The element of personality enters into all of them, but results are largely secured through attention to plain matters of justice. Employers formerly fought attempts at arbitration on a purely sentimental basis. Their men came with a grievance and a demand. “Nobody but me shall run this business,” was the reply, and immediately the issue was made a matter of stubbornness. But to-day the disposition is to take up these questions in about the same businesslike way that is followed in buying new machinery or raw materials.

As the element of sentimentality is eliminated, demands of workmen become fewer in number and are presented in a more businesslike spirit. Yet such methods of keeping the line open from the humblest employe right up to the chief are still complicated in a number of ways.

The Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company investigates even the appeal of the man whose application for employ-

ment has been denied. President Winter took up such an appeal from his desk the other day to illustrate this point, and found it was the application of a Hebrew who charged that he had been excluded on racial lines. The real cause lay in his physical disability. But his appeal was not denied until that had been made certain. An employe with a grievance can sometimes take his case right up to the president, and even past the president to the board of directors. But good judgment must be exerted, or subordinates would be weakened in authority. Appeals often take on a complex nature.

In his railroading days Mr. Winter had the case of an engineer who was discharged as the outcome of a wreck. The engineer appealed on the ground that a lever on his engine was out of order, preventing application of brakes. The case was clouded by technical difficulties, and went from chief to chief, until finally a committee of the Brotherhood came to the president. He settled it by inducing the committee to go over the evidence and give a decision. This verdict he agreed to abide by. The committee did so, and decided against the engineer.

In the past few years there has grown up among employers a wide interest in what is termed “welfare work.” The Civic Federation maintains a bureau through which information about such work is spread. Welfare work includes almost everything that is done for the comfort of employes, from supplying clean drinking water to installing a profitsharing or pension system. Its primary object is to get better service through contentment and health of employes. But the secondary object is that of getting acquainted with them.

One railroad president is said to put on jumpers once or twice a month and walk through the yards at his chief terminal, sometimes giving a hand in the roundhouse, again riding around on a shifting engine, but always observing and chatting. His men first regarded him as harmless.

Now they regard him as a friend.

Another railroader says he can’t do much with men until he knows them, and can’t know much about a man until he has seen his wife and family. This is a spirit that seems to be growing at a rapid rate among executives, and accounts for the social features that sprout out of welfare work, such as dinners, dances and lectures. One industrial president in the Middle West carries a photographer with him when he goes on a foreign vacation, has stereopticon slides made when he comes home, and lectures to his employes on “The Homes of the Pharaohs” or “Europe as I Found It.” Probably nobody would care to pay to get into one of his lectures.. But that isn’t the point. President Ralph Peters, of the Long Island Railroad, holds a reception in his office the first week in the year, and any worker on the road who can arrange his schedule is welcome to come in and shake the “Old Man’s” hand. The annual dinner to employes is becoming a fixed feast in our industrial life, and plays the same purpose as the executive’s occasional dinner to his official family. This may be an attempt to restore the close contact that existed between master and men when the latter lived at their employer’s table. But what an advance over the “living-in” system still exists in England !

The publication of monthly magazines for employes is another means of getting acquainted, infusing spirit into an organization, letting the men out on the tracks, the yards, the engines know what the front office is doing. The Erie Railroad has one, and each employe is entitled to a copy with his pay envelope. It records the live news of the whole system. An-

other element in handling men is attention to their personal finance problems. It was necessary in the past to bring about weekly payment of wages by law. There is still an amazing amount of pig-headedness in this matter, and too little attention to the worker’s desire to have his pay every Saturday night. But many employers have inaugurated profit-sharing systems and enable their men to buy stock below the market price, with installment payments. How far a little attention goes in this direction is shown in the padrone system, for which there is little but condemnation. The padrone enslaves newly-arrived Italians and charges them enormous commissions for finding work, and high rents for the tenements they live in. But the following experience of the New York street cleaning department shows that there is also a thick gilding to his fetters.

Until 1896 it was the custom in this department to draw upon padrones for the large extra force needed in cleaning up a big snowstorm. The padrone furnished young, robust men in any quantity at $1.50 apiece per day. What he paid was a matter between them and himself. But each man got his money for his day’s work every night from the padrone and the latter waited weeks for the lump payment that came through the slow channels of the city government. Labor agitators fastened on this system and a law was passed requiring the city to pay two dollars a day for snow shovelers, and to hire only naturalized citizens, after physical examination. It was difficult to get men under the new law, and the slow system of city payment made the padrone system preferable.