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Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Postal Happiness
By T.L. Righter, July 2002
It's the 21st century, yet the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) still manages its workforce and its workload using early 20th century principles of management. These management techniques worked well in the crude labor and manufacturing environments of the Industrial Revolution. They, however, do not work well for a 21st century Postal Service and a 21st century labor force.

Douglas McGregor, in his book the Human Side of Enterprise, presented two contrasting styles of management - Theory X and Theory Y. Each theory, used knowingly or unknowingly by most organizations, represents a differing regard of the worker (by the organization) and how the worker responds to a certain style of management.

Theory X assumes that man basically does not like to work, is lazy, unambitious, uncreative, and works only for his self-interests. Thusly, management must utilize strict controls and the threat of punishment to force and insure worker productivity. Sound familiar? Theory Y assumes that man has an inherent desire to work, is creative and enterprising, and works to fulfill inner drives. Managers would thusly motivate workers by promoting individual autonomy, increasing worker responsibility, and by attempting to make the work environment as satisfying and fulfilling as possible. (As most postal workers know, this theory has nothing to do with the U.S. Postal Service.) The Theory X style of management, bolstered by Frederick Taylor's Scientific Principles of Management which timed workers to the hundredth of a second, was prevalent before World War II. During the latter half of the 20th century, many companies began to see the advantages of a well-motivated and well-regarded workforce.

For many postal workers, Theory X is alive and well in the U.S. Postal Service. It is alive and well because it works. It's ugly, but it works - at least for the USPS and its bottom line. A Theory X approach is the easiest way to control a large and highly decentralized workforce that must accomplish repetitive and menial (but important) tasks.

Unfortunately, there is a large human toll that is exacted in such a system. Stress, revenge, anxiety, and despair are rampant. Conflict between management and craft employees is built into the system. Worker grievances and EEO complaints are rampant and costly (in both human and financial terms). Women postal workers, despite mandates and proclamations from USPS Headquarters, are still being sexually harassed in the system. Ultimately, the system has led to revenge killings that have prompted the term "Going Postal".  As for work processes, postal workers have very little say in how they accomplish their jobs. Each new day brings a new control and threat of punishment in how they do their jobs. There has to be a better way.

Postal workers, to say the least, are not happy campers. They're just as disgruntled in Miami as in New York as in Seattle. Want proof? Then read some of the feedback at PostalWorkersOnline.com. Read the various discussion boards and the editorials. There are few, if any, messages, letters, and such that state how happy postal workers are with their jobs. There are, however, overriding themes in all of this feedback - anger, despair, and conflict in the workplace are all very evident.

PostalWorkersOnline.com receives pleas for help daily via email. Employees are being abused, harassed, sexually harassed, ignored, treated inhumanely, etc. etc., - and they want and need assistance. Sure, some of the stories don't exactly contain the whole truth, but that's part of the picture. These people are disgruntled nevertheless. Moreover there's plenty of blame to spread around. Some craft employees are just as guilty as some management employees in this workplace farce.

Craft employees could blame these problems on those "dastardly managers", and managers could blame these problems on those "sneaky carriers and clerks". But the underlying problem is the overlying use of the Theory X style of management.

Theory X pervades the system. City letter carriers, for example, are not positively motivated to get their jobs done faster - the longer they work the more they get paid. Thusly, the only control to excessive workhours is the threat of punishment. Conflict is built into the system because of the inherent incompatibility between carrier and management goals. Why would any company have a system where employee goals and management goals are totally opposite? It's not surprising that city letter carriers, (and some of their supervisors), are some of the most disgruntled American workers you can ever meet. Postal clerks, similarly, are almost as disgruntled. For example, soon after Wal-Mart started referring to their employees as "Associates" the USPS thought it would be a great idea to refer to its clerks as "Associates". Make them part of the "Postal Team" by referring to them as Associates, so the USPS thought. However, the military can call innocent people killed by errant bombs as "collateral damage", but the truth remains these people were maimed, killed, are dead, and are no longer living. The Postal Service can call its Window Clerks "Associates". But then it will turn right around and order the Window Clerks (Associates) to dishonestly recommend Priority Mail (at $3.50) as "the best value" for mailing a flat instead of a First Class rate of .55 cents. And then the USPS will threaten its "Associate" with punishment if the Window Clerk (Associate) does not recommend the higher rate to the American public.

The United States Postal Service is one of the last large, institutionalized companies in America that uses the Theory X style of management. Though some of the factory work in America that bred the Theory X style has been outsourced overseas, even remaining American factories and other treadmills of human labor have made moves towards the Theory Y concept. The automobile industry, though not perfect, is but one example of an industry attempting to treat its workers with more respect.

The USPS, always wanting to do what corporate America and private companies are doing, wants to treat its employees better. The USPS has instituted some programs (EI - Employee Involvement and VOP - Value of the Person) to attempt to make this happen. (Not surprisingly, EI and VOP teams, which met for one hour a week, were filled with postal employees seeking an extra hour of overtime pay.) The failure of USPS programs such as EI and VOP lies in the fact that they were placed on top of and were not compatible with the Theory X system in place.

The biggest thing I have learned by being associated with PostalWorkersOnline.com for the last two years is that there is a lot of talent, intelligence, and human potential among the 760,000 employees of the USPS. I have been impressed by the many proposals submitted by postal employees (to PostalWorkersOnline) that offered practical and innovative solutions to postal problems. If the USPS would only develop a postal culture that unleashed this potential, instead of trudging along with a system that suppressed it, then the Postal Service could go a long way in developing solutions to the many problems it faces in the 21st century.

During this patriotic time of the season we are reminded that this country was founded on the principles of life, liberty, equality, and the pursuit of happiness. I believe that this regard of the human condition demands that American workplaces and postal workplaces should have a culture based on decency, humanity, and honesty grounded in a positive, Theory Y style of management.


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