What we do » Article on Elliot Jaques

By SUSAN F. RASKY, February 17, 1985. New York Times

NY Times


WASHINGTON FOR more than 30 years, Elliott Jaques has devoted his career to developing the kind of theory about work and pay that gives corporate executives nightmares. Reduced to its simplest terms, the theory goes something like this: An employee's place in the corporate hierarchy can be determined by the amount of time that he is given to reach a goal without supervision. The longer the time, the higher the employee perceives his pay should be, and the more he should be paid.

"All human activities are events, and events have duration," Dr. Jaques says. "Time span is the thermometer, a simple measure that applies to coal miners or nurses or government employees in precisely the same way."

Among other psychologists who study work place relations, Dr. Jaques is considered brilliant. "He is 20 years ahead of his time," said Harry Levinson, a noted author and industrial psychologist in Cambridge, Mass. Dr. Jaques's theories on structuring organizations, Dr. Levinson said, "integrate psychoanalysis, developmental psychology, social psychology, sociology, philosophy, economics and mathematical logic into one systematic conception."

But outside of psychological circles, Dr. Jaques and his theories have been regarded as downright Orwellian. He discards as basically irrelevant such factors as job risk, perquisites and titles that underlie modern compensation systems. Instead, he says that time span is the decisive element in determining any employee's status and pay. "A prominent British labor leader once called it pseudo-scientific neofeudal Fascism," recalls Dr. Jaques, a tall, ruddy-faced, robust man who spends a lot of time these days shuttling between his home in London and quarters in Washington.

The rub, he explained, is that management as well as labor believessuch a system would eliminate their respective leverage in wage bargaining. "I get called a Communist by the free-enterprisers and a die-hard capitalist by the unions," he said.

Until recently, American executives rarely called him anything at all. Dr. Jaques's time and pay theory was simply ignored by the corporate world. Managers who were familiar with his notion - that all jobs in an organization fall into seven categories, each of which corresponds to a precise time span - did not put it into practice. "It is totally unaccepted and unapplied," Dr. Jaques observed good-naturedly. "What they tell me is, 'Elliott, if we use it, we're going to get soaked on pay."

Today, executives are no more willing to adopt his pay theories than they were when the Canadian-born psychoanalyst first began publishing his findings in 1953. But in an era when "lean and mean" has become a corporate rallying cry, Dr. Jaques's timespan concept - sans its pay aspect - is being viewed as a tool for slimming down organizations and putting the proper people in charge of the right number of employees.

The United States Army has hired him as a consultant. Australia's leading mining company is calling on his services. Fortune Magazine listed him among "path-breaking behavioral scientists." After three decades of research, 15 books, and, by his own description, data to burn, Elliott Jaques, at 68 years old, might be becoming trendy.

"HIS pay theories are not appropriate," said Sir Roderick Carnegie, chairman of C.R.A., the $6 billion Australian mining corporation that has asked Dr. Jaques to help it evaluate jobs and improve performance at lower management levels. "But shortening lines of communication does work. It's a trend among good managers."

"He is articulating what we believe intuitively, but just haven't been able to implement very well," added Col. Neale Cosby, commander of the Army Research Institute, which has awarded Dr. Jaques a small grant to do basic research on command structure and leadership evaluation.

Dr. Jaques says he is "having a ball" putting his theories to the test, really for the first time. But his clients are finding the process somewhat sobering. "Elliott asks very difficult questions like 'why are you doing this, what do you really want for the company in 10 years' time,' " said Sir Roderick. "He points up inconsistencies and makes us think about them. It's like that old cliche, once you get started with Elliott, you can't get half pregnant."

The Army, meanwhile, has concluded that Dr. Jaques's theories are not only pertinent, but also descriptive of its organization. "Inherently, the layers he describes make sense to us," said Colonel Cosby. "Conceptually, that's the way we are organized: platoons, companies, battalions, brigades, divisions, corps, and then the theater level of four-star general. Over time, extra layers grow in, and we have to weed them out."

Dr. Jaques is spending most of his time these days at the Pentagon, drawing his own conclusions about those management layers. It is an activity he loves. "I always wanted to look at the interaction between human beings and social institutions," he said.

Indeed, the seeds of Dr. Jaques's theories were sown back in 1952, when a worker-management committee at Britain's Glacier Metal Company hired him to help develop a worker participation plan. At one point, a company supervisor asked him if there was any significance to the fact that a low-level worker's salary was always described as a certain amount per hour or day or week, while a top executive's salary was described as an annual amount.

The question "was the finest gift I've ever been given," Dr. Jaques said. "It was absolutely, bloody brilliant. That's when I started examining the significance of time."

His work with Glacier continued through 1977. But his other clients wanted no part of his time and pay theories. "The finding became my albatross," Dr. Jaques said. "It terrified everybody and they ran."

The British Government since the early 1970's has forbidden Dr. Jaques to gather data on pay among Government employees or to conduct time span studies without special permission. "I am the only social scientist who has been proscribed by the British Civil Service," he says.

Since his work at Glacier, Dr. Jaques has expanded his theories. And he now argues that most of the working population has been undervalued. Dr. Jaques claims that no more than a quarter of the labor pool should be classified as skilled or semiskilled. He says a full 50 percent are capable of a three-month-to-one-year time span without supervision on a task, and thus should be classified as first- level managers. He says 20 percent can handle one-to-two year time span slots, such as department head; 3 to 4 percent could take on two-to-five-year slots, such as general manager; 1 percent are capable of five-to-ten year slots, such as division president, and a handful of people can handle time spans of 10 to 20 or more than 20 years - respectively, executive vice presidents and corporate chiefs.

Dr. Jaques stresses that not every organization fits comfortably into the industrial organizational structure. He has developed separate theories to deal with churches and universities, for example. The reason: Priests are not held accountable for the actions of their parishioners, nor are professors held accountable for their students' performance, so concepts of supervision do not apply.

Dr. Jaques is himself an entrenched member of academia. He was a founder of the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations in London and also a founding fellow of Britain's Royal College of Psychiatry. And, although his clients, which include the Church of England, take him away more often than not, he is a sociology professor and director of the Institute of Organization and Social Studies at Brunel University, outside of London.

Dr. Jaques argues that the system of work classification he has postulated makes far greater sense than systems layered with managers who do not have authority to manage or systems in which research scientists involved in long-range projects report to supervisors who have no basis for evaluating their work. "The system we have is much more crushing to the individual," Dr. Jaques says.

AS a man who has spent a lifetime probing the psyches of others, Elliott Jaques is rather uneasy about discussing his own. He obligingly answers questions about his family - a grown daughter in London, a wife from whom he is separated - but reveals little of himself that could be defined as personal.

"Well," he muses, searching for something to offer, "I like to ski. I used to do it mostly in Europe, but I'm beginning to enjoy the Colorado Rockies. Does that help?"

Home for the time being is a furnished, sublet apartment in Arlington, Va., overlooking the Pentagon. The only evidence of his occupancy is a pile of papers and books stacked neatly on a large desk. The electronic typewriter next to it sits idle.

"I have written and rewritten all of my books two and three times by hand," he said. "I like a pen. It feels like a sculpting instrument to me. It's a very important tactile thing."

Dr. Jaques collects art, notably Henry Moore sculptures, which he says he was buying long before anyone else had heard of the sculptor. Prior to his recent immersion in the Army project, he was a regular theater goer and opera goer.

The fondness for classical music and art led in 1965 to a paper on the working patterns of creative geniuses. Dr. Jaques described a curious phenomenon of abrupt changes in style or declines in productivity at about age 35 in the composers and artists whose careers he examined.

He called it the "midlife crisis." Almost a decade later, Gail Sheehy popularized the concept in her book "Passages," giving Dr. Jaques credit in a footnote.

Dr. Jaques is acutely aware that his efforts to quantify worker capabilities raise social and ethical questions. He blushes at the suggestion that his personal interactions must be affected by an automatic impulse to slot people in one of the categories on his cognitive scale.

"It's uncomfortable to talk about sometimes, because I don't want to give the wrong impression," he says. "I hate the impact I.Q. testing has had on this society. I think what we've got now for evaluating human potential is a lot less ethical than what I'm trying to develop."

Dr. Levinson, who has known Dr. Jaques for 10 years, says the instant evaluation syndrome is a relatively rare occurrence. "Every now and then, he'll turn to me and say 'gosh, there goes a clever 5,' but that's not the way he really operates," Dr. Levinson says. "What's much more likely is to be traveling with him on a company jet and watch him interview the pilot about what it takes to fly a plane. The most important thing about Elliott is his basic curiosity. He never stops exploring, learning and updating his theories."