- Major milestones come and go with no apparent recognition from management.
- Great effort and performance go unrecognized because "that's what we pay you for."
- Everyone seems too busy to acknowledge anything. "Quick, on to the next project!"
+ Employees are acknowledged for a job well done -- not with extrinsic rewards but with genuine appreciation.
+ The organization takes time to celebrate its major efforts (the journey) and successes (the destination).
+ Following a big project, people are able to pause, get a sense of closure, and savor (however briefly) their accomplishment.
|When she was hired by a Fortune 500
manufacturing company, Kimberly led a team that developed an advanced
quality-improvement training program. It was the first of its kind in her
industry, and soon after, a national group selected the program for special
acknowledgment at its annual conference. Kimberly assumed that her team --
or at least a few of the members, including herself -- would be making the
trip to receive the award. Wrong assumption. Her boss went alone and brought
home the award, even though he had no direct role in developing the
workshop. What should have been a time of celebration turned into a tempest
of hard feelings.
Mary works as a first-grade teacher in an elementary school, and when asked to explain why she finds her workplace so meaningful, she always comes back to the principal. "Whenever I see him at the end of the day, he always thanks me for my service," she says. "And the way he says it, you know he really means it. I'd climb mountains for him."
In his work at an interior-design firm, Carl worked on project after project after project. In fact, after a while it seemed as if all the projects were going past in a nonstop blur. "My boss (the owner of the company) saw it as a sprint, and he had us going flat-out all the time," Carl says. "It should have been thought of as a cross-country run -- one where you have time to pause, celebrate your accomplishments, and refresh."
|Think back to the past six to twelve
months. What major workplace milestones came and went without
acknowledgment? Press the pause button and pull folks together.
Take time to reflect, celebrate, savor.
Look down the road. What milestones are quickly approaching? What will be done to reach them in style? How will the organization celebrate them and collectively learn from all that happened? Start thinking and planning.
At this very moment, think of all the people around you whose efforts have made a difference. Perhaps it's the printer whose stunning work helped you meet that ungodly deadline. Maybe it's the designer who transformed your ordinary report into a masterpiece. Or it could be the folks who constantly do the "small things" that add up to "big things." As the next two weeks unfold, make a point of acknowledging them for their great work.
Keep in mind the sharp distinction between acknowledgment and praise. The latter -- with its gold-star, grade-school roots --is extrinsic and patronizing. It can fuel internal competition. It's a manifestation of our worst top-down inclinations. Acknowledgment, on the other hand, is grounded in respect and gratitude. It knows that people do great work because of deep interests, passions, commitment -- stuff that comes from within.
- There's an unspoken understanding that work should come first in employees' lives.
- The culture honors workaholics. Everyone else feels guilty.
- There's pressure on people to make tradeoffs, with work almost always winning over family.
- Late arrivals and missed days due to family circumstances -- an ill child, for instance -- are grudgingly tolerated.
+ People at all levels of the organization respect the fact that there's life beyond work. This is backed by real action -- as in the case of the manager who gives a half day off to a staff member following a 12-hour sprint to meet a key deadline.
+ Employees can take work home if they want to -- but they don't feel guilty if they choose otherwise.
+ It's understood and accepted that employees often bring a part of home to the workplace. For example, for the sleep-deprived father of a newborn, expectations are reasonably lowered and rules are flexed.
+ People feel that their lives are in balance.
|As an associate at a prestigious law
firm, Martha had what appeared to be an excellent career situation. If she
stayed on her current track for several years, she was destined to become a
partner. There was just one problem: travel. Her work required her to spend
three days a week -- every week -- on the road. At first it was fun, then it
became tolerable, then it became unbearable. She began to feel disconnected
from the rest of her life back home as work came to define her. Many of her
colleagues seemed to handle the travel just fine, but for her, it simply
didn't work. Things were too out of balance. On one of her out-of-town
trips, she made a fateful decision. Soon after, much to the surprise of the
law firm's partners, Martha forced a rebalancing of her life by handing in
Matthew remembers the day it dawned on him. It was a Thursday evening, at about 9:30 p.m., when he realized that for four evenings straight he had dug into his briefcase and spent a few hours doing work from the office. Everything else had gotten shoved aside, including his family. But on that particular Thursday, Matthew resolved to do something different. He packed his briefcase, snapped it shut, and made a promise: In the future, he would spend no more than two evenings per week doing work, and each time, he would spend no more than two hours. He knew it wouldn't be easy; he had gotten into the habit, and it seemed that he needed to work the extra hours at home. But too many other important -- some would even say more important -- things in his life were getting neglected.
|Create an atmosphere where employees feel
comfortable bringing their children to see the workplace. The kids get to
see where mom or dad work, employees get to show off their kids, co-workers
get to meet the children they've been hearing about for months or even years
-- and the line between work and home begins to blur.
Organize a company picnic, museum party, holiday gathering -- some kind of mixer for employees' families. An event like this is like a million water-cooler conversations. It makes the statement: We are not our jobs.
If an employee is constantly showing up late for work, ask him or her: "What can we as an organization do for you to help you get here on time?" That's right, do for them...rather than to them. Expect some good answers, and be ready to make the tough system changes that may be required.
When it's an occasional thing, flex the rules. Example: A person arrives late because the regular babysitter got sick. The culture should respect family needs more than it respects the corporate rule book. Whatever you do, don't punish people for doing right by their families.
Have a conversation with a significant other about the "state of balance" in your life. If you have children and they're old enough, involve them in the conversation as well. Does the balance feel right? If not, what can be done? Talk about it, think about it, sleep on it, talk some more -- and take positive action.
- Employees seem afflicted with a serious case of organizational boredom.
- "I can do my job with my eyes closed."
- People are falling far short of their potential, not because they lack talent and skill, but because the workplace fails to call on their full expertise.
+ The workplace is full of challenges for employees who want them.
+ People are in work situations that require them to make full use of their talents.
+ The challenges are demanding yet doable.
|To Carol, a grade-school librarian,
nothing is more energizing than a good challenge -- and nothing is more
challenging than finding just the right book for a seven-year-old. "No two
children are alike," she says. "I spend the better part of my time getting
to know the kids and trying to find a book that will really get them going."
She has her own tracking system for knowing when it all comes together: "I
can see their eyes light up."
Greg's most meaningful work experience also happened to be his most exhausting. He managed a city-wide campaign to pass a school levy, and it took "every ounce of energy we could muster." The situation called for long days (and long nights) as campaign workers stuffed envelopes, made calls, paid door-to-door visits, and strategized. By the time it was over, everyone was ready to drop, and yet "it felt great. We had truly taken on the challenge."
"There will never be a dull moment." With those words, Amy's editor welcomed her to her first day as a daily-newspaper reporter. She had the usual new-job jitters, but she wanted to get thrown into the deep end sooner rather than later. And that's exactly what happened. By the end of the week, she was covering big stories in city politics and community affairs. But that was three years ago, and now, Amy recalls her editor's never-a-dull-moment comment to explain why the job seems empty. "I never thought I'd say this, but I can do the job too well," she says. "Sometimes I just seem to be on auto-pilot as I interview someone or write a story. I'm waiting for the real big story to come around -- something that really tests my skills."
|What about your personal work situation?
Are you being challenged in a good way? If not, what can you do to turn
things around? Can you take an old situation and throttle it up to make it
more compelling? Are you within reaching distance of new challenges? Take
stock...then take action.
What about the people around you? Do you get the sense that they're being challenged? Talk with them, listen, find out. What are their ideas for restoring a true spirit of challenge? Each person can create a personal plan.
Have employees set their own goals -- for learning, customer service, performance, and so forth. Goals that come from within are worlds apart from goals that are imposed. They come with built-in commitment. What's more, people tend to be more demanding of themselves.
Hold occasional "new" days or half-days when all the emphasis is on doing something different. Someone could try a new approach to an old job, or try her hand at an entirely new task. Or two people could use the day to swap jobs entirely. Obviously, a day of total newness requires planning -- in some workplaces more than others. But it's well worth the effort. New challenges have a way of generating new energy.
- Conversations tend to deal only with surface issues.
- Certain issues are considered off limits.
- Some employees are routinely kept out of important conversations.
- Conversation is often seen as a waste of time.
+ There's an ongoing flow of constructive dialogue involving people at all levels of the organization.
+ Employees feel free to talk about work-related problems, opportunities, and issues.
+ The dialogue is honest and forthright, and there's no fear of recrimination among employees who talk straight.
+ As conversations unfold, people do their best to set aside their own opinions and assumptions in order to understand other perspectives.
|When two businesses moved out of her
small town, Jenny was worried -- and so were many other employees at her
company. "We all had this feeling that we were next," she explains. "It was
so hard to get anything done because we just kept thinking about it, even
though to the outsider it may have seemed like much ado about nothing." The
concerns simmered for a week, and then Jenny decided to test the HR
director's much talked about open-door policy. "I couldn't believe what
happened," she recalls. "He listened, then he asked more people to share
their concerns, and he listened some more." Within two days, at Jenny's
suggestion, all 35 employees came together to openly express their concerns.
The company's co-owners gave people all the time they needed, then they
shared their strong commitment to stay put in the community. In fact, a move
had never even been considered -- yet the owners respected people's concerns
and addressed them thoroughly.
"If doors didn't exist, our company wouldn't exist either." After 20 years with his current employer, Hal is a self-described "raging cynic." He tells of a workplace where closed-door conversations are not just the norm -- "they're the rule." There's also a list of taboo topics. "For one, you never talk about executive perks, unless of course you want to see more of them," he says. "The first person who does that is guaranteed to lose all parking privileges!"
|If meaningful conversation is a rarity in
your organization, take slow and gentle steps toward dialogue. Keep in mind
that it marks a radically different approach for many people. Most of us are
comfortable with fairly vacuous discussions -- not because we like them but
because they're familiar. Anything more will feel like a sudden jerk out of
the collective comfort zone. Think of initial conversations more as subtle
ice-breakers than epic exchanges. Simply getting together may be more
important than getting into deep conversation.
Arrange a social gathering for employees. Keep it simple and low-key. Your aim is simply to get folks talking.
Pinpoint several issues that are calling for conversation. Starting with the one topic that seems to be the least contentious, construct a dialogue that widely involves employees. Example: Let's say there have been sporadic debates regarding software. Some want to upgrade, others want to buy new products, still others are happy with what they have. This may be an opportunity to come together and openly talk about the situation -- and decide how to proceed.
Be on the alert for situations that would benefit from dialogue. Avoid the inclination to work things out immediately with minimal involvement from others. Rather, pull people together, have a conversation about it, and opt for a group decision.
Evaluate the work space. Does the current layout inhibit conversation? Are people physically blocked (literally) from interacting with each other? Make changes to create a dialogue-friendly environment. This doesn't mean you should convert the workplace into one big open space, but there needs to be a comfortable area where people can go for conversation.
Take advantage of the many facilitation tools that foster dialogue. Future-search conferences, for instance, can achieve remarkable things with a refreshing lack of rules and procedure. Also look into open-space processes. An Internet search will turn up wonderful ideas.
- The "vision thing" is derided as a bunch of fluff that has little connection to the bottom line.
- Most employees don't have a clue as to where the organization is strategically headed.
- The stated vision is sharply different from the vision that seems to be guiding top management.
+ A compelling vision of the future draws people in a common direction.
+ Goals and objectives serve as a down-to-earth, day-to-day complement to the vision.
+ Employees understand and are personally enrolled in the vision, goals, and objectives.
+ The organization's direction is periodically revisited, reassessed -- and refocused if necessary.
|There's no question about it, Brett likes
his job. As the director of information systems for a fast-growing insurance
company, he uses a facilitative style in managing a team of 10 smart
programmers and network experts. Days are filled with interesting activities
and exciting development work. Yet there's a difference between liking a job
and being crazy in love with it, and Brett can easily explain what would it
would take to achieve the latter: a clear strategic direction. Right now, it
appears that the company is making fast progress to...somewhere. Where,
exactly, no one can say. "There's nothing wrong with feeling like you own a
company within a company," Brett says, "but it would be even better to have
that and to have a clear sense of where we're headed as a collective
Don't let Wanda hear the word "plan." She pulls no punches: "Every time I hear it, my stomach turns." That may be because Wanda has "been planned to death." As an assistant administrator for a government agency, she has been a frequent participant in sessions to develop mission statements, vision statements, goals, and objectives. The first effort focused on the agency as a whole. Then the same process was used to look at her division...and then the work unit. By her count, the 1,200-person agency has 50 plans, only some of which point in a common direction. "The makers of oak frames have been our biggest supplier," she says. "That's where we put all our mission and vision statements." Does she really feel that planning offers little or no value? "No, a planning process -- visioning, mission development, call it what you will -- can be useful," she says. "For us, though, we seem to be cranking out plans as if the on-paper plan is the end in itself. What we really should be doing is establishing a direction and then using that direction to guide us on a daily basis."
|Get together and talk about direction --
not to craft a lyrical paragraph, but to understand people's perspectives on
where the organization (team, work unit, division, region, functional area,
etc.) is heading. As this dialogue unfolds, visions will begin to merge.
Keep in mind that one conversation is never enough; plan on a series.
Ideally, make these get-togethers a part of the workplace routine.
Involve all employees in these conversations. Think in terms of co-creation. If we want everyone to be strategically headed in the same direction, doesn't it make sense for everyone to help set that direction?
If your organization (and/or team, work unit, division, region, functional area, etc.) has a written vision statement, mission statement, set of goals/objectives, or anything similar, pull them from the oak frame and put them under the hot lights of critical, collective examination. "Are we living up to our promises?" "Does this still make sense?" "What new/different things do we need to do?" "Where do we go from here?"
Foster future-thinking throughout the organization. What will be happening in your industry five years down the road...ten...twenty? What will be happening in the rest of the business world? How will the workplace look and feel twenty years from now? What will people expect? Answers -- more accurately, guesses -- to these questions will get you thinking about direction. And they'll inform the direction that's set for your organization.
- Some employees feel like second-class citizens.
- Titles carry considerable weight.
- People use win-lose language, as in "us against them."
- The norm appears to be "different treatment for different people."
- Physical cues of inequality are abundant throughout the organization. Possibilities: special parking spaces for high-ranking employees, dramatically different work areas and working conditions, recognition reserved for certain groups.
+ People throughout the organization genuinely feel that they're on the same level, regardless of how things look on the org chart.
+ All employees are considered to be equally important -- and actions at all levels back this up.
+ At meetings and other gatherings, titles tend to fall away, opening the way to free-flowing dialogue.
|At first, Dwayne thought it was just a
crazy rumor. No way would management do that! Then some construction people
started walking around...looking...taking notes...blueprints in hand. And
within two months, there it was: a second-story platform circling the plant
floor, so management could keep an eye on operations. "The managers would
stand up there on the walkway, sort of leaning on the railing, just watching
us," Dwayne says. "We'd be on the floor working our tails off, and they'd be
up there in their ties staring down." A deep resentment took hold, and with
the platform still surrounding the work floor, the ill will gets stronger
When William's company launched a quality-improvement initiative, it was not business as usual. "We actually did it the right way!" he laughs. Instead of a management-driven effort -- "the approach we always took in the past" -- a group was assembled to involve people from all areas and levels of the organization. The first few gatherings seemed uncomfortable; never before had employees with such different titles and roles come together in the same place. Yet everyone stuck with it, and in three months the group had become widely known as a shining example of involvement. "At our first meeting, we talked about leaving rank at the door," William recalls. "There's nothing magical you can do to make that happen. It just takes time as folks sort of re-establish their relationships. Now that we've been together as a group for a couple years, I can honestly say that we all view each other as equals."
|Apply a critical ear to your
organization's vocabulary. Do people work "under me" and "for me"? Do I
"oversee" people? Is someone a "subordinate"? Does the company have
"low-level employees"? All these terms scream inequality. As much as
possible, exorcise these verbal demons from your organization -- starting
with your own choice of words, then moving on to the employee manual, policy
manual, and any other printed items.
Change the look and feel of your meetings. Scrap the old model where the meeting leader sits at the head of the table. Keep it open and loose -- what about chairs in a circle, with no table? Consider having a neutral facilitator who can gently draw out equal amounts of input from all participants.
Conduct a nothing-is-off-limits look at the state of equality in your organization. Take stock of pay, perks, policies -- everything. Where inequities exist, remedy the situation now. Warning #1: Expect to be surprised. A forthright analysis will uncover inequalities at the best of companies. Warning #2: Don't embark on this effort unless you plan to take action based on the findings.
- Few people can see, let alone understand, the big picture and how they fit into it.
- There's a nagging sense among some employees that "this place (or job) just isn't right for me. I'm not in a situation where I can succeed."
- People feel a clash between their own values and goals -- and what goes on in the workplace. Going to work requires them to be a different person.
+ Individual employees clearly see how they and their work fit into the bigger mission of the organization.
+ People are able to tap their strengths.
+ Employees spend their time doing things that match their deepest interests.
+ The individual's personal mission fits well with the organizational mission. There's alignment between what they want in life and what they do at work.
|When Sandy went to work for a research
lab, it was somewhat unclear what she would be doing. There were several
possibilities, and all of them sounded exciting. Well, things couldn't have
gone better. Her colleagues came to appreciate her command of the Russian
language, and they asked her to translate a series of Russian research
articles. She loved the work and even began taking articles home. "My
productivity was awesome," she recalls.
Lonnie works as the assistant to a community-organization director. The job has wide responsibilities, to say the least -- "everything from sweeping the floors to planning fundraisers." Most of the time, she says, the work is "mundane." ("There's a lot more floor-sweeping.") Yet she puts it all in perspective. "Every letter I type, every call I answer, every floor I sweep -- all of it has an impact on our success as an organization. If I weren't here to do those things, this place would sure enough keep going, but it wouldn't be nearly as successful."
As a sergeant in the Marines, Edward had an uncanny ability to understand the likes, dislikes, strengths, and weaknesses of each person in his platoon. This would have been useful in most situations, but for Edward and the other soldiers, the particular place and time made these insights a matter of life and death. They were serving on the front lines in Vietnam. He recalls: "I knew that Al was at his peak in the afternoons, and that Ryan was the best shot, and that another guy really knew how to read maps. I found it real easy to have them do whatever it was they were good at." The only problems arose when Edward and the platoon were in the rear, away from the fighting. "If I knew that Al and his buddy were useless in the mornings, but that they really got the job done in the afternoons and evening, I'd let them sleep in. Well, the higher-ups found out and told me I was breaking the rules. They overrode me. They wanted me to have one set of rules for everyone."
What do work and workplaces have to do with Mt. Everest? Everything in the world, according to Steve, a programmer for a networking firm. His job, he says, is mildly interesting. He wants it to be exciting -- like a trek up the world's tallest mountain. "I'm obsessed with adventure and travel," he notes. "My job, unfortunately, is anything but adventurous."
|What talents and skills do you love to
use outside of work? What are your deep interests?
Perhaps you're crazy about writing, or maybe you spend hours and
hours of free time developing Web sites. Is there any
way to bring these passions to the workplace? Try --
and try to get other folks to do the same.
Get to know what fires up your colleagues. What are their deep-down interests? What is their source of "flow"? What would make them race to work because they can't get there fast enough? Talk about these passions, and tap into them as often as possible.
Encourage people to redesign what they do and how they do it based on their deep interests. Make this a collective undertaking. Too risky, you say? It surely will induce chaos if people lack a common direction. Otherwise, it will generate more ownership, invention, and bottom-line benefit than anyone could ever imagine.
Who are your suppliers, and who are your customers? (Better language: Who serves you, and whom do you serve?) It's an easy question -- until you try coming up with the answer. Give it some serious reflection. Consider drawing a flow chart, process map, or system diagram. Even a 15-minute system doodle can give insights into where and how you fit in.
A team, work unit, or functional area can do the same. Tape some butcher-block paper to the wall, and engage in constructive picture-drawing. A quick-sketch system diagram or process map can help folks see the big picture and their role in it. It may even uncover improvement opportunities as people spot redundant steps, unmet customer needs, and easy-to-solve supplier problems.
- The rules remain inflexible regardless of the situation. The rule book is seen as the final word.
- Policies and procedures are mindlessly followed.
- "Whatever the circumstances, we do what our written rules and procedures tell us to do."
- People show remarkable ingenuity and persistence -- and expend tremendous energy -- getting around the rules.
+ The organization's rules are flexed when a situation justifiably calls for it.
+ Good judgment is used in applying rules. People accept the subjectivity that goes along with this.
+ Policies and procedures are in place, yet there's an understanding that specific circumstances may require different approaches.
+ "In a given situation, we do what's right for the customer."
|Sarah sells advertising for cable TV, and
she loves her work. It offers constant challenges and the chance to meet
regularly with external customers. But all the positives have recently been
overshadowed by an imposing and unbending corporate rule book. "Right now
I'm going through hell just to find out how they'll pay me on maternity
leave. (Her baby is due in two months.) My immediate bosses are very
flexible, but corporate is another thing. What they do for one they have to
do for all." Sarah doesn't think she should get special treatment. Rather,
she thinks the rule book should get special attention -- and revision -- so
it allows greater flexibility in situations like hers. It is, she explains,
a sad case of people serving the rules -- instead of the other way around.
Ken had just reached his sixth year with a 100-employee manufacturing company when his family situation changed dramatically. He got divorced and received custody of his children -- which meant he faced all the challenges of single parenthood. This included getting his three children off to school in the morning. For years, Ken had been arriving at work promptly at 8 a.m. But now, that was virtually impossible. "I tried to pull it off the first few weeks, but to get to work on time, I had to take my kids to school an hour early. It wasn't fair to them." His work wasn't the kind that required him to be there at exactly 8 a.m., yet when he approached the keepers of the rules to see if he could work a 9-to-6 shift, the response was unequivocal: "Everyone must get here at the same time." Ken never did reach his seventh year with the company.
The 20-person insurance company where Amy works has a policies and procedures manual, and she can quote from it chapter and verse. But that manual is hardly the organizational be all and end all. "We are obsessed with our customers," Amy says. "A lot of people develop these mission statements, and we have one too. I guess you could say our mission tells us what to do -- and the rules are sort of there in the background." After one of Amy's colleagues got married and bought a house, he asked for a change in his salary-commission mix. A written policy stated a recommended balance, but it was just that -- a recommendation. "He was able to get a larger base and a smaller commission because he wanted the extra income security," Amy says. "It was no big deal. We talk about valuing employees, and that ís what this was all about."
|Be on the alert for situations in which
organizational rules, policies, and procedures are put to the test. These
are opportunities to conduct a snap "flexibility test."
Does it seem like
the rules have become more important than people? If so, address the
immediate situation in a flexible way -- and recommend changes to the
policies so flexibility is easier to achieve in the future.
Have a dialogue on this topic of organizational flexibility, focusing on rules and policies that seem to be causing the most heartburn. Apply the mission test: Do the rules contribute to the greater mission of the organization, or are they actually making it more difficult for people to carry out the mission? This is guaranteed to be a robust conversation. Be ready to act on the answers.
Avoid the "rule creation reflex," which can afflict well-intentioned managers who face difficult situations. Example: An employee is found using work time to browse Web sites like www.adult.com. Unfortunate Response #1: Browsers are removed from the computers of virtually all employees. Unfortunate Response #2: Employees who are allowed to keep their browsers are issued a list of permissible Web sites, along with the requirement that Internet research should be kept to a maximum of 30 minutes per day. Result #1: The company seals off a massive pipeline of information, much of which can serve the business. Result #2: Employees complain about "corporate" and begin finding ways to sneak their Web searches.
- Work and fun are largely seen as mutually exclusive.
- The culture is weighed down with protocol.
- Employees are expected to wear formal business clothing.
- An outside observer would call the workplace "stuffy."
+ An open-door policy is practiced by everyone, not because business books encourage it, but because it seems like the natural thing to do.
+ There's no rigid dress code. Employees use their judgment, wearing what's appropriate for the situation.
+ It's not unusual for a major project to turn into a major pizza party -- with the work still getting done.
+ Employees are comfortable decorating their work spaces with photos, plants, cartoons, posters, and more.
|When John talks about the ingredients of
a meaningful workplace, he always comes back to...sugar. His office has an
annual tradition called the "Festival of Treats," in which employees come to
work loaded down with cakes, cookies, and candy. The event is held in
September -- a typically slow month for the office. The sugarfest gets
people eating, to be sure -- but also talking. In some cases, people who've
kept their conversations to an occasional hallway hello finally get the
chance to chat. "It always succeeds in loosening us up," says John.
"Walking into our office is like walking into a mausoleum, people are that stiff," says Irene, a secretary for an engineering firm. On her first day on the job, she was taken aside and "encouraged" to wear more formal attire. A year after being there, she worked up the courage to suggest a holiday party -- something informal at a local restaurant. It turned out that a party was being planned -- a formal wine and cheese mixer at a local art museum. "Every time I leave the office at the end of the day," she says, "I feel like I need emergency oxygen."
|Formality tends to be deeply rooted in an
organization's culture, so the first thing to do is to calibrate your
expectations. Set them low.
Do what you can as an individual, and start small. One quick yet visible tactic is to add a few informal touches to your work space. (A budget analyst for one rather stuffy financial organization decorated his filing cabinet with magnetic words. Visitors couldn't resist the urge to compose their own silly sentences and poems.)
If you can't bring some informality to the workplace, try the reverse approach. That's right, take the workplace to the informality. Organize a picnic, for example, and encourage people to bring their families. Without many of the formal cues -- like wood paneling and wingtips, for starters -- people will start to relax and mingle. Some of this informality is guaranteed to find its way back to the workplace.
In some cases, formality is written right into the policies of the organization -- as with dress codes. Avoid challenging these rules early into your efforts to informalize things. Civil disobedience ("He wore shorts?!") will make a statement, but it won't change anything -- except, perhaps, your job status.
- People can innovate, but if they trip up (spend too much money, fail the first time, detract from other projects, etc.), look out!
- The culture promotes excessive caution. Nothing too much, too fast, too anything.
- The "do it right the first time" mantra keeps employees from stepping outside the safe zone -- and into the place where breakthrough innovation comes to life.
- The current way of doing things is staunchly defended.
+ Risk-taking in the name of innovation is strongly encouraged.
+ Mistakes are seen as a fair price to pay for learning and innovation.
+ The organization values left-field thinking, as in: "That idea really came out of left field!"
+ The workplace presents all sorts of opportunities to be creative.
+ People are open to new ideas, trends, and approaches.
|Kevin distinctly remembers the first time
he met the new director of his government agency. It was at an "all-hands
gathering" -- 1,100 employees, all of them skeptical of this latest in a
string of political appointments. "Well, weren't we surprised!" Kevin says.
"He emphasized one point over and over: 'You have permission to make
mistakes.' Talk about proposing a different culture! Before then, it was
well-understood that you covered your backside, and that meant trying
absolutely nothing new." The employees left the session with their
skepticism intact, yet the director's comments marked the start of a slow
but sure change process. "For the first time in a long time, people started
to experiment in the name of better service to their customers."
When the CEO asked the division managers to create up-to-date org charts, Sheila's division chief did what came natural to her. She exerted her creativity, submitting something that looked like a big circle -- there wasn't a single box on the page. She was proud of it -- in fact, all 30 employees in the division got a copy, and it proved to be a big hit. "Then the &*#@ hit the fan," Sheila recalls. "The CEO sent it back to the division chief, and written on it in red pen was the command to 'Use boxes -- no circles!' She called him and tried to explain why she had used a circle, and in the course of the conversation, he actually said that the circle version "doesn't look tough enough, competitive enough.' My manager would have been ticked off if she hadn't been so amused. She obediently drew the boxes, submitted it, and told us all to ignore it."
|Don't just step out of the box -- throw
out the box altogether. Get people to be hypercreative. (Webster on "hyper":
over, above, beyond, excessive.) The best person to set a new precedent may
be yourself. What current challenges call for above-and-beyond creativity?
Spend a day at a hypercreative company. Absorb their energy, approaches, ideas. Go there with a group of colleagues -- ideally, those who work right next to you -- so the resulting conversation and action can be done collectively. (Of course, competitors won't open the doors to you, but noncompeting companies will be flattered by your interest. Expect the red-carpet treatment...in creative ways.)
Keep an eye out for situations/problems/opportunities that are begging for extreme creativity. Use them to set new examples of invention and risk-taking.
The next time you're struggling with a problem or trying desperately to seize an opportunity, bring in an outside facilitator -- preferably one who has lots of experience in stirring creativity. Good ones are almost magical in their ability to turn on light bulbs. They can provide the breakthrough thinking that defines hypercreativity.
Learn some of the creativity tools that facilitators routinely use, and make them a routine part of your organization's tool kit. Mind-mapping, for example, brings out the best of right-brain thinking in a group setting. Even classic brainstorming, when done right (which it rarely is), can open the way to dramatically new ideas.
If your organization does some or all of the above, expect failure. And when it comes, don't punish it...encourage more invention. Keep the focus on "what we learned from this so-called mistake."
- Internal competition often flares up between individuals and work units.
- Turf wars are the rule rather than the exception.
- Work units feel disconnected from the organization as a whole; they have no sense of a mission larger than their own.
- There's little understanding of who does what outside the immediate work unit.
+ There's a prevailing sense that "we're all in this together."
+ Working relationships are best described as "collaborative" -- not "competitive."
+ People are united by a common mission, direction, and set of values.
+ Each person understands how his or her colleagues fit into the system -- what they do, where they excel, how they add value.
+ Employees trust each other to do the right thing.
|As a counselor at a residential treatment
center for teens with severe behavioral problems, Carrie knows what it's
like to face stressful situations. Yet she reports an impressive ability to
switch off the stress the moment she leaves her workplace. The key?
Teamwork. "I'm able to leave it (the stress) at the door because I know my
fellow workers will take care of the kids and follow up with whatever needs
to be done."
From her perspective as a help-desk specialist for an information-systems department, Carla has seen all too well what it's like to work in a fractured system. She explains: "You've got the help desk, LAN support, PC support, programming -- and everyone speaks a slightly different language with their little idioms and dialects. Do you understand LAN-speak? Maybe you do, and maybe you don't." For customers, the search for help can become terribly frustrating. "If I don't understand some of the stuff that goes on within information systems, imagine what it must be like for the poor sucker from accounting or HR who gets in touch with us for some quick answers. They must feel like they're dealing with a foreign country!"
Mark thought he had the job of his dreams when he became director of an executive education program at a local college. "I was very focused on the mission, very focused on doing the right thing," he says. But things quickly soured as different priorities emerged. Key leaders at the college had cash-cow visions of the program. Mark had no problem with generating revenue, but as he saw it, the obsession with profit was distorting all decisions. Certain courses were heavily promoted while others were sidelined -- not because of their inherent merit, but because of their cash-flow potential. "The money-making never seemed enough," Mark says. "I decided that these people simply wanted all the money they could get." The different perspectives never came together, and Mark eventually resigned from his "dream job."
|Spend time with employees from another
part of the system. One idea: Get together people from two or more work
units for an informal dialogue on improvement opportunities. Likely outcome:
People leave with a better sense of who does what. Possible outcome: The
gathering sets the stage for changes that will draw the work units closer
Hunt down any and all forms of internal competition. Are there team rivalries that pit people against each other? Does special recognition go to the division that cuts the most costs? Do top salespeople get that wonderful beach vacation? If you're trying to create a true sense of unity, all these I-win-you-lose approaches are leaps in the wrong direction.
Hold an open house or "company fair" for employees, suppliers, and customers. Done right, it can be the ultimate bonding event. Picture this: Creative information booths that tell the story of each division/unit/functional area, people engaged in conversation, discoveries being made at every turn ("So that's what you do!").
- People are told what to do -- instead of being expected to make their own decisions and judgment calls.
- Employees are routinely going to management to get clearance, permission, and sign-offs.
- Management seems to be in the meddling business. They sporadically get involved in work processes without adding value.
- Change is done for employees (bad) or to employees (worse).
- Most decisions are made by a small minority of people.
- Information is parceled out only to those who "need to know."
+ People view themselves as owners of their work and act accordingly.
+ The people who do the work shape how that work is done. They are the ones who own the process.
+ Change is done by people. Co-creation is the method of choice for setting direction, developing ideas, and seizing opportunities.
+ Everyone is kept in the information loop -- as co-owners should be. Virtually all information (excluding select items like personnel records) is available to all employees.
|After four years working in operations at
a bindery company, Kevin knew every nuance of every machine. So did most of
his co-workers, and they had specific ideas for making things faster,
cheaper, better. Problem was, management wouldn't listen -- until the
company was sold. "The new owner didn't know much about the technical parts
of our business, thank goodness," he says. "We went to him with all these
ideas, and he just kind of said, 'Heck, sounds good to me. Go for it.' And
we did." The skeptics predicted chaos, Kevin says, but things unfolded
smoothly. "It works great when you just let people take ownership. They'll
do amazing things."
In her work as a grief counselor for a hospice organization, Becky's mission is to bring peace and serenity to people during the most trying times of their lives. The job itself carries enormous stress -- and then there is management. Becky recalls a typical example: "There were about 50 of us who worked for the organization, and we were together for a staff meeting when one of the managers stands up and says, 'Starting this week, you'll be using this new time sheet.' We just sort of looked around at each other and said, 'Excuse me?'" Employees knew the old time sheet wasn't adding any value, she explains, but a better approach would have been to have front-line folks develop their own form. "I guarantee it -- we would've developed a time sheet that wasn't just a waste of paper. But they never asked us."
The date: December 23. Debbie and her colleagues were working feverishly to fill orders at an appliance superstore. Most of the products were sold on-site and either taken home by customers or delivered by truck the next day. Then an out-of-the-ordinary phone order came in: Debbie needed to send a stereo via express mail so it would arrive in time for Christmas. She took the order, hung up the phone, did the necessary paperwork -- then discovered that the person in charge of mailing had the day off. Fine, she said, give me the shipping materials so I can do it myself. The response: Sorry, but that's not your job. You'll have to wait for him to come in tomorrow. Her response: If we send the stereo tomorrow, it'll arrive after Christmas. "I was so frustrated," Debbie recalls. "I realized just how narrow my job really was. I wanted to take charge, but they wouldn't let me."
Clay and his co-workers at a printing plant spent every day wringing their hands. Everyone knew that the company faced serious financial difficulties -- according to one common figure, losses totaled $5,000 each day. Yet the two owners shut their ears to improvement suggestions from employees. "We had incredible ideas for turning that place around, but it was always us against them, right down to the last day," Clay recalls. "It was just so frustrating, knowing how to save the ship without actually being able to save the ship."
|A lot of the business literature says
that "management owns the process." Toss out this industrial-era relic --
and start thinking of managers and all other employees as co-owners. How you
(and others) think will largely define how you act. As long as we think of
managers as having a monopoly on the processes, nothing will come of our
efforts to foster a wide sense of ownership.
Widely open the information loop. Nearly everything should be available to everyone (except, of course, personnel files and other legally restricted items). People need information to make decisions. More information almost always translates into better decisions.
The next time a colleague approaches you seeking "the answer" to a problem, bounce back the question: "What do you think should be done?" This workplace ritual results from our worst please-the-boss tendencies, and it's no way to foster ownership. If you yourself feel the go-to-the-boss urge, hold back and make the decision yourself. Better yet, round up a few colleagues, talk about the situation, and reach a group consensus.
Develop organizational expertise in chartering teams. A one- or two-page charter, thoughtfully constructed by the team sponsor, is arguably the single most important tool for getting a team started. It gives direction, commits resources, notes any boundaries and constraints, and spells out up front exactly what the team is empowered to do.
Routinely think in terms of co-creation -- involving large cross-sections of employees in the development of new systems, plans, direction, initiatives, improvements, and so forth. Yes, it takes longer, and it can be daunting when so many different perspectives crowd into the same room. But the gain in ownership, commitment, and resulting follow-through far outweighs the downside.
Explore ways to establish co-ownership in a literal sense -- and not simply in terms of empowerment. This does not mean creating a carrot-based system of extrinsic rewards. Worth investigating: stock ownership, profit-sharing, gainsharing, and partnership.
- Training is seen as an expense.
- When outside training is permitted, it must fit within a narrow definition of the employee's current job.
- Some employees have been doing the same work for years.
- Jobs tend to offer little variety, with the same tasks being done over and over.
- The organization is more interested in having people do what they're good at -- and less interested in having them pursue their deepest interests.
+ The workplace allows people to reach their full potential.
+ Learning opportunities abound throughout the organization.
+ Variety (trying new equipment, building new relationships, varying your work, etc.) is encouraged because it fosters learning and development.
+ Internal job-changing is valued as a way for people to develop their skills and experience.
|The job sounds fairly straightforward:
fundraiser for the local branch of a national nonprofit health agency. But
Linda will tell you it's anything but straightforward, and that's why
she loves her work. One day she's planning a public event, the next day
she's meeting with a would-be donor, the next she's writing a press release.
"It's nonstop variety and nonstop learning," she says. "I wouldn't want it
any other way."
"My success may have been my undoing." That's Kyle's take on a previous job with an automobile-parts distributor. As purchasing manager, he worked hard to turn the unit into a self-directed work team. "Every day was something new," he recalls. "We had good days and bad days, but all of them were learning days." After a while, though, the learning started to slow as the team truly became self-directed. Kyle switched to a classic coach's role, but he felt that his own development pace had slowed to a crawl. "I looked for other opportunities in the company, but they simply weren't there. And when I tried to enroll in a couple of outside workshops to learn the latest leading-edge stuff, the powers that be wouldn't sign off because of cost reasons." Determined to keep learning, Kyle switched into job-search mode and soon went to work for a different company.
|Encourage people to take ownership of
their learning journeys. They can start by deciding what they need/want to
learn...then matching this with available learning opportunities. Feed this
effort by giving people the chance to do things they've never done before.
Encourage employees to attend workshops outside the organization. Sure, there are plenty of sessions hardly worth the price of the training binder. Yet a discriminating eyes can spot the gems -- and there are gems. Take advantage of them.
Look for ways in which employees can learn from each other. Every organization is rich with knowledge and expertise, yet most of it goes unseen. Who knows, the colleague who's next working to you each day may have something to teach you -- an idea, a skill, a piece of software, whatever. Uncover the hidden know-how, and make a plan for turning everyone into a coach.
Orchestrate occasional job-swapping. Switch roles with one of your customers, for instance, and get ready for some eye-opening lessons. Or swap with a colleague from your work unit. If an all-day experiment is impossible, try a half day -- or at least get together and share stories about the joys, demands, and frustrations of various roles in the organization.
Bring in outside speakers to open up minds and add to the collective corporate tool kit. For example, a monthly learning forum at lunchtime, when people are getting together anyway, can spark great conversations that lead to positive change.
Hit the road. Visit a place that promises rich insights into issues you're currently facing. If conversations about purpose are weighing heavily on people's minds, spend a few hours at a place where mission is everything -- a local nonprofit community organization, for example. Looking to strengthen the sense of workplace unity? Arrange a get-together with the coach and several players of a local championship sports team. What they do may be worlds apart from your business, but so what? You want to learn the how.
- The purpose of work seems to be the completion of one task...then another...and another...
- The overall mission (assuming one has been articulated) is inward-looking.
- Conversations about purpose focus exclusively on products, services, and money-making -- never on people.
+ The organization has a larger purpose -- something beyond producing goods/services, making money, or even being the best in a given business.
+ Individual employees feel that their work makes a positive difference in some way.
+ "What I do contributes to the greater good. It may be in small ways, but it still has a positive impact." (The stone-crushers fully understand that they are creating a cathedral.)
+ The organization is mission-driven -- and not rule-driven.
|"I'm selling sugar water to restaurants."
That statement kept ringing in Robert's mind as he went from customer to
customer selling large-volume orders of soft drinks. He notes that some of
his colleagues seemed perfectly happy with their work -- that other features
of the job and the workplace provided them with fulfillment. But for him, "I
just kept thinking, 'This isn't helping anyone anywhere.'" Today, he
counsels families of children who suffer from severe behavioral and
mental-health problems. The work is so different in so many ways, not the
least of which is the constant pressure of dealing with emotionally charged
situations. "But as exhausting as it is," he says, "I can see on people's
faces that my job makes a difference."
Written words can have tremendous power. As a daily-newspaper reporter, Marianne always knew this, and she wrote her stories with the goal of effecting positive change in the community. She tells of a time when everything came together: "There was a town in our reading area that had been ignored for years. City services were terrible -- it was big-time neglect, even though funds were available. I wrote a series of articles about the place, and they caught the eye of some elected and non-elected leaders who were in a position to do something about it. They did, and today you see a much different place."
It happened decades ago, but Cerena tells the story like it was yesterday. Working for a community action agency, she and a team of colleagues received a grant to establish the first rural HMO. They knew this part of the country intimately and were all too aware of the awful health conditions. The HMO would restore health and bring a newfound sense of dignity to the area's citizens. As their work unfolded, it hardly seemed like work. When applying for the grant, they weren't simply filling out forms -- they were setting the stage for dramatic improvements in people's quality of life. And when the grant came through, they didn't "administer" it -- they brought it to life. "We were on a mission!"
When the conversation turns to "purpose" and "mission," David thinks back to his days as an editor of children's books. The publishing company's top managers enforced a strict focus on the bottom line, and an extensive list of workplace rules aimed to keep employees in line. One of the rules even prohibited children -- yes, the customers! -- from company property. Determined to keep the larger purpose of his work in clear view, David engaged in the workplace equivalent of civil disobedience. He papered his cubicle with photos of children.
|Involve as many employees as possible in
talking about the purpose -- of the team, work unit, functional area,
region, or even the organization as a whole. "Why are we in business? Beyond
cranking out great products/services and making money,
what is our core
reason for being?" Open dialogue can help people see how their daily
activities (relatively insignificant when thought of in isolation)
contribute to the larger mission (very significant).
Get and stay in close contact with customers. They're central to the purpose of most organizations (or should be), so hearing from them on a regular basis keeps the mission alive and immediate. Call one (at least) customer a day, ask how they're enjoying the product/service, then open your ears and mind as they comment. If your business has customers on-site, consider a five-minute, face-to-face chat.
Arrange an employee outing to see the company's products/services being used by real customers. This doesn't work for all businesses (life insurance?!), but when it does, it leaves unforgettable impressions. Example: A group from a publishing company -- one that specializes in children's books -- spends a few hours at a grade-school library. Example: A company that manufactures irrigation equipment meets with a group of farmers and gets to see the product in action.
In a group of two to ten people who are closely linked by the work they do, pose this question: "What would make your/our job more purposeful?" Different people are likely to have similar answers, setting the stage for collective brainstorming on how to bring about change. Another good question: "What would make our group (team, work unit, etc.) more purposeful?"
- Socializing on the job is seen as a drain on productivity.
- When doing their work, people feel closeted away from the rest of the world.
- Relationships with customers and vendors are seen strictly as a business necessity.
+ Work days are filled with opportunities to build relationships.
+ People understand the need to build strong relationships with customers, vendors, and other employees.
+ Employees get the chance to mix with a variety of people.
+ The workplace is designed to encourage mingling and conversation.
|Melinda works as the managing editor of a
regional parenting magazine. It's a dream job, and she likes working with
the editor/publisher, who shares the office with her. Problem is, there are
only the two of them -- and no one else to interact with on a regular basis.
She maintains contact with a network of freelancers, but it's not the same
as having an ever-present group to discuss problems, celebrate successes,
and wrestle down challenging projects. "If I could wave a wand and change
one thing about my job, it would be to bring in more people," Melinda says.
For years, Paula had dreamed of owning her own business. When she got tired of dreaming, she took action and made it happen, opening a storefront cafe. It proved to be everything she ever wanted in a job -- except for one thing. She found herself making decision after decision all by herself. At first she enjoyed the autonomy, but the good feelings gave way to another dream: "I wanted community." Paula spent more and more idle time looking out the front window -- her metaphor for wanting to reconnect with the outside. She eventually sold the cafe and took a job with an employee union.
"It sometimes seems like I work at a social club, and yet we get tons of work done!" At the engineering firm where he's a computer specialist, Jim and his colleagues spend a lot of time at what appears to be socializing. A lot of time! The workplace is designed with open areas to bring people together. "When we need to discuss something, it's no big deal," Jim says. "You'd probably hear a lot more laughing than you do at most companies, but that's just the way we operate."
|Pick up the phone, or leave your work
area, and reconnect with important people you've lost touch with --
co-workers, customers, suppliers, community members. Make a habit of
reaching out and actively working to build relationships.
The next time you face a challenging work situation, reject the urge to deal with it all by yourself. Our lone-ranger culture prizes solo heroics, yet the best results tend to involve two or more people. Any projects on the near horizon? If so, who can help? Get in touch with them now.
Create a "community space" that draws together people from different work areas. This should not be thought of as another break room, but as the home for regular dialogues in which employees apply their collective brainpower to current and pending problems and opportunities. Done right, a community space does more than help people get to know one another -- though that's a big accomplishment in itself. It also promotes conversation, collaboration, and a sense of unity.
- People often find themselves going through the motions -- of meetings, protocol, and tradition.
- The organization is infested with valueless rules and policies.
- There's a constant struggle between employees and the organizational bureaucracy.
- "I feel like I'm on a hamster wheel going around and around and around. So much of what I do seems so irrelevant."
+ The system allows employees to use their time efficiently; they can spend it on any activities that are relevant to the mission.
+ Rules and red tape are kept to an absolute minimum.
|How late is late? Better yet,
cares? The managers of a certain graphics-design firm, that's who. John
recalls a meeting where seven or so managers spent a good hour trying to
define "late." A couple employees had recently shown up late for work, and
management wanted a solid rule. One supervisor kept insisting it was 30
minutes while others thought 15 minutes. Then a coalition started building
around 10 minutes, and the debate raged on. They eventually settled on a
time and ordered up a new written policy. "It was so ridiculous," John says.
"My only goal during that conversation was to make sure the new policy
included the words 'to be applied at the manager's discretion.'"
When Ginny reflects on her workplace, she sees red tape, irrelevant rules, and cumbersome processes that churn on without end. Her biggest pet peeve is the meeting that's held for the sake of holding a meeting. "It's a meeting culture," says Ginny, who conducts economic-development workshops. "You have your two-hour session even if there's nothing substantial to discuss." She likes her job best when she's on the road, far away from the bureaucratic hub. "That's when I can focus on what's really important."
|Create a "stupid rules committee" to hunt
down and kill ridiculous rules. Ideally, the group would get everyone
involved in the pursuit, and a serious anti-rule bias would prevail. "When
in doubt, kill it."
Cut back on the meetings. By how much? Well, what percentage of meeting time seems to be time well spent? If it's 60%, shave your meeting time by 40%. Couple this with a crash course on effective meeting techniques that's tailored to your group's particular meeting pitfalls. If conversations tend to go off on useless tangents, learn ways to stay on track. If decision-making grinds on endlessly, equip yourself with consensus-building tools. At a minimum, craft a tight agenda for each meeting and stick to it. Also consider bringing in an outside facilitator -- at least for the first few meetings, when the group is trying to establish new habits.
Have a team take a pickax to the policies and procedures manual. Flip from page to page with one driving question: Does this policy help or hinder us in carrying out our organizational mission? Anything that hinders should be set aside and scrutinized. If there's no persuasive reason to keep it, chop it. Warning: Every policy and procedure has at least one staunch defender. Be ready to explain how each targeted item is anti-mission.
Resharpen the pickax and go after any red-tape-entangled forms. There are so many possibilities: time sheets, expense reports, requisitions, purchasing orders, and so forth. Most forms call for serious simplification while others can be eliminated altogether. Anything in triplicate should immediately draw the ax's attention. Important: The ax-wielding should be done by a team of people who work with these forms on a daily basis.
- The respect level varies widely throughout the organization.
- Rules and policies have a patronizing tone.
- Employees are often told what to do -- instead of being free to figure things out for themselves.
+ Employees show respect for one another regardless of rank and title.
+ When decisions are made, there's a thoughtful assessment of how each option may affect people.
+ People are treated like adults.
+ The golden rule is an implicit working principle throughout the organization.
|It's not the dirt or the broken furniture
that gets to Larry. It's not even the messy kids or the gum stuck beneath
the desks. What really bothers this long-time school custodian is the
teachers. "Theyíre adults with Ph.D.s!" he remarks, yet they ignore
easy-to-correct problems that crop up throughout the day. And when Larry
shows up for work at 3 p.m., the little problems have suddenly turned into
major disasters. " It's all about respect," he says. "If they respected me
and what I did, they would take that minute or two to fix the problems." He
cites one example: a clogged sink. "Sometimes a sink is full of crumpled up
paper towel. You can fix it in five seconds. But a teacher will see it and
think, 'We'll leave it for Larry to handle.' Then when I come in at 3
o'clock, there's an inch of water covering the restroom floor. Again, it all
gets back to respect."
"I love where I work," says Lorna, a finisher at a ceramics plant. "There's just a lot of trust here -- that's what makes it so great." When she worked there 10 years ago, her feelings couldn't have been more different. A rule-obsessive company owner kept employees on constant guard. "From the moment we punched in to when we punched out, we feared that guy," she says. "He treated us like machines." The lack of respect set a nasty tone for the workplace, and the culture became one where people looked out strictly for themselves. When the company was sold five years ago, things changed -- dramatically. Lorna: "We knew it would get better when the new owner had the time clock removed. From the very first day, he showed that he trusted us, and he treated us with respect. And we gave all that trust and respect right back."
|(Respect is truly an inside-out
proposition. If you want to boost the organization's collective respect
level, the best place to start is with yourself.)
Be a stand-out example of respect in action. Pay special attention to how you interact with people whose roles in the organization tend to be less valued than your own. Others will be watching -- and following your lead.
Apply a "zero-tolerance" policy to disrespect. If you're involved in situations where respect is sorely lacking, diplomatically state what you see, why you think it's wrong, and why a respectful approach would benefit everyone. Whatever you do, avoid compromising your respect ethic simply to get along.
The next time you make a decision, give fuller thought to who might be affected. Ask for their input, listen closely to their comments, and make a sincere effort to shape the decision accordingly.
Spend a day trying out someone else's job. We can learn plenty by walking in other people's work shoes. Your respect for other roles will grow by leaps and bounds.
- Great importance is placed on fitting in.
- Sameness rules.
- Requests for an office or an "away" space are routinely turned down, even when the request is well-justified.
- Differences are viewed as something to "deal with" -- as opposed to something to value and "capitalize on."
+ Individuality is encouraged.
+ People are comfortable being themselves.
+ The organization respects the fact that people sometimes need their own space (even in this era of teams!).
|Stan fondly recalls his supervisory work
at a plant that made PVC piping. For 10 years, he says, he typically saw his
boss only two hours a week. "He was always there if I needed him to clear
the way on something, but other than that, he stayed out of our way and let
us get our work done."
Kathleen was in the business of helping people to help themselves. Working for a government agency, she put unemployed residents in touch with local training opportunities. A number of her clients went on to build their skills and become a part of the workforce. That was the great part. The awful part had to do with working in a massive system in which she and her colleagues felt like numbers. Everything seemed so...homogenous. When it started to kill her spirit, she bolted. Her new job represents the ultimate in autonomy: She's an independent real-estate agent.
Imagine working with convicted murderers, rapists, and armed robbers. That's a daily reality for Karen, who works as an inmate counselor in one of America's toughest maximum-security prisons. If someone needs to enroll in a substance-abuse program, or if they need help mailing some letters, they turn to Karen. It's an incredibly demanding job, and she would give anything for her own private work space -- to do her paperwork, take calls from inmate family members, and simply get away for a few minutes. She poses what seems like a very reasonable question: "Considering what I do, is it too much to ask?"
|Take a look around you. To what degree
can you see signs of thriving individuality?
Have people decorated their
work spaces? Do differences come out in how people dress?
marked by streaks of independent thinking? Get a fix on all this, then
decide on several simple ways to foster a healthy sense of independence
among your colleagues. Turn them into action as soon as possible. For
example, you may know that Joan is especially effective as a devil's
advocate -- yet this part of her style has gone underground, in part because
the organization favors people who are chronically agreeable.
Do what you
can to let Joan be Joan. At an upcoming meeting, make a point of asking her
for a thorough critique of that project, idea, software, etc.
Focus on yourself: Have you been able to preserve your independence -- to be your own person in addition to being part of a collective effort? Identify one way in which the organization seems to have stifled your uniqueness, then commit to a personal plan for bringing that uniqueness back to life.
What about the physical layout of your workplace? Is there a quiet retreat space for people who want it? Your organization may have -- or should have -- a "community space" to promote relationship-building and oneness. A "reading room" or "think space" can serve as the perfect complement.
- Jobs tend to foster isolation, making it difficult for people to help each other.
- A "win-lose" mentality prevails throughout the workplace -- to such a degree that there's an unspoken pressure to look the other way when a colleague needs help. This is especially the case between work units and divisions.
- At best, talk of mentoring and coaching activities -- and other efforts to promote people serving people -- remains just talk.
+ Employees have all sorts of opportunities to help one another. This can be formal (mentoring programs, training, apprenticeships, etc.) and informal (on-the-spot coaching, explaining a process, walking a colleague through a new computer program, pitching in to help with a task, and so on).
+ There's an organizational obsession with helping others to be successful. "Others" is broadly defined: colleagues, customers, the community.
+ Each and every employee can quickly name the customers they serve.
+ "In my work, I'm able to help people grow."
+ Employees sometimes serve as "matchmakers," bringing together different individuals and groups to promote learning, relationship-building, systemic thinking, and (ultimately) improvement.
+ People who want to lead and influence in positive ways have an open field for doing so.
|Most people would call Lorraine a
health-care quality consultant, but she prefers to think of herself as "the
connector." As she describes it, much of her work involves bringing people
together so they can better serve each other and their customers. One
consulting assignment had her working at a nursing home where striking
differences appeared between first and second shifts. On second shift, more
than 114 residents in long-term care wore adult diapers, while during first
shift, only 30 of those same people were in diapers. "I worked with
leadership, unit managers, and line staff to figure out what they were doing
differently from shift to shift," Lorraine says. "Then I brought them
together so second shift could learn from first. I guided the conversation."
It marked the first time in a long time that the two shifts sat down to talk
and learn from each other. Within a couple of days, as the second shift
adopted some of the first shift's practices, there was a sharp decrease in
the number of residents wearing diapers. Lorraine had once again succeeded
in her "connector" role. "That's what feeds my soul and spirit," she says.
"Aha!" Those two syllables are music to Mark's ears. As an internal trainer for a government agency, his personal mission is to help people discover new ideas and tools for improving customer service. "It's all about helping people," he says. "When people in my workshops have those 'aha' moments, I know I'm really carrying out my mission."
Listening to Jill, a person quickly gets the feeling that she cuts little slack in her work as a police officer. This is one cop who gives out tickets and not warnings. Dig deeper, though, and you'll find a person who sees her real role as being a facilitator of positive change. "I have the power to become involved in others' lives," she says. When responding to domestic disputes, for instance, Jill doesn't simply slap on the handcuffs and write a report. She also talks with the family and does her best to improve the long-term situation, even if it involves non-emergency visits back to the home. "I have the power to assist them in creating change, no matter how difficult their lives are." This, she says, is the real source of meaning in her work.
|When talking about processes and systems,
adopt a service mindset and the language that goes with it. At first blush,
there seems to be only a minimal difference between "serving customers" and
"supplying products/services." But look more closely: The first suggests a
deeper purpose, while the latter has a sterile tone that harkens back to
Get together with colleagues to talk about this topic of service. Is it a core part of your purpose? Does it drive what you do and how you do it? If not, alarm bells should go off. If there's no clear purpose to begin with, now's the time to craft one through dialogue, making sure that service figures prominently as the conversation unfolds.
Look for jobs that are narrowly defined. In many cases, people who fill these positions have the fewest opportunities to serve others. Make a collective effort to widen or reinvent these roles so that service becomes a part of the job mix. In the end, everyone should be able to say: "I serve ___."
Develop a formal mentoring program. You may want to pick a better name -- to some, the word "mentoring" has a patronizing, daddy-knows-best tone. But the concept is sound, and best of all, it gives people another chance to serve.
Take on a community service project. Perhaps your organization can adopt a school and provide tutoring services. Or maybe the local senior center needs your help leading social activities for residents. Not everyone at your company will want to get involved, and that's fine. Those who do, however, will be throttling up their service ethic each time they do their community work. And they'll be taking this service spirit back to the workplace, where it can positively affect those around them.
- When people ask for support, management responds with skepticism: "Are you sure you need that information? You're the first group to ask for it."
- There's widespread agreement that when a person or group undertakes a project, the organizational odds are stacked against them.
- "The last thing I'd do is go to my boss for help! I'd never get this project done!"
- People contort and evade the system to get resources they need for their work. There may even be the workplace equivalent of a black market.
+ Employees are given the resources (information, time, funding, expertise, tools, etc.) they need to be successful in their work.
+ Management knows when to get involved and when to stay out of the way. They offer help instead of imposing it.
+ People have confidence in their supervisors and seek them out when a situation calls for coaching.
|Sandy worked as a computer specialist at
a company that produced slick business presentations. The field was changing
rapidly, mainly because of dramatic advances in computer technology. Sandy
did her best to keep pace, but as it turned out, her boss stood in the way.
She explains: "The company had a corporate membership in an industry
association, and the group's newsletter was full of great information about
the latest tools and techniques in our field. But my boss kept it under lock
and key. He didn't want to distribute it because it had help-wanted ads, and
he was afraid we'd see them and leave the company for other jobs. So we
missed out on all the valuable information in the newsletter." When Sandy
left the company -- and no, she didn't find out about the opportunity in a
smuggled copy of the newsletter! -- she found that her new employer
subscribed to the same newsletter and encouraged employees to read it.
really want me to succeed," Sandy says.
"They have enough faith in their
work environment that they don't have to worry about me rushing off to
Jerry is tired of waiting. It was a year ago, he says, that he asked his supervisor for certain data needed by a process-improvement team. "She said, 'Sure, no problem.' We figured it'd be a day or two," Jerry says. The day turned into a week...then a month...and another month. "I went back to her a few times, and at first, she blamed the delay on her work load. Then there were other excuses -- she couldn't find the data, it was too old to be useful, and on and on." The team went elsewhere to get the data and was only partially successful. They ended up using what they could find and making assumptions about the missing information.
In her work at a nuclear power plant, Marnie learned some powerful lessons about management. As executive assistant to the general manager, she came to appreciate how demanding his job was, and over time they established a positive rapport. "As hurried as he might be, he always gave me feedback," Marnie says. On one particularly memorable day, when the plant had shifted into emergency mode, Marnie caught the GM's wrath when she interrupted a high-level phone conversation. As soon as things calmed down, the two of them spent quantity time discussing and working through what had happened.
|Are any projects currently crying out for
support? ("We need that data!" "We need funding for a test run!" "Mary needs
to be on this team!") If so, provide what's needed, and do it now. In cases
where a request can't be filled, talk straight and explain why. Be sure to
have good reasons. Challenge the requester to find new ways of filling in
the support gap, then support them as they get inventive.
Take stock of what's being hoarded, hidden, and otherwise kept from employees. Is it an industry newsletter that's kept under wraps for crazy reasons? Is it a database, a computer, an equipment room? There are so many possibilities, all of which can keep people from effectively doing their jobs. Unlock these resources and throw away the key.
Ensure that all teams have an effective team sponsor. The sponsor creates the team charter and then stands out of the way while the team goes about its work. Where it gets tricky is knowing when to get involved. The wisest sponsors take their cues from the team, providing help when it's requested -- to address barriers, needs, or opportunities. If a sponsor seeks a hands-on role in team activities, chances are they're meddling instead of adding value. Remember, it's all about support.
Be ready to invest, literally, in great ideas. Some organizations nickel and dime innovation to death, while others do just the opposite and toss cash in all directions. The wise alternative is to have a clear collective direction coupled with a bias toward investment. Ideally, spending authority should be widely shared. Note: Be ready to stomach your way through ten bad innovation investments, because the eleventh one will be the smashing success.
- People are cubbyholed in various corners of the system -- to such a degree that the corner is all they see.
- The work grinds on endlessly, giving people few opportunities to sit back and take in the results of their efforts.
- Customer contact is limited to chance encounters, most of which involve complaints.
- There's a prevailing view that measurement is management's domain. Even worse, measurement is used to pinpoint weak areas and punish "those who are responsible."
+ Employees can see for themselves the impact of their work. (The stone-crusher sees the cathedral.)
+ There are tangible results.
+ Contact with customers (internal and external) is a routine part of doing business, giving employees a first-hand view of how their products/services are used.
+ Even when people produce intangibles, they have opportunities to see how their work benefits others.
|In her work as a teacher's aide in a
kindergarten classroom, Vivian is challenged every day -- make that every
minute. What makes it all worthwhile are those times when everything clicks
for a child. "I watch their faces, and I can see when they've caught on to a
new idea or a new skill," she says. "It's the best thing in the world."
On the first day, people sit rigidly in their chairs, arms folded. Jason sees it each time he conducts training sessions in quality improvement. It's as if they're saying: I dare you to teach me! On the second day, people start to unlock their arms -- and their minds. And by the third day, they're actively engaged. "This is such a great part of my job," Jason says. "I can see the change process unfold before my very eyes."
The mission seemed so daunting at first. Joan and her colleagues were developing a process to guide clerical employees into other administrative positions. "They had been dead-ended at the highest end of the clerical range," says Joan, who works in the public sector. "We wanted to create opportunities in the civil-service system for them to cross over into other positions." The team went to work, inspired by a committed leader and an open field for creativity. Then the results began to come in, and that's when the team found the deepest meaning in their work. Joan recalls: "We saw people grow. We saw people benefiting from this." Today, 20 years later, she often encounters people who went through the program and are now leaders in government. "It's very rewarding to know."
|When a major project is completed, take
time to admire and show off the group's hard work. Pull together everyone
who was involved at every stage of the creation process. Let them see
the finished product and, whenever possible, literally get their hands on
it. For example, if you've developed a new piece of software, have a "coming
out party" where colleagues can drop by and try it out.
In some cases, seeing the finished product/service may require a visit to the customer. This would be the case with, say, a huge industrial press that's assembled at the customer's plant. Imagine the deep satisfaction of seeing the press in action after you've worked on it for weeks at the manufacturing company.
Give special consideration to people whose roles in the organization put them far from the finished product/service stage. The purchasing specialist at a foundry, for instance, may rarely see the industrial casting going out the door. Everyone should have an occasional (at least) opportunity to see the output, wherever they work in the system. Note: It's inconvenient to have someone away from their regular job. In this case, it's totally worth it.
Organize a series of liberally defined "focus groups" with customers. Think of these as fact-finding conversations, in which five or so employees sit down with an equal number of customers. Ideally, each group should involve employees from different parts of the organization. Possible questions: "How are you (customer) using our product/service? How are you benefiting? What do you love about it...hate about it...and why?" The challenge for employees: to ask probing questions, listen closely to the answers, and avoid becoming defensive. The immediate result is a closer connection to the finished product/service and those who benefit. As a bonus, you get customer insights that can pave the way to improvement.
- Employees are paid at or below the going market rate for their positions even when their real worth to the organization is much greater.
- Most employees feel anonymous in the organization.
- There's deep skepticism that the work a person does makes any difference whatsoever.
+ Employees are genuinely valued by the organization.
+ People believe they are paid what they're worth.
+ Employee input is routinely solicited.
+ "The organization knows what I'm good at, values that, and goes to me for those things."
|After graduating from college, Stephen
went to work at the headquarters of a large nonprofit organization. He
brought plenty of skills and enthusiasm, yet from the very first day, he
found himself sitting...and sitting...and sitting.... "I was relegated to my
desk," he says, and few people ever tapped his know-how. He took the
initiative, diplomatically trying to get involved in projects. No one seemed
all that interested. It didn't take long for him to send out his resume and
land a new job elsewhere.
"I'm darn good at what I do, and people know it," says Judy, a nurse who works at a long-term care facility. "When we need to draw blood on someone and it's really tough to find the vein, they always call for me. It might sound crazy to an outsider -- drawing blood! -- but it makes me feel great to be needed."
Sally had always tinkered with computers, and without even trying, she got to know them inside out. That was in the early 1980s, and when the insurance company where she worked got serious about integrating computers into the business, guess whom everyone turned to? "Computers were just a hobby for me," says Sally, who at the time was a claims specialist. "But the management team showed real interest in my skills, and I was more than happy to help out." She ended up serving as team leader, and today she remains deeply involved in the company's MIS activities.
|Scrutinize the organization's pay rates.
Are they fair? Does each person's compensation match his/her true worth to
the company? (Note the key distinction: "true worth to the company" vs. "the
going rate for that position in the marketplace.") If not, be ready to make
upward adjustments. This is not about high pay -- it's about
Make a habit of showing your appreciation. Gratitude is the purest way to tell someone that you understand what they've done and how it contributes to the greater good. And it fosters a sense of equality -- in sharp contrast to praise, which conveys an image of the manager as approving parent.
The next time you're working through a problem, seek input from a greater number of people. If the challenge requires someone with a data-crunching bent, approach several people who are deeply interested in matters of analysis. If the situation calls for wild creativity, go to people who seem especially eager to flex their right-side brains. Make a habit of showing -- and not simply telling -- that you value people's expertise and interests.
Conduct a snap self-assessment: "What do I bring to the workplace that's not valued?" Then ask: "Why isn't it valued?" Could it be that people simply don't know you possess these strengths? If so, you need to engage in some personal public relations and marketing. If the reasons run deeper, what other actions can you take? Ideally, get together with a group of colleagues to pose these worth-related questions. An open conversation will reveal entirely new strengths and interests, even among people who've been together for years