Monday, August 27, 2012


The comment about Culture prompted me to think more about various experiences with employees and how those were colored by the prevailing culture.  Here are some anecdotes with notes on how they relate to the ambient culture.

SUGGESTION BOXES.  Do you have one?  Employees or customers can write a note and put it in the slot, but then what?  I have worked in two organizations where the suggestion boxes were never utilized.  When I asked employees about this, here are the answers:
1.      “Gee, Dr. Burney.  If I have an idea, I just tell my supervisor, and it’s done.  Why should I write it down?”
2.      “We’re afraid we’d be fired.”  (This was a government office where it’s really hard to fire someone, and impossible to do so on the basis of a comment.  Still, the prevailing culture was fear and intimidation.)
Which organization got more suggestions from employees?  One year later, which could demonstrate positive changes in the way things were done as a result of employee input?  Where would you like to work?

LISTENING.  The nurse was almost standing on my toes as she spoke earnestly about why a decision I had announced was wrong.  After listening for a bit, I decided she was right, and when she took a breath, I said, “OK.  You’re right.  We’ll do it your way, starting tomorrow.”  It was a small thing for the organization but a big thing for this nurse.  Next time, it may be important for everyone, and she will feel empowered to speak again.  Employees need to be heard; to feel that their opinions count. 

EMPOWERMENT.  This is where innovation begins.  It is the freedom to try something new and the permission to fail.  There are even companies that give awards for failure on the theory that if you’re afraid of failing, you’ll never try anything new.  Here’s a quote attributed to George Patton: “Tell them what you want done, but don’t tell them how to do it.  They will amaze you with their ingenuity.”  How much money can you spend without asking permission? 

HIRING. How do you hire “good” employees?  The answer, of course, is that you don’t. You hire competent individuals and make them good employees by the way you treat them.  Some argue that you should “hire attitude and teach aptitude.”  True for some positions.  You don’t want the shy, retiring wall flower to be your receptionist. I visited my alma mater a few years ago, shortly after they had installed a new president.  One of the professors told me, “No one would ever leave here to work somewhere else!”  That was probably an exaggeration, but did indicate his respect for the new president and his dedication to the new culture at the university.  New employees will come into that culture and acquire those same values. 

MAINTENANCE.  OK.  This employee has been working for you for a year.  How does s/he feel about the organization now?  Do you know?  Notice that I didn’t ask how you feel about her!  That would bring up the subject of annual evaluations.  Deming has written eloquently about why this is a bad idea.  Read his stuff.  Yes, employees need feedback, but they need it every day, not just once a year.  It needn’t be a formal process.  Here are some useful words and phrases:  “Nice job.  Well done.  Thanks for taking care of that.  I support Mary’s thoughts on this.  Yes!  Good.  Take care of this problem for me.  Put this on letterhead for the boss’s signature.”  You get the idea.  Constant and repetitive affirmation of your confidence and approval.  Awards are nice, but only if the award process is credible.  If awards are given for frivolous reasons or to people who don’t deserve them, it cheapens the whole process.  If you do an annual written assessment, nothing there should be a surprise.  (These are required in the Civil Service.)  As Deming has said, evaluations should never be linked to money.  One thing I like about the Civil Service system is that step increases come at predictable intervals, unrelated to evaluations.  (Unless Congress decrees there won’t be any!  By the way, read carefully.  All those bonuses you read about went to political appointees.  Rank and file Civil Service employees got nothing.)

FIRING. But what if it doesn’t work.  What if you make a mistake?  First, admit that this was a failure of your hiring process.  Fix it.  Then, see if there’s another position where this employee would flourish.  See if something in their personal life is coloring their attitude at work.  I once had a grumpy that no one wanted to work with.  We had a long talk, after which I gave her a substantial raise and added to her duties.  She became an outstanding performer and justified my confidence in her basic abilities. 
However, there are always those who just don’t fit.  Wish them well and bid farewell, but do it quickly.  Yes, it’s hard, but it’s even harder a year later.

IN SUM.  There you have it.  A new set of Robert’s Rules.  These are not new ideas and certainly not mine.  But they work.  The size and complexity of your organization will affect implementation, but the principles are valid everywhere.   

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