Friday, October 27, 2006

Creating A Happy Workplace

I was reminded recently of that old story about the man who asks two guys working in a quarry what they're doing. One man said, "I'm making rocks square." The other man, who was doing the same thing, said, "I'm building a cathedral." The moral, of course, is to be like the second man with the big vision.

True, true...

But what occurred to me is that sometimes employers don't bother to let their employees in on the big picture. It's as if the boss told the two men in the quarry nothing more than, "Make these rocks square," but gave them no idea that by doing so they were contributing to the construction of a magnificent cathedral. In this case, you don't have one man with a problem, you have two men with a problem; two men who can't see beyond the tedium of their jobs. And in this case it's not their fault at all.

Over the years I've worked at and with a number of companies, large and small, and have occasionally even written company newsletters, and I think that the morale at companies where people at the bottom of the organization understand what is going on at the top are much happier places.

Let me illustrate. Suppose you are a sports fan but the only information you are given about your team is that it won or lost its last game. You can't listen to the game in your car or watch it on TV and you certainly can't attend the game. Wouldn't that take all the spice out of the sport for you?

And while I'm exaggerating to make my point, I think that a lot of companies essentially do that. They don't tell the troops what the leadership has in mind or where the company is going, or the challenges or opportunities ahead, they just tell people what to do - without context. I believe a lot of company leaders think that "communicating" means to let people know when the company picnic will be held. In fact, I have even seen press releases sent out and published in the national media before the employees were even aware of the information. Hello?

So my advice to company presidents and CEOs is this: Tell your employees everything you can about what's going on at the company, and if there are some things you can't tell them, tell them that item is a secret. Your employees are probably on your side - at least initially - and they want the company to succeed. They want to feel they are part of a team, not just making square rocks. They want to hear that, "We're negotiating with a large Japanese electronics company - I can't tell you who just now - but it could be huge and I thought you'd like to know," or that, "We're going to be facing some really tough times. Our competitor has just unveiled a new widget that both vacuums and makes coffee, and we'll need to respond by doing A, B, and C."

If you don't do this, people will come to realize that there is a caste system at your company; those who know what's happening and those who are left in the dark. They'll understand that there have to be some secrets, but let this division become commonplace and you'll create a lot of unhappy people.

Now, I mentioned that this advice is for presidents and CEOs. Not exclusively, of course, but mainly. Why? Because it is a task your middle managers almost certainly won't do well. The reason is that middle managers are afraid they'll get in trouble for saying something they weren't supposed to say, so they'll lean toward keeping even perfectly harmless information secret. Sometimes they even know the information is harmless but keep it secret anyway because "people wouldn't really be interested in that." (Yes, I've heard that many times, even when I knew it was interesting information.)

So anyway, you need to set the example! Send your thoughts out to everybody in the company on a regular basis (I'd recommend every other week) by email or on paper, and in company meetings talk in as much detail as you can about what's happening. I think you'll create a much happier workplace.

No comments: