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Communication Miracles at Work
Effective Tools and Tips for Getting the Most from your Work Relationships
By Mathew Gilbert
Red Wheel/Weiser, LLCCopyright © 2002 Mathew Gilbert
All rights reserved.
"Thinking about corporate culture might sound somewhat 'touchy feely,' but I would argue that few characteristics are more important to a company's success."
—The Motley Fool, a financial website
"We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools."
—Martin Luther King. Jr.
Before exploring workplace communication or the potential for miracles, let's first talk about the workplace itself and how it has (and hasn't) changed over the years. If you watch old movies, for example, you'll notice that most companies were depicted as pretty straitlaced, with lots of earnest men in their starched white shirts and conservative ties performing their narrow but important roles with a steadfast commitment. There were specific rules, chains of command, and the general drone of commerce without much variation. It was a time when companies like Ford, IBM, and General Electric ruled the Western world, where you took what these paternal giants gave you and were happy just to be a productive cog in the economic machine.
Today, with more women in the workforce, more autonomy for employees, partnering and teamwork, flextime and job shares, and growing multicultural diversity, the workplace bears little resemblance to the one to which our fathers made a lifetime commitment. Workplaces are changing with the times, spurred also by a flood of new strategies for getting more out of less: hierarchy leveling, quality circles, theories Y and Z, "best practices," and the list goes on. The goal of these strategies has been to improve workplace performance while giving management—and employees—more of that they need.
And yet despite all that effort and adaptation and, for many workers, growing wages, job satisfaction remains surprisingly low:
A study completed in 2000 by The Conference Board, a nonprofit membership organization for business executives, found that almost half of all workers weren't happy with their jobs.
A recent study of 1000 workers commissioned by Headhunter.net found that 78 percent of them would take a new position if the right opportunity came along, while 48 percent were actively looking for a new job.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that American workers hold on average nine different jobs before the age of thirty-two (which isn't all that amazing if you think about how many restaurant jobs you had before the age of twenty!).
According to these and other reports, the most frequently cited reasons that we leave our jobs, or would like to, include a lack of recognition, salary issues, a weak sense of purpose or mission, few opportunities for advancement, and insufficient training. Many people surveyed also reported a drop in satisfaction with their workplace relationships, historically a key component of job enjoyment.
And yet workplace benefits have never been more generous. Companies are going out of their way to meet their employees' needs, sometimes out of a true sense of giving, sometimes as a desperate measure to keep staff, and sometimes as a response when cries for change can no longer be ignored. Many of these changes are designed to help working folks better integrate their personal lives with their professional lives. And still they don't seem to be enough.
What's going on here? From what well does such deep dissatisfaction draw?
Sure, there are legitimate problems in our workplaces, many of which will be discussed in the pages that follow. Workplace stress, much of it fueled by dysfunctional relationships and communication breakdowns, has never been higher. But maybe we're asking for too much from our jobs. Should work be all things to all people? Can it be? Are acknowledgment, a big paycheck, limitless potential, and limited hassles more than any company should be expected to give?
Wanting It All
In 1943, psychologist Abraham Maslow presented his famous "hierarchy of needs" theory. At the bottom of the pyramid are the basics: food, water, shelter. Then there is safety and security (money). Next come social needs (a sense of belonging, love), then ego needs (self-esteem, respect from others), and finally self-actualization—achieving our highest potential. It was a process he felt that all human beings are born to follow, the natural stages of human maturation. But is it a process that stops at the office door? Perhaps it's unrealistic to think that we can meet all our higher needs at our jobs. There are many who believe that our expectations have simply become too high, that our jobs were never meant to provide much more than a fair wage and a reasonably pleasant place to work.
This claim was best expressed in a provocative article entitled "The Myth of Job Happiness" In Workforce, a magazine for "human resource" professionals. It quoted both an author and a professor defending the notion that the problem of workplace dissatisfaction lies not with the companies but with their workers. The author, Dave Arnott (who wrote Corporate Cults: The Insidious Lure of the All-Consuming Organization), believes that "employees are expecting the wrong things from the workplace. They are expecting emotional satisfaction from work, not just financial satisfaction."
Professor of leisure studies Benjamin Hunnicutt goes even further, stating, "It's a myth that we can find identity, meaning, and community at work." He calls this the "Mary Tyler Moore myth," a reference to the optimistic heroine of television sitcom fame. "In reality," he says, "employees find dullards and irrational bosses" because the politics of work "is about control."
Well, he's right up to a point. But the whole purpose of what came to be called by management theorists the "human relations movement" was to counteract the task-oriented models of workplace performance with a more people-centered perspective. And while it's also true that work has taken up more and more space in our lives, what's wrong with a company with a healthy sense of community, where people working together can stretch for something larger than the next paycheck? Our jobs shouldn't supplant a healthy life outside of work where family, friends, and being in nature take precedent, but if we leave too much of ourselves at home, our performance at work can only suffer, and so too will the company that employs us.
And don't assume that companies or groups whose primary mission is to save the world have it any easier. These workplaces can be just as dysfunctional as any glass-towered corporate Goliath. Having worked with Green Party USA in the early 1990s, I can tell you that just because a group of people is committed to lofty goals of societal and planetary change doesn't mean it knows how to work together or to get a job done. In fact, with so much passion and purpose on the line, the organization's members spent as much time figuring out how to get along as they did working on how to actually get their messages out. Ironically, though, by focusing so much energy on an inclusive process of making decisions, they were changing the world, one disagreement at a time.
Fortunately there are companies—more than you may think—that receive consistently high marks for employee satisfaction, have low rates of turnover, and earn impressive financial returns. They have integrated corporate values and personal values into a way of doing business that honors the need for both. The recipe for success is slightly different for each, but they all share characteristics that make them stand out in a crowd.
This is where the nitty-gritty of workplace culture comes in.
In short, workplace culture is defined by a company's mission, goals, and values and by how those things influence the working environment itself and the behaviors of those who work there. It's basically what differentiates working for one company from working for another. From the pressed-suit rigidity of Wall Street to the "anything goes" philosophy of dot.coms (at least in the early days), each company has its own spoken and unspoken rules of conduct, further influenced by societal standards and gender conditioning of what is and isn't OK.
Hospitals, for example, are in the business of preserving and saving lives, and that overarching commitment affects the urgency with which that mission is carried out. A cake factory, by comparison, will probably have an entirely different atmosphere. Yes, there may be an urgency to getting cakes in the box and out the door, but they are cakes, not people (just imagine the fringe benefits, though!).
But even companies in the same business can have very diverse dispositions. When I was working in the casino business back in the late 1970s, there was an establishment on every corner and quite a few in between, but each one was slightly different. There were the high-roller hotels, where dealers were expected to act with a certain decorum. Chatting with the customers was discouraged, and the dress and grooming codes were strictly enforced. In others, the prevailing attitude was that the fewer rules, the better. A truck-stop casino near Reno, the last chance to gamble before crossing the state line into California, was famous as a place where dealer-customer repartée was part of the show. The friendlier you were, the more likely you'd walk away at the end of the night with a pocketful of tips.
To get a better sense of your workplace culture, think of it as having a personality. Is it loose or rigid, fun or serious, caring or cold? Could it be characterized as a race car driver, a mother hen, a stuffy patriarch, an absentminded professor? Is it more like Gordon Gecko, the character in the movie Wall Street, ready to eat someone's lunch at a moment's notice, or like good-guy banker Jimmy Stewart in It's a Wonderful Life? Is it the kind of place where honesty and respect are considered fundamental corporate values, or is it nose-to-the-grindstone, don't ask questions, punch the clock, and go home?
What does all this have to do with communication? A lot, because the more a company encourages openness, camaraderie, and teamwork on the job, the more fertile the conditions for a communication miracle to occur. Camaraderie, and teamwork on the job, the more fertile the conditions for a communication miracle to occur. In fact, the more open and human-centered the company, the more likely that a communication breakthrough will seem like an everyday part of business and not a miracle. A manager goes out of her way to ensure that an employee has what he needs to do his job. A co-worker will make it a point to be friendly to a shy new hire. The boss of the entire company asks you what should be done about the new federal regulations.
And so how we communicate at our jobs—what, where, when, why, and with whom—is influenced by what is and isn't valued in our company's particular culture.
Is Your Company a "Great Place to Work"?
Believe it or not, there is an organization called Great Place to Work(r) Institute, which for the last several years has identified companies whose workplace cultures resonate with the kind of qualities that keep employees satisfied and loyal. They publish an annual list entitled "The 100 Best Companies to Work For," which occupies significant editorial space in each year's January edition of Fortune magazine.
Institute founder Robert Levering defines a "great place to work" as one where you "trust the people you work with, have pride in what you do, and enjoy the people you work with." As Levering and his associates see it, trust is measured by credibility ("Are managers approachable? Do they deliver on their promises?"), respect ("Are your contributions recognized and your ideas sought out?" "Does the company realize that you have a personal life?"), and fairness ("Is good work properly rewarded? Is everyone treated equally?"). Pride is about the job itself: Does your work have meaning? Is it helping to make the world a better place? And finally, it is measured by camaraderie: Is your workplace friendly? Do you feel like you can be yourself? If you answer yes to all these questions, you've struck it rich!
The institute's work confirms the belief that the real reason people stay in the same job is not because of an impressive benefits package or the latest technological tools, but because their work satisfies and fulfills them on a deeper level. How one feels at work and the quality of the relationships they have with others are often at the heart of their contentedness. Such an experience of what a company and its people are capable of can inspire the kind of loyalty that money just can't buy.
The TDI Story
TDIndustries is a construction and service company that has provided a variety of mechanical, electrical, plumbing, and energy services to customers in Texas and throughout the Southwest for more than fifty years. It has been a consistent high scorer in the institute's "Top-100" rankings, is employee owned—which says something about the company's commitment to those who work there—and staff loyalty is legendary. The mission statement reads, in part, that the company "focuses on our customers as the engine which drives our ability to provide outstanding careers for all of our employee owners and security for their families."
Spokesperson Jessie McCain explains that TDI's success is largely the result of "our concern for and belief in individual human beings. We believe that the individual has dignity and importance, that people are basically honest, and that each person wants to do a good job. We believe that no one has ever really found the limits of human ability. In addition, [we value] individual differences, honesty, building trusting relationships, fairness, responsible behavior, and high standards of business ethics."
This sounds very impressive, doesn't it? It's important to know, though, that TDI's accomplishments didn't happen overnight. They are the result of a long and persevering process, both a bottom-up and top-down commitment, which McCain describes as "long experience with mistakes and triumphs, and a spirit that sustains and uplifts." And a big part of their success has been their emphasis on communication.
The company has what it calls a "no-door" policy. This means that anyone can visit anyone else at any time. If the mail clerk has a bone to pick with the vice president of distribution, he or she is encouraged to do so. In fact, says McCain, "Our wonderful CEO, Jack Lowe, is disappointed if "partners" (all employees are considered partners) do not visit him. Jack leads a series of meetings every few weeks where a group of thirty or so partners are invited to have breakfast with him to discuss anything that is on their minds. The meetings are called Partner Roundtables and have been a very effective vehicle for letting Jack 'in on the grapevine' and knowing what is concerning our workers."
TDIndustries also believes in "open-book management." On one Friday each month they discuss with anyone who can attend all sales and forecast information "so everyone will know where we are from a financial standpoint."
TDI empowers its employees to resolve problems at their source. "The person closest to the problem is probably the one who knows best how to correct it!" says McCain. "We aren't a very formal or structured company, but somehow we're usually able to solve most of our problems without mediation or formal review. When you get conflicting parties together in the same room with a win-win attitude, there isn't much you can't accomplish together."
Finally, TDI has an extensive "new partner" orientation process that spans a two-year period and covers everything from the company's culture and benefits to its emphasis on quality and opportunities for growth. "Needless to say," McCain enthuses, "communication is the key word at TDIndustries. In fact, we've been accused of overcommunicating!"
Assessing Your Company's Culture
Now, all of this is well and good. We applaud the TDIs of the world (and you'll read about more of them in chapter 8). We love the idea of an open, honest, functional workplace where everyone is treated like a human being, where there are no real bad guys, and where sales goals are always met. But in reality, the workplace is usually a very mixed bag. You may love your co-workers but think your boss is a loser. There may be a great benefits package, but mistakes are treated harshly. There may be an open-door policy with management, but perhaps your ideas are never implemented.
So it's important to get a better handle on the culture of your workplace—its strengths and weaknesses, its written and unwritten codes of conduct—and how those things affect your comfort level and performance. Its written and unwritten codes of conduct—and how those things affect your comfort level and performance. Once you determine the kind of company you work for, you will start to understand how that "corporate personality" Influences your interactions with others.
Excerpted from Communication Miracles at Work by Mathew Gilbert. Copyright © 2002 Mathew Gilbert. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
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