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A Remarkable Way to Boost Morale and Improve Results
By Stephen C. Lundin, Ph.D., Harry Paul, and John Christensen
Copyright © 2000 Stephen C. Lundin, Harry Paul, and John Christensen.
All rights reserved.
It was a wet, cold, dark, dreary, dismal Monday in Seattle, inside and out. The best the meteorologist on Channel 4 could offer was a possible break in the clouds around noon. On days like this Mary Jane Ramirez missed Southern California.
What a roller coaster, she thought, as her mind retraced the last three years. Dan, her husband, had received a great offer from Microrule and she had been confident she could find a job once they relocated. In just four short weeks they had given notice, packed, moved, and found great daycare for the kids. Their house hit the Los Angeles housing market just at the right time and sold immediately. True to her confidence, Mary Jane quickly found a supervisory position in the operations area of First Guarantee Financial, one of Seattle's largest financial institutions.
Dan really loved his job at Microrule. When he came home at night he was bursting with energy and full of stories about the great company for which he now worked and the advanced work they were doing. Dan and Mary Jane would frequently put the children to bed and talk well into the evening. As excited as Dan was about his new company, he was always just as interested in her day, wanting to know about her new colleagues and the challenges she was facing in her work life. Anyone watching would easily guess that they were best friends. The spirit of each shined in the presence of the other.
Their detailed planning had anticipated every possible contingency but one. Twelve months after moving to Seattle, Dan was rushed to the hospital with a burst aneurysm"a genetic oddity" they called itand he died of internal bleeding while never regaining consciousness. There was no warning and no time to say good-bye.
That was two years ago this month. We weren't even in Seattle a full year.
Stopping in mid-thought, with memories flooding her mind, a surge of emotion welled up inside her. She caught herself. This is not the time to think about my personal life; the workday is less than half over, and I'm swamped with work.
First Guarantee Financial
During her three years at First Guarantee, Mary Jane had developed a great reputation as a "can-do" supervisor. She wasn't the first to arrive or the last to leave, but she had a work ethic that almost always left her in-basket empty. The thoughtful way she conducted her work actually led to a small problem in the organization as others tried to make sure that their work passed through her part of the organization. They knew the work would get done on time and with the highest quality.
She was also a good person to work for. She always listened closely to the concerns and ideas of her staff and was well liked and respected in return. It wasn't uncommon for her to cover for someone with a sick child or important appointment. And, as a working manager, she led her department in production. She did this in an easygoing way, which rarely generated any tensionother than tension to get the job done well. Her direct reports and associates enjoyed working with and for her. Mary Jane's small group developed a reputation as a team you could count on.
In sharp contrast, there was a large operations group on the third floor that was often the topic of conversation for the opposite reason. Words like unresponsive, entitlement, zombie, unpleasant, slow, wasteland, and negative were used frequently to describe this group. It was the group everyone loved to hate. Unfortunately for the company, nearly every department needed to interact with the third floor since they processed most of First Guarantee's transactions. Everyone dreaded any contact with the operations group.
Supervisors swapped stories about the latest fiasco on the third floor. Those who visited the third floor described it as a place so dead that it sucked the life right out of you. Mary Jane remembered the laughter when one of the other managers said that he deserved a Nobel Prize. When she asked what he meant, he said, "I think I may have discovered life on the third floor." Everyone roared.
Then, a few weeks later, Mary Jane had cautiously and somewhat reluctantly accepted a promotion to manager of the operations group on the third floor of First Guarantee. While the company had great hopes for her, she had major reservations about accepting the job. She had been comfortable in her present joband her willingness to take risks had been much higher before Dan's death. The group she had been supervising had been with her during the rough days after Dan's death, and she had felt a strong bond with them. It would be hard to leave people who had shared so much of themselves during such dark times.
Mary Jane was acutely aware of the terrible reputation of the third floor. In fact, if it hadn't been for all of the unforeseen expenses of Dan's hospitalization, she probably would have turned down the promotion and pay raise. So here she was, on the infamous third floor. The third person to have the job in the last two years.
The Third Floor
In her first five weeks on the job she had struggled to understand the work and the people. While mildly surprised that she liked many of the people who worked on three, she quickly realized that the third floor deserved its reputation. She had observed Bob, a five-year veteran on the third floor, letting the phone ring seven times before purposely breaking the connection by unplugging the cord. She had overheard Martha describing how she handled those in the company who "hassled" her to do her processing fastershe put their file under the out-basket "by mistake." Every time Mary Jane went into the break room there was someone dozing at the table.
Most mornings the phones rang unanswered for ten to fifteen minutes after the official start of the day because the staff was still arriving. When questioned, the excuses were both abundant and lame. Everything was slow motion. The "zombie" description of the third floor was definitely deserved. Mary Jane did not have a clue what to do, only the knowledge and conviction that she must do something and do it soon.
The night before, after the kids were asleep, she had tried to work out her situation by writing in her journal. She looked down at last night's entry:
It may have been cold and dreary outside on Friday, but the view from my internal office window made dreary sound like a compliment. There was no energy there. At times I find it hard to believe there are living human beings on three. It takes a baby shower or a wedding for anyone to come alive. They never get excited about anything that's actually happening at work.
I have thirty employees for whom I am responsible and for the most part they do a slow, short day's work for a low day's pay. Many of them have done the same slow day's work in the same way for years and are totally bored. They seem to be good people, but whatever spark they may have once had, they have lost. The culture of the department is such a powerful and depressing force that new people quickly lose their spark as well. When I walk among the cubicles it feels like all the oxygen has been sucked right out of the air. I can hardly breathe.
Last week I discovered four clerks who were still not using the computer system installed here two years ago. They said they liked doing it the old way. I wonder how many other surprises are in store for me.
I suppose many back room operations are like this. Not much here to get excited about, just lots of transactions which need to be processed. But it doesn't have to be like this. I must find a way to convey how crucial our work is to the company. Our work allows others to serve the company's customers.
Although our work may be a critical part of the big picture, it happens behind the scenes and is basically taken for granted. It's an invisible part of the organization and would never appear on the company's radar screen if it wasn't so bad. And believe me, it is bad.
It is not a love for this work which brings any of us to this department. I'm not the only person with money problems on this floor. Many of the women and one of the men are also single parents. Jack's ailing father just moved in with him. Bonnie and her husband now have two grandchildren as full-time residents. The big three are why we are here: salary, security, and benefits.
Mary Jane pondered the last sentence she had written in her journal. Back room operations had always been lifetime positions. The pay was adequate, and the jobs were secure. Looking at the rows of cubicles and desks outside her office, she formulated some questions. "Does my staff know that the security they cherish might be just an illusion? Do they realize the extent to which market forces are reshaping this industry? Do they understand that we will all need to change in order for this company to compete in a rapidly consolidating financial services market? Are they aware that if we don't change we will eventually find ourselves looking for other employment?"
She knew the answers. No. No. No. No. Her staff members were set in their ways. They had been left alone in the back room far too long. They were just doing their jobs and hoping that retirement would come before change. And what about herself? Was her view that different?
The ringing phone pulled her back into the present. The call was followed by a sixty-minute blur of "fire fighting." First, she found out that an important client file was missing and it was rumored to have last been seen on the third floor. Next, someone from another department was so sick and tired of being put on hold she came to the third floor in person and was creating an unpleasant scene. At least there was some energy to work with. Then someone from legal was disconnected three times in a row. And one of the many staff members out ill today had an important project due. After the last fire of the morning was extinguished, Mary Jane reached for her lunch and headed for the door.
The Toxic Energy Dump
Mary Jane had begun leaving the building for lunch during the last five weeks. She knew the cafeteria lunch group would be doing what they always did, discussing the sins of the company and moaning about the third floor. It was now too personal and much too depressing to listen to their complaints. She needed some fresh air.
Most of the time she strolled down the hill to eat lunch at the waterfront. There, while nibbling on a bagel, she would gaze at the water or watch the tourists mill around the little shops. It was a tranquil setting, and Puget Sound provided her some contact with the natural world.
She had only made it two cubicles from her office when she heard the distinct sound of her phone ringing. It could be the day care, she thought. Stacy did have a runny nose this morning. So she raced back to her office, picking up the phone on the fourth ring. "This is Mary Jane Ramirez," she gasped.
"Mary Jane, this is Bill."
Oh boy, what now, she wondered, as she listened to the voice of her new boss. Bill was another reason she had thought twice about taking the job on three. He had a reputation as a real SOB. As far as she could tell, his reputation was deserved. He would issue commands, cut you off midsentence, and he had an annoying habit of asking about the status of projects in a paternal way. "Mary Jane, are you staying on top of the Stanton project?" As if she didn't have a clue. Mary Jane was the third manager in two years, and she was beginning to understand that it wasn't just the problems with the people on three, it was also Bill.
"I've just come out of an all-morning meeting with the leadership group, and I want to meet with you this afternoon."
"Sure, Bill, is there a problem?"
"The leadership is convinced that we're in for some tough times and in order to survive, we will need the best from everyone. More productivity from the same employees, or we start making changes. We talked about the corrosive effect of a few departments, where the energy and morale are so low that it pulls everyone down."
A feeling of dread descended upon Mary Jane.
"The boss went to one of those touchy-feely conferences on spirit in the workplace, and he's all fired up. I don't think it's fair to single out the third floor, but he seems to believe the third floor is the biggest problem."
"He singled out the third floor?"
"Not only did he single out the third floor, but he had a special name for it. He called it a 'toxic energy dump.' I don't want one of my departments called a toxic energy dump! It's unacceptable! It's embarrassing."
Excerpted from FISH by Stephen C. Lundin, Ph.D., Harry Paul, and John Christensen. Copyright © 2000 by Stephen C. Lundin, Harry Paul, and John Christensen. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.