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TEAM SPIRIT BUILT FROM THE TOP

JIM CLEMMER
Friday, November 26, 2004

Team spirit is the catalyst every organization needs to achieve outstanding performance. Strategic plans, marketing, technology and capital investment are clearly important, but emotional commitment of the people using the tools and executing the plans is what determines whether companies sink or soar.

Too often, clients and customers have their expectations raised by shiny and expensive facilities, only to be treated like intruders once they step inside. Companies can make huge investments in technologies yet have indifferent frontline staff who demonstrate about as much enthusiasm for customers and their needs as a teenager for more rules and supervision.

For the most effective companies, organizational spirit or culture is a major competitive advantage. Companies can purchase the same equipment, technologies, products, people, brands, facilities and other tangible assets as their competitors.

But they cannot buy the intangible culture of caring for customers or commitment to high quality that makes or breaks all their tangible investments. This can only be earned through strong and consistent leadership.

Killing spirit

Here are some ways that ineffective managers often kill an organization's spirit and build a culture of mediocrity:

External advertising and branding is inconsistent with what people working inside the company experience every day on the job. This increases "the snicker factor," deepens cynicism, and emotionally disconnects the staff delivering the services from their organization. So customers see a big gap between their expectations set by the company's marketing efforts and the actual service experience.

But managers -- especially senior managers -- rarely experience the customer's frustration. When frontline servers (already feeling unvalued by management) are further demoralized by unhappy customers, managers will often say frontline staff are to blame, and order customer service training, motivational/incentive programs, paternalistic recognition programs and the like. Or senior managers may push harder on performance-management systems to hold frontline staff and/or their supervisors more accountable for delivering respectful and caring customer service.

There's a lot of talk about empowerment while there are still too many approval levels, slow decision-making, and rules ("you're empowered but check with us first"). There's talk of an open-door policy, but closed minds or coolness often greet people who raise unpopular issues or bad news. When people participate in surveys and focus groups, they rarely hear back about what was done with their input.

Despite pious declarations about the importance of people, leadership and values, many managers treat people in their organizations with about as much care as they would attach to office equipment. Workers are just one more set of assets to be managed. Phrases like "head count," "human capital" and "my people," dehumanize and objectify workers. We could push this further and make the same argument for "human resources." Most of us want to be treated as a person, not a resource.

Management staff and management issues are treated with much higher priority than those of frontline staff. Managers spend most of their time in their own offices, working with each other. They spend little time on the frontlines. Rarely is frontline staff asked about opinions or issues.

Managers too often have the attitude: "If I want any of your bright ideas I'll give them to you." Once every year or two, management might run an organizational survey, then discount results as "just their perception, not reality." Or managers might exhort supervisors to improve morale in their organizations.

Paternalistic recognition programs provide condescending pats on the head, much like those given the family dog. Managers give out compliments or recognition as if they expect a receipt.

Building spirit

Pride, for many people, is more important than money. In organizations in which people are disrespected and poorly treated, higher pay becomes a key way of compensating for the soul-destroying drudgery of the job. In contrast, highly spirited and well-led organizations are often competitive in their financial pay scales but way ahead of their counterparts in "psychic pay" via higher levels of pride and satisfaction.

Most people want to be on a winning team, to feel proud of the organization and their own accomplishments. This emotional connection provides a deep sense of making a difference through meaningful work. Highly effective leaders nurture a strong "pride of craft" for the products or services the organization provides and what these do for customers. Workers feel valued for what they do. Individual, team, and organizational accomplishments and milestones are celebrated. Everyone feels emotionally committed to the team or organization's goals, purpose, and customers.

There are many ways that strong leaders can build organization spirit. Here are a few suggestions:

General Electric's famous "workout" process involved large "town hall meetings" to identify non-value-added work and to take that work out of the organization's systems and processes. Many variations of this approach can be used to streamline support systems that get in the way. Bureaucracy, errors, rework and inefficiency kill commitment while slowing things down and adding lots of cost. Formally and informally ask people what makes them feel they are doing useful work and what makes them feel they are doing useless work. Involve them in developing action plans to build on the useful work and eliminate or reduce the useless work.

Build a highly customer-focused organization. Bring a constant stream of customers into your organization. Invite them to planning sessions, feature them at recognition or celebration events, ask them to tell stories about how your products/services are being used and making a difference. Capture those stories on video, audio or in print, and circulate them widely. Frequently get people in your organization (especially those serving the people who are serving customers) out to meet customers.

Keep things simple and direct. Keep business units small and give teams autonomy. Keep pruning back the bureaucracy of centralization, rules, complicated systems and multistep processes. These disconnect and frustrate people while killing spirit and making work meaningless.

Encourage and promote humour to release tension in a situation and keep people looking at the lighter side of things. But ensure that humorous comments don't disguise barbs and "sniping" among team members. And avoid humorous putdowns of others that may reinforce a sense of "they are out to get us."

Lead change with examples of how your organization has gone through tough times or major changes like these before. Appeal to a proud heritage. Tell them how you've all come from a lineage of leaders and it's everyone's obligation to build an even stronger organization as a legacy for future generations.

Keep highly visible scoreboards, big thermometers (as in a fund-raising campaign), bulletin boards, Intranet sites, voice-mail messages and newsletters to update everyone on progress toward key goals or change and improvement targets. Make goals/targets and progress as visible as possible.

Look for every opportunity to recognize and celebrate significant accomplishments and milestones reached. Model and encourage simple "thank yous" and reinforce positive behaviour whenever you see it.

Keep in mind that we are all searching for more meaningful work with an organization or a team we can feel proud of.

We don't just want a job. We want to go beyond success to significance. We want to make a difference. We want passion, excitement, and a sense of deeper purpose from our work.

Jim Clemmer is a Kitchener, Ont.-based professional speaker, workshop/retreat leader, and author of Growing the Distance and The Leader's Digest.

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