Tuesday, August 03, 2010

If Vulcans Ran a Business

Every once in a while, companies like to survey their employees to find out what they're thinking.  And unlike Don Draper, we can't get up and walk away, so, you know, we answer the questions.  And then the managers get up and say, "I'm shocked, shocked, to find that you feel this way!"  Because if they got up and said, "Well, yeah, we figured" that probably wouldn't go over so well.
Once upon a time I worked someplace where the survey scores were abysmal.  I mean they were so low that you couldn't believe there wasn't an attendant suicide rate.  And the company was shocked.  And they tried a bunch of things.  And I think they started asking us quarterly.  "Do we suck any less?  Now?  How about now?"  And we kept telling them that they sucked as much as they had the first time they asked, if not more.  And so it continued.  Eventually they broke us into "focus groups."  As you might imagine, employees were herded into small conference rooms where they sulked quietly until they were allowed to leave.  And then one day a friend of mine just lost it in one of these sessions.  He was like, "You want to know why you suck?  I'll tell you why!" and he went into this diatribe that lasted about five minutes.  And unlike most people (for example, Katy) when he lost it he was clearly angry but also thoughtful and articulate, with enumerated points and quotable sound bites.  Seriously.  It was like watching Martin Luther King bitch these people out for treating employees like garbage.  There were lots of ominous sounds of agreement in the room, and it suddenly became clear that they had kept the focus groups small so that we couldn't overpower them.
This was valuable information.  They had (thanks to him) an bulleted list of things that were awful: 
  • No recognition for employees' achievements, unless the employee did something they couldn't not recognize (like saving millions of dollars or rescuing a child from a burning building). 
  • Employees in a position of indentured servitude where, in order to get a better job, you had to do your current job and that job for one or two years (you know, to prove that your skill level was "repeatable" and not a fluke) without being paid any extra money. 
  • A silent "class system" where some jobs were universally acknowledged as "process" jobs and some jobs were universally acknowledged as "project" jobs, which would be fine except that a) some jobs had responsibilities in both categories but still got arbitrarily classed as one or the other, and b) only the "project" jobs were rewarded or respected. 
  • Wholesale lack of promotion for non-salaried employees--if you had a timecard, your career path went no further than the entry to your cubicle. 

And they stopped being shocked and started to admit that they really had no idea it was this bad.

Since it was a company, and companies move slowly, they didn't actually move to solve the problems right away.  First, they made up some Goals.  And the Goals were supposed to fix these very bad things.  And Goals are measured.  And as we all know (say it with me) what gets measured gets done.  Only they weren't very good at writing Goals.  (Once they decided that the measure of success for a particular project would be the number of reports it produced.  This goal was bad because it failed to take into account that 25 reports that are inaccurate and useless are actually worse than one good report that is accurate and saves people time.  And it led to employees being pressured to accept badly written and inaccurate reports or lose compensation.  We call that "driving the wrong behavior.")  And the Goals were tied to compensation.  Let me say it again.  The Goals were tied to compensation.  So that meant that if the employees were unsatisfied, they got paid less.  Can you guess where this is headed?
They worked for a whole year to fix the very bad things.  And at the end of the year all of the bad things were essentially still true.  So when they issued the survey, they found maybe a tiny, statistically insignificant improvement to the abysmally low scores they had started with.  I remember this made them really angry.  One manager said with frustration and barely restrained rage, "You realize you're all screwing yourselves, because your bonus is tied to this, right?"  And we all said, "That should give you some idea of how pissed off we are about it, shouldn't it?"  It wasn't pretty.
So the next year they threw away the Goals and instead they tried doing things.  They started explaining how employees could move up.  They started to open their minds to ways to promote or at least meaningfully engage non-salaried employees.  They explained what characteristics promoted employees had demonstrated that had impressed the evaluation committee, so that you had some idea of what you could do next year.  They intervened with managers who weren't especially natural at these things to try to help them.  And they started helping employees to find ways to quantify the value of their process work so that it could be better respected, evaluated, and rewarded.  And lo, the survey answers were favorable.  And there was much rejoicing.
Imagine, then, how it feels to be confronted with another company with another survey that indicates that employees are inches from hanging themselves.  And we haven't even started with the Goals.  They're just meeting with us over and over again asking us to tell them (in huge public forums with no prospect of anonymity and great fear of personal recrimination from our managers) why we're so unhappy.
Nobody wants to tell them everything.  There's no one who's going to stand up and say, here are 40 things you do wrong.  Fix ten and then we'll talk again.  Two people stood up in the meeting.  One person actually asked for data about salaries.  They agreed to provide the data, but we all know we'll never see it.  HR wouldn't allow it.  Their hands are tied, you see.  Another person suggested more teambuilding activities.  An innocuous suggestion, one might think.
I kid you not, the look of confusion on all the managers' faces was hilarious.  "What do you mean?"  (Seriously?  None of your little management books or Franklin Planners came with a teambuilding exercise?)  It was like watching Bill Clinton struggle to redefine the word "is."  It was like watching Bill Shatner playing a Vulcan being introduced to the concept of teambuilding:
"What is this....Team...Building...of which you speak?"
"Well, you know sir.  Everybody gets together.  As a team."
"So you get together with this...team.  And what do you do?  Do you... produce... deliverables?"
"No, sir.  You have fun.  You get to know each other."
"Fun?  Explain... 'fun'."
"Well, sir, you know, fun.  Games.  Food.  Non goal-directed activity."
"I do not understand."
"Well, like, managers could wear silly hats or sing a song."
"Why would we do that?"
"Well, to make yourselves approachable.  To make your employees laugh."
"We do not wish to be approached.  We do not make people laugh.  We are feared!"  (Okay, straying toward Klingon...but then, remember, it's Shatner.)
"Um, could you play a game?"
"Would there be deliverables?"
"No, I told you, no deliverables.  It would just be a game."
And so on.  It would be really funny if it wasn't so damn sad.
I miss the managers who wore silly hats and sang songs and gave us pizza.  Hell, I miss the managers who made fun of us (and themselves) and devised games to help us understand our industry better.  I miss the manager who made me rewrite my review 5 times because it didn't accurately represent my work--and who got me a promotion.  I miss the manager who somehow always got everybody to stand in the hall outside our cubes once a day and laugh about something that happened--and who backed me up like a champ when I needed it.  And those managers, coincidentally, had some of the most tirelessly devoted and productive teams I've ever seen.  And the happiest.  I really miss laughing on the job.  I miss getting up to go to work and knowing that I was going to accomplish something meaningful and I was going to have a good time doing it.  And if I ever see that again--anywhere--I promise I will enjoy every second.  And I will recognize the managers who make it possible--even if they think they are just doing their job.


Seeker said...

Katy..this is absolutely hilarious and brilliant! You are so correct and you stated it SO WELL! Thank you. I am a teacher and this is what happens in school districts and schools..SAME PROCESS...
There is actually research showing that people will work harder and better if given praise and recognition than in a job that might give more money but is lacking in the KUDOS.
You would think they would get a clue..and you are right...those managers who have a clue need to be recognized.

Katy said...

I'm so glad that somebody enjoyed it!

And I have actually written to almost all those managers to tell them how much they helped me, or to let them know I'm still using concepts they taught me. At the time, though, I think we're reluctant to say anything to them because people will think we're sucking up.

But the fact is that a) nobody sucks up to good managers, and b) nobody who's sucking up to a manager ever just says, thank you for going out of your way to show that you appreciate my work.