So I’m going to go off the deep end a little bit today, and talk about something that really upsets me. The topic? Spending money on Ham-Fisted Let’s-Be-Happy Employee Team Building Programs without taking the time to understand the state of employee morale.
I’m not saying team building programs have no place. In the right context, under the right circumstances, with the right team, they can be very beneficial. But management won’t know that unless they bother to actually look. Here’s a couple examples to demonstrate my point. These are anecdotal, but I’m quite certain I’ve presented the facts.Case Study #1:
a) A company cuts off employees’ Facebook, Twitter and other social media tools because “employees shouldn’t be doing that on work time”.
b) Management sends out a memo saying “people are going home too early” (when the same people are working through lunch and coming in early).
c) Management’s response to flagging morale was to provide a business coach who introduced mandatory team-building exercises in off hours, and ordered them to read a book on how happy employees are productive employees. On their own time, naturally. The management message to the employees was, “be happy or else”.
You know what? Your employees shouldn’t be solving work problems in the shower, or on the commute, or in bed late at night either, but I’ll bet they do. Not only have you cut off their social legs during work hours, but you’ve also cut off ways for them to let their friends know they have to work late because of b). Quit introducing constraints on your people and let them flourish on their own. If individuals are being excessive, address it individually. As for b), dude, your people are coming in early and working through lunch. They’re already giving you extra time. The penny pinching? Not helping your cause. The response with the mandatory team-building was a complete, unmitigated #fail, that’s likely to make the morale situation a whole lot worse.
Case Study #2:
a) A company brings over a slew of people from India to work on a project for a year or longer.
b) Morale is bad because the Indians miss home.
c) Management’s response is to make the Indians go to a seminar once a month where they can watch presentations about what a great team the company is to be a part of.
I don’t feel as bad for these guys, because it happens all the time. It’s very rare a company gives thought to the consequences of such relocation actions. Companies that do deserve a big pat on the back, because they’ve thought the whole thing through. When you relocate people to another country, if you don’t provide access to some kind of social community, your people are going to have to find it on their own. That’s hard, and very taxing, especially over the longer term. Unfortunately, in the above case, offering a mandatory seminar (aka propaganda) that forces already demotivated people to sit through slides of subject matter that (let’s be honest) they couldn’t care less about isn’t going to help the situation. To genuinely make a difference, it comes down to the following:
1) Do nothing as an organization, but take your folks out for beers now and again. Get to know them socially. This is a good approach that lets them know you care as a person, at least. This requires a bit of personal effort.
2) Spend time investigating the community, and gain access to local resources that will give your people a sense of home away from home. Develop programs. Get special discounts. Get involved. This requires a lot more company effort.
In either case, a flip, slough-off response won’t make the problem go away.It is good and right to believe that happy employees are productive employees. I firmly believe that. The key word is “believe”. If you don’t believe, then jamming sweet, sticky saccharine down your employees’ throats is not going to make them happy. If you don’t believe, stop pretending you actually care, because trust me, nobody’s buying it. All you’re doing is pissing your people off and making them actively despise you. In truth, you’d be far better off with a workforce who just doesn’t care.
If you do believe, then you’ve got your work cut out for you.
Look. I know you’re busy. I know there’s a million concerns you have and team morale isn’t at the top of the list. But the culture in your organization is largely your responsibility. Whatever monsters lurk there are your creation: you’ve either created them yourself, or allowed them to thrive. If you’ve been neglectful with morale among your people, I’m afraid you have to accept that before anything is going to change for the better. Taking that step, perhaps you’ll be in the right frame of mind to reach out to your people and find out what it is you can do to make amends.
If you genuinely want improvement, you can’t just pass the problem off to a consultant and say, “fix it, I don’t have time for this crap.” Which is exactly the message you’re sending with a team building campaign you have no personal investment in.
I’ll let you off the hook, though. Some of you may genuinely want to help, and by implementing these programs, you really are trying to make a difference. To you folks, I say fixing morale isn’t a recipe you can just follow from a book and expect it to come out alright. It takes time, and effort, and it has to start with you. Go ahead and hire consultants, and bring in people to help. But don’t do it before you fully understand the breadth and depth of the problem you’re facing. And ensure any people you bring in to help are executing your vision, which should be a product of what you’ve learned from your people. As with anything else, implementing the wrong solution is very likely to make things worse.
To those who hold a strong belief in the efficacy of “Hug and Share for Success” Morale Boosting efforts, I would strongly advise you to make sure your results are genuine, and not a result of the employees saying, “I’ll do anything…please just don’t make me go to another one of those godawful team building seminars”.
If you feel as I do, forward this article to others who share your view and together let’s stop the madness!
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I'm Geoff Crane. After 22 years in the trenches of a lot of tough projects, I decided to change direction a little bit and focus on sparking ideas in the vibrant field of project management.
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