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Team Spirit Built from the Top

By Jim Clemmer, Author,

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:
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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 are frontline staff asked about opinions or issues.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.


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