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Using Working With Others Sessions to Elevate Morale and Organizational Productivity
Raphael L. Vitalo and James S. Byron

Sources of the Problems
Direction for Change
  • Remaking the Management Team
  • Remaking the Culture
  • Execution
    About the Authors
  • Raphael L. Vitalo
  • James S. Byron
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    A 200-person design engineering organization had experienced chronic morale problems within its workforce dating back at least four years. The organization was a disorderly, crisis driven workplace with poor human relations among all performers. Employees in other work units avoided assignment to the organization and employee morale within design was very poor. The climate information available from a company wide survey indicated that design engineering experienced the lowest levels of morale in the entire (2,400 person) division of which it was a member. The problem affected productivity and hindered the engineering department's ability to conclude contracts on time, at cost, and to specifications.

    Division leadership requested that the Organizational Effectiveness (OE) unit provide assistance to the troubled group. OE initiated a systematic analysis to understand the roots of this work unit's problems so that it could recommend how to correct them. The analysis collected quantitative and qualitative information about the level of morale in the workplace and its causes. OE's information gathering was extensive because people in the work unit disagreed about the true state of morale with employees asserting it was poor and design's management claiming it was not. Also, the persistence of the problem over time suggested that its sources and the reasons for its continuance might not be obvious.



    The assessment determined that morale within the design engineering organization was worse than poor for all levels of personnel. Overall, staff rated morale at 1.86 out of 5 where level 2 is labeled "Poor" and level 1 was labeled "Deplorable." Staff experienced the organization as compromising career success and slipping toward damaging personal well-being. The results presented the strange finding that supervisors and managers, when surveyed and interviewed as individuals, reported morale as below poor even as they asserted to others that morale was fine within the organization.

    The department-related reasons for the status of morale were issues of human relations and workplace practices. The human relations issues addressed matters of decency, fairness, and respect. They included, for example, the absence of common greeting and decency skills in the workplace, management ignoring over a long period the basic physical needs of employees (e.g., inadequate space, heat, and ventilation), indifference to employee input, and favored treatment of exempt over weekly-salaried employees that locked the weekly salaried employee into a lower economic "caste." Collectively, the issues left employees feeling like "commodities."

    The issues related to workplace practices emphasized methods, feedback, resourcing, and integration. Work method problems included organization, planning, and work procedures. For example, there was continuous juggling of goals, priorities, and direction without an underlying business rationale; refusal to delegate authority and decision making; and reactive leadership riveted on deadlines and cost. Leadership's control-oriented, narrow input style resulted in a work approach that was demand driven. As to performance feedback, employees perceived the administration of awards as biased and wrongly focused on activity not results (e.g., number of phone calls made rather than quality of outcome achieved). Resourcing issues included insufficient workspace, inadequate heating and ventilation, the absence of technical advice or direction from supervisors especially concerning how to satisfy the promises made to customers by sales given the cost constraints of the contracts sales wrote. Integration issues included the pressure from other organizations to begin design activities prior to understanding a customer's real requirements, work units inside the group operating as solo entities, and the failure of supervisors to defend employee decisions which supervisors had reviewed and approved.


    Sources of the Problems

    Four root causes were identified.

    1. Abdication of leadership by the management team - Managers were unable to define a purpose and direction for the organization and use that as a basis for planning. They allowed the organization and its employees to be whipsawed by moment-to-moment demands that constantly shifted priorities and they failed to push back on demands even when they were patently unreasonable and harmful to the company as well as employees.
    2. Inability to correctly discern the state of morale - Managers continued to minimize the poor state of morale even when the objective evidence was overwhelming.
    3. Failure in exercising effective human relations - Managers breached the implicit commitment made by them when they chose to use a top-down management approach. That approach establishes an implicit compact between management and employees wherein management assumes responsibility for the conditions of performance and the employee assumes responsibility for accomplishing performance. By taking "pass-through" postures to whatever demands were made on the organization—no matter how unreasonable—managers broke the compact. They allowed the conditions of work to become intolerable. They furthered the breach by denying the experience of the workforce and asserting that things were not as bad as "some people" made them out to be.
    4. Continuance of an inappropriate management approach - A top-down approach assumes an organization has a "top" with unchallenged technical superiority, problem solving skills, and excellent leaderships qualities including especially the ability to read where staff are at, focus their attention on what is important, motivate their participation, and provide them a sufficiently rewarding experience to enable them to sustain quality performance. The management team in place within the design organization did not satisfy these requirements as evidenced by their own statements. For one thing, they did not possess technical superiority over their workforce who was more expert than their superiors about current and complex technologies that were being applied. For another, they did not demonstrate the human relations skills necessary to sustain alignment and motivation by the workforce.


    Direction for Change

    Improvement of the organization required remaking the management team and remaking the culture or organization.

    Remaking the Management Team

    Management needed to shed its pass-through "leadership" mentality and assume responsibility for adding value to the work of their employees. If this were to happen, higher-level leadership would have to require change—specifically, that management within the design organization could no longer deny the conditions that existed and that those conditions had to change. Also, the head of design would need to accept his part in the problem, commit himself to remedying it, adopt a regular measurement process that calibrated objectively whether progress was occurring, and defer to the results of measurement as the judge of progress. After satisfying these two requirements, the design management team would need a soul-searching change from within. These leaders needed to understand why they had failed to correctly read and act on the organization's condition. They also needed to identify and correct why they, as leaders:

    • Had not assumed personal responsibility for their leadership functions;
    • Were unable to acquire for themselves valid information that correctly described the condition of their organization; and
    • When provided with such information, could not interpret or use it to describe correctly the condition of the organization and its causes.


    Remaking the Culture

    The management approach used in design needed to change from a top-down, control oriented style to a bottom-up, quality focused style that emphasized employee involvement. This was necessary because the work performed by design required an unusual level of flexibility, creativity, and expertise to blend many different emerging technologies and satisfy to the commitments made to customers. These conditions made the continued use of the top-down strategy infeasible.

    For an involvement style to succeed the destructive human relations practiced in the past needed to end and all performers needed to elevate their ability to apply the skills of working together constructively. Beyond learning how to work together, management, with employees, needed to envision how the organization could serve the company, translate that vision into goals and priorities, and use these goals and priorities to guide decision-making.

    Managers would also need to commit in deed to the principle that human capital is the organization's most important asset. To make this commitment real to employees, managers needed to individually and personally pledge to correct each workplace practice identified as problematic using the expertise of employees. They also needed to pledge to use a team problem solving approach that incorporated impact on employees as a key criterion in the selection or creation of new workplace practices.

    Finally, management needed to establish a monitoring system to track progress in improving morale and feedback results to all parties.



    The division leadership's committed itself to ensure that the design organization improved. The head of design's commitment was developed through a serious of coaching sessions in which the status of design was explored. His supervisor, a member of the division's leadership team, attended these meetings to underscore his commitment to change. This was a tortuous experience for the head of design, as he needed to face personal issues that hindered his recognition of the true state of his organization. To his immense credit, his personal commitment to doing what was right and his expertise in measurement and analysis trumped the emotional barriers that blocked his recognition of the serious trouble his organization was experiencing. In the end, he grasped both what the data was saying and what his failure to see its message previously meant.

    With his recognition of the true status of his organization and his commitment to making change, a series of meetings with design's leadership team was undertaken. These meetings used the Working With Others (WWO) training format to teach the team the human relations skills it needed to operate differently and apply those skills to understanding the status of their organization, its reasons, and what must happen for it to change. Confrontation was unavoidable, but the WWO context both minimized the need for it and enabled the confrontations that needed to occur to be handled constructively. The skills teach people to recognize when they are dismissing information with which they disagree without considering it—and dismissal of the facts developed by the assessment was the automatic first response of every member of the leadership team. The head of the organization in fact was amused to see his own behavior in prior coaching sessions replayed in front of him by each remaining member of his leadership team. With his example of openness and the systematic application of the WWO skills, the team members did clarify and confirm each finding; uncover the sources of the problem including, especially, their own behavior; and develop ways in which they could modify their conduct as a means to reverse the direction of the organization.

    The first action the team took was to sustain the use of the WWO skills with each other and extend their use of the skills to each employee. Building on this idea, the team adopted the use of the skills as a ground rule for every leadership team meeting. They also decided to use the WWO training as the forum for teaching all employees the skills and for applying them first in providing feedback on how management intended to remedy the serious problems employees were experiencing. Later, they would recycle the WWO session to engage the entire workforce in developing work practice improvements that better accomplished the work of the organization while also ensuring a rational and constructive workplace.

    The process of change was rapid and its effect dramatic. Morale scores improved significantly within just six months. With the sustained improvement in management behavior and the greater involvement of employees, each workplace issue was addressed and the confidence of employees in the organization's leadership became cemented. The design organization never reversed its course. Its status on climate surveys, which the company performed yearly at that time, went from being a trailer to being a leader within the company.



    The commitment of the head of the design organization to measurement and learning led him to authorize a quantitative study of his group's organizational change efforts. Within two years of its initiation, the assessment found the following:

    • A 54% improvement in morale and climate as measured on the morale scale (pre to post comparison),
    • A 10% reduction in absenteeism, and
    • A 28% productivity improvement resulting in savings of $2.6MM per year.

    The study also evaluated the return on investment in fixing the organization. It calculated productivity using the dollar value of the contracts accomplished per employee hour, adjusting that value for the cost of poor quality. It measured productivity before and after the intervention. Savings were determined by computing the difference between the two productivity measurements. The direct and indirect costs of the changeover were $120,000. The intervention yielded $2.6MM in savings to the company, producing a ROI of 21:1.


    Published May 2004

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