The other day I had a conversation about Team Building with the owner of a company that performs team building retreats. The question I had is how do you maintain the momentum after the team returns to the organization that sucked the life out of them in the first place?
Here is the typical situation: A work group is struggling to meet deadlines, morale is low, they are not meeting objectives, and people are looking for jobs in other departments, or leaving the organization entirely – a pretty toxic work environment. Management decides it needs the group to function better as a team, so the managers get with Human Resources to come up with a plan. HR researches the landscape and finds a Team Building retreat that has received positive reviews, meets all requirements outlines in the 50-page vendor agreement contract, and schedules the group for a day or two retreat. The group attends the retreat, learns more about themselves and each other, performs some team building exercises, bonds, and gets excited about working together. After returning to the workplace, the excitement typically wanes over time, taking from days to months, and things return to how they were before. The organization simply sucked the life right out of them.
How many times have we heard about situations like this or experiences it ourselves? It has become all too predictable. Why do we continue to let this happen?
I do not believe there is a single answer on the surface to this complex issue. However, there are several contributing factors that make it challenging to solve. The first is our traditional organizational structures. Most organization structures are based on the ones created in the first half of the 20th century, and modeled after Alfred Sloan’s GM. Based on a command and control focus these organizational structures are designed with the intent that the employee is there to work, not think, and in essence gets treated as a machine. A lot has changed since these structures have been created – we have moved from an industrial based society to an information based one, we now treat people better at work and provide better work-life balance, but our fundamental organizational structure has not changed.
The second contributing factor is management’s ability to create goals and objectives which may enhance departmental efficiency and perception, but do not contribute toward the organizations overall strategy, making them meaningless and inconsistent. The focus on local optima takes limited resources away from the larger picture of global strategy – with reward systems structured to encourage this behavior.
These organizational structures, with their command and control hierarchies do not lend themselves to effective communication, which leads to a lack of understanding and resonance of purpose. The communication gets filtered as it moves down the structure and the people who actually perform the work do not understand the value they provide and who they provide it for. The structure leads to an increasingly de-motivated workforce, which in turn means any benefits from Team Building exercises/retreats are temporary at best.
Who, then, has the responsibility to motivate and inspire the workforce? It is obviously management, but the problem is management typically delegates task such as employee motivation or engagement to Human Resources. Management, it seems, is always too busy for such “soft” skills. But isn’t that the fundamental reason management exists? Which leads to the question: What does management really do?
Managers need to manage people and process. People do the activities (processes) that create value for an organization. Managers make sure the people have the proper tools and resources to do the activities (processes) that create value. They identify problems and develop solutions (hopefully with the people that perform the process) to solve the problems. Throughout time, managers have had to coordinate, collect and discern data that is generated from the activities the people did to determine if the people did them correctly. Historically, this has taken a tremendous amount of time, and, since there are only so many hours in a day, management becomes focused on the outputs, and the reporting of the outputs of the process.
Managers spend most of their time managing the outputs of the people and not the people themselves, the inputs of the process – how people are trained, how they interact, how they learn and communicate. Managers pay little attention to this, as these soft skills are left to Human Resources.
With the advent of technology to automate so much of the work that managers do to manage the outputs, the coordinating, collecting and discerning of data, management should shift its focus from controlling the outputs to managing the inputs – the people who actually perform the work. Management should strive to make the work performed significant and seek to educate, elevate and enlighten the workforce. It should also seek to ensure there is a resonance of purpose for what the organization is trying to accomplish. This applies not just to those that manage the “front lines” but also to the managers of the managers. This means re-thinking the organization and perhaps turning it upside down.
Managers who attempt to shift this focus in an organization that maintains the archaic organizational structures with their command and control hierarchies will become quickly frustrated. It is akin to serving two masters – something has to give, and unfortunately, it is usually the enlightened manager who succumbs either by becoming another de-motivated cog in the wheel, or by leaving the organization.
The key to enable this transformation is for Senior Management to understand the need for change and trusting the people they have hired to make decisions that are in the best interest of the organization. This represents a huge culture change in most organizations and is not one that will occur quickly. Once the need for change is identified, management must be very careful not to expect too much too quick. There are hundreds upon hundreds of leadership and management books that tell us how and what we need to do to change our culture, each of them providing glowing stories of success from those organizations that were successful in this endeavor. However, what is often glazed over in these manuscripts is the amount of time, dedication, persistence, and hard work on the part of not only senior leadership, but on all employees in the organization. Transformations like this take anywhere from three to five years, and our organizational structures do not support long term thinking – but it must be done!
Now is time to start rethinking how we manage and on what we focus. It will take time. It will take persistence. And it must be done with great caution and awareness, else the very thing we are trying to change will be the reason we fail.