First published in the Globe and Mail, Feb. 7, 2003
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Almost every corporation in North America claims to be a "people" company. But how many actually treat their own people with dignity and respect?

Too often, management has mounted the tiger of budget and control and is too afraid to get off. The result: Employees are dispirited by unreasonable cost constraints, paralyzing job descriptions and formal processes of reprimand.

How do people react to this negative corporate climate? By creating a silent culture of corporate goal destruction. For example, an employee speaks with polite agreement but completes assignments with unreasonable delays. Or a group has unnecessary glitches in a project but is always ready with plausible excuses.

This counter-culture is often subtle, usually obscure and always costly because the company suffers lower productivity, high employee turnover, unhealthy absentee rates and reduced levels of customer satisfaction and retention.

This doesn't have to happen. Executives don't have to keep riding the tiger. Using better listening skills and sensitivity, we can create a climate that will encourage employees to align their personal objectives to company goals and create a positive corporate culture. Simply distinguished, climate is dictated by leaders' actions, procedures and rewards; culture is determined by our employees and derived from climate.

Consider Joe, who was the owner and president of a large enterprise that serviced much of the United States. One branch was chronically short of service providers, though Joe considered the branch manager to be competent and capable.

At one point, when the manager was away for an extended leave, a head office executive stood in for her.

To Joe's surprise, the chronic shortage rectified itself with alarming speed. After careful questioning, he learned that his manager was poorly suited to leading people.

Joe could have judged this individual harshly, but instead, he chose to distinguish the person from the deed.

He asked what her dream job would be and learned that she'd always wanted to be an insurance broker. He offered to pay her salary while she retrained and secured her agreement to "allow" him to find a replacement for her. She became content in her new work with another company and customer service at the branch improved dramatically. Joe had identified the win-win.

When he told this story, there was no hint of ridicule or criticism of his former manager. He understood that he had failed a person whom he valued: He had misdirected her career.

The key is to be hard on the issues, but easy on your people.

Are there other ways to accomplish this?

Take a look at the messages you send through your budget process. Are eight months being dedicated to a budget plan that could be completed in eight weeks? Is the implementation of potentially fabulous employee ideas, ones with long-term feasibility, being sidelined by short-term budget constraints? Then it's time to dismount. The ability of you and your executive team to strike a balance between fiscal control and other corporate goals is a powerful tool in climate creation -- a tool that can be sharpened even further by seeking employee feedback.

Once executives refine the matching of an employee's skills to their work and master a balanced approach with budgets, are there more ways to enhance productivity?

As president of our Ontario-based school bus company, I offered to reimburse employees for continued learning. If the learning opportunity was a formal one, then my only request was that the person should feel "a little" frightened by the challenge. This guaranteed an employee's growth and following that, their sense of self-worth. Self-worth became the invisible bridge that helped nurture our company's internal success.

The positive climate we developed created stronger and stronger bridges between previously undetected silos of isolation. These are what Harvard professor and author Bill Ury might call "golden bridges" of understanding. Our operating norm was based on questioning, inventing and sometimes simply having fun in the context of the work we performed.

But what about rewards?

I learned that financial imperatives could best be served by prioritizing critical success factors. These were things like creating value for customers, retaining service providers, understanding and building teams, learning ways to invent better processes, and so on.

As we set out to create value for our customer and to retain people we began to give monetary incentives for safe driving, low absenteeism and long tenure. The rewards, nearly 15 per cent of a service person's pay, predictably created the highest wage costs in the industry. But employees became more dedicated, and the result was lower insurance costs. Surprisingly, maintenance costs and capital replacement costs were lowered as well.

The long-term benefits? Low turnover, low absenteeism, unheard-of customer loyalty, and, arguably, the industry's highest earnings.

Here are some questions to consider as you work toward increasing productivity:

  • Are you hard on the potential crisis but soft with the people around it?

  • Do you respect people from the heart?

  • Do you carry over anger from other areas of your life and does that anger lead you to be sarcastic, arrogant or to ridicule others?

  • Do you expect your people to innovate?

  • Are you riding the tiger of over-attention to budget and control?

  • Do you understand what's critical to your long-term success and create incentives that reward those critical successes?

  • Do you search for feedback about your behaviour and climate formation?

In the end, if productivity is simply defined as output over input, the answers to these questions will determine your groups' overall yield.

The benefits of a positive climate and a culture of corporate and personal goal alliance will enhance and even transcend measurable dollar values.

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