You Can’t Fix Morale

Here’s a phone call I sometimes receive, usually from someone senior in executive management or the investment team behind a once promising company:

Inquirer: Hey, we need your help with something. We have a situation and we’re not sure what to do about it.

Me: Sounds intriguing. What is the situation?

Inquirer: Well, we’re having… I’m not sure what you would call it exactly, I guess a problem with morale.

Me: What would you like me to do?

Inquirer: We would like you to help us fix morale.

Me: Oh, that. I’m sorry, I can’t help you.

Inquirer: We haven’t spoken two minutes and you already know that?

Me: Yes, I’m quite sure. I certainly would like to take your money because I’m sure you are willing to pay a lot to do something about this, but I only take on projects where I can actually help someone.

Inquirer: How can you be so sure?

Me: You can’t fix morale.

Inquirer: What do you mean? Morale gets fixed all the time.

Me: Yes, exactly. Morale gets fixed because whatever is causing it to deteriorate gets fixed, but that is where you need to look, at the disease, not a symptom.

Inquirer: Are you saying we need to fix something else in our company so that maybe it can have an impact on morale?

Me: Yes, that is what I am saying. In fact, you probably need to fix your company.

Inquirer: So a contract to fix morale is not big enough for you? You want a bigger contract to fix our company? But our company is not broken.

Me: Then you probably don’t have a morale problem and don’t need any help.

Inquirer: You’re not doing yourself any favors turning this down. It’s a big project. We have a sizeable budget for it.

Me: It’s tempting, but why don’t you have another look at the situation and maybe we can talk again.

The call usually ends there and we don’t talk again. Every once in a while we do talk again and then I tend to get involved in long stretches of dialogue with team members up and down the line. We talk about a lot of things: leadership talent, product quality, business model. We talk about creativity and innovation, passion for excellence, dedication to the customer experience. One of the things we never talk about is trying to fix morale.

Let me say it again: You can’t fix morale.

Bad morale is a byproduct, most often of poor direction, sometimes of impossible goals so ridiculous no one ever feels appreciated, other times of uneven credit and compensation in times of success. There are successful companies with good and bad morale, and struggling companies with good and bad morale. Good morale is also a byproduct — you achieve it by focusing on the right things.

I view morale as a result of process and outcomes. Process involves day-to-day workplace routines that reinforce or strip away employee engagement. Outcomes involve the continuity or deadend at the culmination of a milestone, the reward or repudiation for the commitment of time, expertise, or passion. If your process is bad, morale will be bad. If your outcomes are bad, morale will be bad.

Suppose your company wildly missed earnings targets three quarters in a row. You’ve seen your second round of layoffs in less than two years. More than half of your VPs were fired and hired in the past ten months. The CEO, also rumored to be teetering, has said repeatedly everyone needs to “work smarter, not harder,” but no one is sure which product in the pipeline is going to carry the day. Employee morale as you would expect is rotten all around you. Your colleagues are irritable and nasty. Every week someone you like leaves the company for another gig.

Let’s look at some options for addressing this:

  1. The company hires a consultant to run a survey on employee satisfaction and weeks after you fill out your survey they find out what everyone knew before the survey: Morale stinks like a decaying carcass. The CEO announces Fridays will be half days, the company will be publishing a weekly newsletter celebrating its best employees, and all VPs and above will be taking classes in how to write better reviews and talk nicely to their teams. Everyone is told he or she is appreciated and reminded to work smarter, not harder.
  2. The company holds an executive offsite where all the VPs get to articulate everything that is wrong with the company. The VPs report back to their teams that the CEO agrees, there are not enough resources in the company to go around, the timelines for deliverable are insane, and the competition has an edge on the industry that is daunting. Starting today you will have realistic goals, more resources, flexible timelines, and as long as everyone is doing their best, then management will back off and be satisfied.
  3. The CEO pulls together a half-dozen of the best minds in the company to conduct an honest post-mortem of why the company’s strategy is failing. That team then strips away all the derivative efforts that are draining resources from the company’s true mission and recommits to a narrowed product strategy that capitalizes on the company’s identified competitive advantage. The CEO then directs the executive team to align the best talent in the company with key roles on the narrowed agenda and hire new talent where mediocrity is being tolerated, then communicates the new plan to the full company in verbal and written detail, not just in an inspiring kickoff speech but in regular progress updates that are candid and coherent.

You might think the answer is obvious, but sadly it is not — especially to less experienced management teams where too many influential individuals have achieved authority through battlefield promotions. Here we are talking the bedrock of directing process and refocusing outcomes. Good process takes a lifetime to learn. Steering through outcomes whether planned or unplanned requires a deft touch. There are no shortcuts. If you don’t have the energy or commitment to take apart process and outcomes one building block at a time, you have little shot at repairing morale.

I often ask people to share with me whether they have had a single good manager in their careers. You would be surprised how many say no. In fact these days it is the rare exception of people who actually rave about a boss from the past and talk about how they are putting that learning to work. The ones who are tend to have fewer morale problems on their hands. Too many leaders’ lives are filled with morale problems because they haven’t learned how to steer past them.

Now think about all those unicorns out there — you know, the 150 or so privately funded startup companies currently valued at $1B or more. Those should be some of the happiest places in the world for people to work, big idea places filled with promise and hope for future riches. Go take a random walk through those gardens on Glassdoor. You might be surprised at what you find. They have a lot of problems. When the majority of them are unable to achieve liquidity for their option holders, they will have even more. With that will come a wave of demoralization sweeping through employee workstations. How would you go about fixing that?

You can fix a product. You can’t fix a byproduct. Fix what’s wrong in your company, not the normal human emotional reaction to what’s wrong in your company.

You certainly can fix engagement. You fix engagement through authentic vision, brilliant product design, and a rallying cry around consistent execution. Fix engagement and morale fixes itself.

Align the finest talent you can identify with challenging projects that allow them to do the best work of their careers. Keep an eye on process. Celebrate outcomes and share the wealth. Be generous with people who are meaningfully contributing to company success. Morale will be swell and you’ll have bragging rights to let everyone around you know what a great environment you’ve created for the next wave of outcomes.

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Image: Dilbert.com ©Scott Adams

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Do You Want My Opinion?

dilbert-feedbackIt’s a new year. With another trip around the sun completed and ahead, we mortals often go to our cabinets to withdraw the long-procrastinated projects we someday hope to deploy. In that revitalized spirit of invention, people often ask me for my opinion on this or that idea. Often it’s a start-up business idea. Sometimes it’s an investment opportunity. Occasionally it’s a request for feedback on a manuscript. I’m sure you’ve been asked to be a sounding board for similar notions and found yourself in a similarly awkward situation.

“Hey, mind if I bounce something off you?”

I usually respond, “Why do you ask?”

You may ask yourself, Why does he ask the question “Why do you ask?”

My question to your question is born of its own overarching question: Do you really want feedback, or do you just want me to tell you that what you are pitching is wonderful?

Yeah, you’ve been there. It’s a tough place to be, because it’s impossible to be sure what the other person is actually seeking. Is the seeker in need of a boost of self-esteem, where anything critical you offer is likely to triple that person’s therapy bills and end a rebound before it finds form? Is the pitch-person stealth-seeking your financial commitment, where any positive response on your behalf will be followed by a deal memo solicitation at a valuation that would make the Uber people blush? Is the ask truly heartfelt but the work so early and unedited that it could be more harmed than helped by a random response?

It’s not easy to offer an opinion on someone else’s work. Way more can go wrong than can go right.

I tend to find that most people who ask for my opinion don’t really want feedback. They want validation. If you’ve partaken in-depth of the creative process, you know they aren’t the same. Validation is net neutral. Feedback can save your ass.

What do I mean by that?

Validation is a bifurcated switch. If I say the work is good, you’ve heard all you need to hear. If I say I don’t think it’s good, you’ve heard exactly what you didn’t want to hear. The effect is net neutral because either way I have added no value to your project. If I say it’s good, so what? You already thought it was good or you wouldn’t have shown it to me, so I’ve done nothing but increased your standing bias. That takes you nowhere you couldn’t have gone without me. If I say it’s bad, we may no longer be friends, not because I don’t want to be friends but by being honest (even if diplomatic) I have likely hurt your feelings. There isn’t much positive energy that can follow.

If feedback is what you seek and I have any grounded expertise to offer, then perhaps we have a place to go together. That feedback is almost certainly going to be nuanced (“this part makes some sense, that part not so much”) but it has to come your way without consequence to me or expectation of a secondary agenda that involves me. If I want to get involved, I promise I will let you know, but the act of giving you feedback should be reward in itself. That means you have to enter into the feedback discussion with an openness to critique solely because you want your idea to improve, or perhaps decide instead you don’t want to waste any more time on it. There can be no ulterior motives or it’s not feedback, it’s evaluation. I don’t want to evaluate your work. That’s your job, not mine.

As an author, I seek feedback constantly. When I draft something, I always go out for feedback from a broad sample of demographics. When I get good feedback it can be life-changing, because anything that I have missed and you found I can fix. Is it painful? It’s horribly painful. Yet even worse than negative feedback is the silence of no feedback from someone who said they would offer it. That tells me with uncanny certainty that I have failed to connect with their voice. Do I regret asking? Never for a moment.

As much as we dread feedback, we actually should cherish it, because it is the only path from mediocrity to something that matters. The creative process is laden with setbacks, but each time we find a nugget of corrective action, we can improve. That’s what makes the creative process both daunting and healing. It is the reality of success quantified one fix at a time. It’s never fun to edit away what doesn’t work, but that’s how innovation at its finest evolves. There are no shortcuts. If you ask, be sure you want to listen for the answer. It may not be pleasant, like medicine, but hopefully it makes us better one way or another, if it’s the right medicine.

Most people don’t know how to give useful feedback, especially tough feedback that can help us improve our thinking or channel it to more productive ends. Words of validation or invalidation are relatively easy to render and equally useless. Offering consistently constructive feedback is an art. Be careful whom you ask to help you, or you can really go astray.

If you don’t want feedback, don’t ask for it. If you ask for it, don’t be defensive when you get it. If you don’t ask for it, you probably will never reach your potential. If you do embrace it, you can make a small idea become a big idea. A big idea becomes something tangible when we add the necessary recourses and fight past the objections readily available from amateurs. Those who embrace feedback are resilient by nature. There is power in vulnerability. Embrace it, and the sky is the limit.

Do you still want my opinion? I don’t mind if you say no, but if you ask carefully, I’ll try to answer in the same honest spirit.

# # #

Author’s End Note: It’s been hard to write about anything other than Trump the past year. I am still aghast at what has happened, but I am forcing myself back into more diverse subject matter as sanity demands. With my third book now in first draft and about to go into the editing process, I find my love of words never more pronounced, but never more conflicted. It’s hard to write about normal subjects in a world where nothing I once considered normal ever will be again. It is impossible to think about characters more outrageous than the strange ones emerging on the stage of reality. Regardless, I am committed to diversifying my output in continuing this creative journey we began together. I’ll still write about Trump when I must, but I promise you I will pursue more interesting material, if only to prove that he hasn’t won. Stay with me, and I’ll stay with you.

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This article originally appeared on The Good Men Project.

Image: Dilbert.com ©Scott Adams

Things That Work, Things That Rot

I think I know why Apple is one of the most valuable companies in the world, if not the most valuable. Simply stated, the company’s products are elegant, and they work. They are intuitive, and they work. They are designed with vision, and they work. Most of all, they work.

Am I willing to pay a premium for that? You bet. Are a lot of other people? How do you think they amassed more cash than our Federal Government (which, incidentally, has proven of late that it does not work). Yes, people will pay a premium for elegant, intuitive, well-designed, visionary products that work. To the victor go the spoils. We get tremendously useful products. Apple gets our cash. We may grumble about the constant upgrade cycles, but we shouldn’t often grumble about the value proposition, We get what we pay for, and in my mind, it’s worth it.

My experience earlier this year buying my first iPad could not have been more pleasant. I began my research polling friends on my Facebook page for feedback on what configuration to buy, and not only got great information, but rave endorsements for the iPad2 itself. I then went to the local Apple Store and despite the fact that they were sold out of iPads, a very well-trained and nice salesperson spent a great deal of time with me going over my options, then suggested I order my iPad online (with free shipping and engraving) to get it sooner. Other customers in the store were also Apple evangelists and offered me lots of friendly tips on apps I might like. I went home, ordered it on a Monday afternoon, had it on Friday morning, and used it all that weekend without any need of a manual or user guide. To take this all the way home, on a recent business trip some of the functionality froze, but when I searched my issue on Google, there was plenty of user feedback that accurately told me how to “reboot” the iPad and unfreeze the grayed-out state I encountered. The fix from problem to resolution with community help took six minutes.

LoveCustomersCompare and contrast this experience with my recent encounter with my telecom company. Early last week, my broadband connection to the internet vaporized—gone, kaput, no warning, no connectivity—in the midst of this week’s heavy stock market trading, which made the timing even more problematic. With sweat inducing trepidation, I called the 800 service number, and after five minutes of voice assisted prompts, I got a very polite person on the phone. This person thanked me for my business, assured me I was appreciated, took my phone number in case we got disconnected, then began to ask me to plug and unplug things which I told him I had already done. Thirty seconds later he accidentally cut off the call. He never called back.

I dialed the 800 number again, went through the voice mail prompts, got another polite human being ten minutes later. This person apologized for the first person cutting me off. Then after some give and take and checking with her supervisor several times while she put me on hold, she communicated to me more than thirty minutes later that my “old” DSL modem, which they had sent me in 2005, was incompatible with a change they had made in their network “at the central station” (sadly, my neighborhood is largely stuck with ancient DSL technology, but that’s another grating story). She then congratulated me on my eligibility for a new and improved free modem upgrade, which she would order for me as soon as her supervisor approved it. I had to go to a meeting, and indeed, 45 minutes later she called and left me three voice mails to congratulate me again that the free modem had been approved and would arrive in 24 hours. It did.

Unfortunately when I connected the new modem, it did not connect to the internet, so I called the 800 number again. After the voice prompts I got another exceptionally polite employee on the line, and this person apologized for the fact that the new modem did not work, but told me a ticket was open and would be resolved by Friday. It was Wednesday. I needed to be online. The nice person said he would escalate the issue, but that a configuration change had to be made at the central station according to the notes in the file.

I lived without hard-line internet through Thursday, saved by my iPad which of course worked fine. On Friday morning I still had no internet, so I called the 800 number again, went through the voice prompts and got another wonderfully polite person who apologized again, but told me the switch at the central station had not been adjusted because of a work stoppage, asking me if I had heard or read about this. I said I had, but I wondered why they would have made a network configuration change earlier in the week, not told me, and sent me a free modem that needed to be configured at the central station when there was no one available to do that. The wonderfully polite person agreed with me that this was wrong, and said I should have been called before the change was made originally to advise me a new modem was coming before they had sent it. I asked if all this was supposed to happen without me calling and he said yes, absolutely, then apologized again for the inconvenience.

I asked when I would have my internet connection again, and he said he hoped it would be by Monday, if someone was available to make the change at the central station during business hours, since they did not work weekends, if they were working at all. I offered some less than polite words about the impact this was having on my ability to conduct business in a turbulent equities market, and suffice it to say, with a certain number of carefully worded phrases (including a promise to write this blog entry), my connectivity was restored about four hours later.

I suppose that’s one way to take a job to completion.

I write this not specifically as a celebration of Apple and an indictment of my telecom company. I offer it instead as a lesson in excellence and the loyalty a true commitment to customers will garner. What Apple does should be the norm, not the exception, but because it is the exception, they enjoy almost unreal loyalty from their customers. I believe most if not all businesses once aspired to such a level of passion, but today, not so much. Mediocrity seems to be good enough for a lot of businesses, and as customers, we are just supposed to grin and bear it. That’s one of the true costs of everyday low prices. Quality can become a coin toss.

Perhaps it is time to put a stake in the ground and demand better products and services in every capacity we consume. With all this choice, customers are supposed to be Job #1. But are we really? If we have been reduced to being consumers rather than customers, than at the very least, let us consume well—without frustration, without anger, with reasonable expectations of the value chain. I have a better idea: let’s not be consumers, let’s be customers and expect to be treated that way, with respect, forcing healthy market competition for our loyalty. We pay a lot for this stuff, honestly, we do. Quality should be a given.

Not much to ask, products and services that work—and that work well, all the time.

Then again, perhaps I might share with you another example of trying to replace a battery for a mobile device from a branded store where the device remains on sale but the batteries not so much. Nah, I’ll spare you, just scroll up and do a search and replace.