Contrary to what seems to have become a far too popular belief, how we each make our living doesn’t have to drain every ounce of joy from our bodies… I remember greeting ole Front-Lobby Bobby one morning more than a decade ago and being given a response for the ages, “Just another day closer to dyin’...” While FLB had indeed made quite a few more laps around the sun than most everyone else in that particular workplace, that was still one of the most pessimistic answers to “Good morning” that I had ever heard!

In that case, Being Miserable at Work came at a cost - but not just to him or the company… Bobby made no attempt whatsoever to hide his glowing attitude under a bushel! If you stuck around very long, you were sure to get more than a whiff of that mixed in with the aroma of summer sausage & cheese he microwaved for lunch each day (that I was convinced oozed from his pores). Neither was all that desirable, but the outlook on, well, everything had a much more significant long term impact on anyone who got reeled into it.

Since we recently looked at some of the very tangible Benefits of a Positive Work Environment, let's put a bow on the whole idea now by working through a very simple approach we each take to create a positive atmosphere for the teams we lead so we can be sure that working for us doesn’t suck!

Before we dig into three simple things we can provide for our teams that will make a significant difference on how they view their role in the organization and the contribution they make, I need to dispel one more ugly rumor that’s clearly become accepted as truth in recent years: the vast majority of people ARE NOT looking for something for nothing and a significant portion of the population are VERY willing to work extremely hard. But with Help Wanted signs at every single business we drive by on any given day, there’s clearly a disconnect…

As we close the loop here on this idea, we’ll nail down exactly what you and I can do as we lead our teams so we’re providing them with what they need to avoid throwing up each Sunday evening when they think about reporting to work the following morning AND so we can actually build a world-class work environment as we do it. Understand though, it’s gonna take work! But I’m absolutely convinced the work we’ll need to do isn’t any harder than what we’re already doing - it’s just different. And in this case, different will be a very good thing!

Good Job! But Based on What?

As I think back to the nearly two decades I worked in a manufacturing facility, it seems like we measured everything! If you’ve ever been through an ISO-9000 audit, or whatever the number is now (it was TS-16949 in the automotive manufacturing world as recently as eight years ago), you know there’s a process or procedure that tells you how you need to follow every single process or procedure… And believe it or not, I’m completely serious! 

As we worked to implement various Lean Manufacturing initiatives (we referred to it as the “Toyota Production System” since Toyota had all but taken over the auto industry at that point), we added these nifty bulletin boards to the end of each assembly line or work area where we posted all sorts of charts and graphs that were to be updated hourly with the idea that anyone could tell exactly what had been accomplished at just about any moment in time. There was a spot for recording scrap, total units produced, downtime, unicorn sightings, safety issues, and basically anything else you could imagine! OK, you got me… There was no actual graph to record unicorn sightings, but it wouldn’t have surprised anyone if it had been suggested!

While I’m not about to suggest that measuring what gets done or how well it gets done is a bad thing, the biggest issue I see as I think back to all that boils down to how little all those things actually tied back to what any individual did at any given moment of their day. I’ve heard it said over and over that “what gets measured gets done” but shouldn't we be able to make some kind of connection from those measurements to the behaviors we’re expected to perform?

If we really want to make sure working for us doesn’t suck, one thing we can work to do is provide our team members with a very clear way of knowing whether or not they’re doing a good job; a simple way of measuring the impact of what they do… Let’s face it, having someone tell us we’ve done a good job offers very little value if we don’t know what it’s based on. And the more abstract the measurement, or the more indirectly that measurement is tied to an end result, the tougher it is to say “Good Job!” and have it really mean anything.

In The Truth About Employee Engagement, Patrick Lencioni shares some ideas on working with team members to identify the specific things THEY can measure on a daily basis for immediate feedback on their performance. While that approach may not fit the ISO or Lean methodology, it can absolutely give each of our team members an accurate understanding of how effective they truly are. The key with this lies in making sure the things they’re measuring do tie back to what the department or organization need, and that will require some very intentional thought - from us and from them. But having that in place can be a great first step toward making sure working for us doesn’t suck. Then we need to make sure they know exactly why what they’re measuring matters…

Now Serving… What a Minute, Who are We Serving?

Periodically, a parade of managers would gather around those nifty bulletin boards I just mentioned and they’d expect the area lead person to give them a run down of everything that was plotted on all the charts they were supposed to be updating each hour. In the cases where the lead had actually updated the charts AND things were indeed going according to plan, the production manager would pat the lead on the butt and tell them “Good game.” Just kidding! To the best of my knowledge, no pats were given - at least not during those parades… If everything was on track though, and none of the managers chose to emphasize how important they were, the area lead may have actually walked away from the exchange feeling decent about themselves. But even then, I’m not sure they were ever provided with any real understanding of how their work impacted anyone. And I can say with a high degree of certainty that the rest of the folks working in that area, the ones whose effort was shown on those charts, rarely got any feedback about how their work made a difference!

If you’ve never worked in a factory setting, this may be tough to picture… I remember my first several months in manufacturing; standing in the same square of concrete for 10 straight hours, seeing but not really being able to communicate with the few people anywhere nearby, and doing the same thing over and over and over again. That was a HUGE change from the carpentry work had done for years leading up to it. And while the grocery store I had worked in through high school was inside, I still had a lot of interaction with people as well as a fair amount of variety in the tasks I performed. Even with those differences, the most difficult thing to wrap my head around was not having a clear understanding of how what I was doing made any real difference. As a carpenter, I could see the finished structure and usually knew the people living in it or using it. In the grocery store, it was abundantly clear how the merchandise I stocked on the shelves would be used once the customer took it home (with a few weird exceptions). But stamping a metal blank into a specific shape that would go through several more processes before it ever made its way into a box or into a customer’s hand? The impact I had was much harder to get my head around…

Understand me here though! I’m not suggesting that one line of work is any more or any less important to society. If there’s no value in a given industry, it can only stay afloat so long. Well, unless the gubermint steps in to fund it with our tax dollars - then no one seems to care but I’ll fight the urge to continue down that path. 

The key we need to keep in mind as leaders, regardless of the industry we’re in, is that our team members deserve to have a crystal-clear understanding of exactly how the work we’ve tasked them with makes a difference; they should be completely aware of who benefits from their effort! When we provide that kind of clarity, the chances that working for us sucks drop significantly. In the odd case where someone just doesn’t connect with the purpose our work serves, they don’t have to guess about it. Openness about the impact we make from the beginning will eliminate most of it, but it will also help make it extremely clear when the fit just isn’t right.

Let’s be honest, neither of these things require earth-shaking effort. But they do require intentionality! And when we put them into practice, we fill a huge void for our team members. Then if we add one more thing, we may truly move well beyond providing a job that sucks to creating a positive work environment! Doing that might not get rid of all the Help Wanted signs, but it will certainly go a long way toward getting rid of the one in front of where each of us lead teams!

You Matter!

Let’s assume we’ve accepted our leadership responsibility and we’ve actually following through by doing the work necessary to make sure our team members are indeed measuring the right things so they have a clear picture of their performance AND we’ve provided them with absolute clarity about how those things have a tangible impact on the people who depend on them… I’d argue that just by putting those two things in place, we’ve eliminated a large majority of the potential suck that could possibly be associated with working for us! Quite frankly, doing those two things well for our team members should even give them a way to almost enjoy what they do without us ever telling them how great they’ve got it… Seriously though, there’s still one more thing we can do as leaders to make sure working for us doesn’t suck - but this one can’t be delegated!

A fellow I met several years ago, who now serves as the Executive Vice President of Internal Communications at Maxwell Leadership (which means basically any message we see about John Maxwell around the world today falls in his lap), closes every message he shares on his personal social media accounts, his emails, and just about every conversation with the phrase, “You Matter!” His intention there is to emphasize to everyone who hears from him that they can make a difference in the people they come in contact with. Let’s be honest, that’s a message the world certainly needs today!

Here’s where that ties back to that one thing we can do as leaders but can’t delegate… We need to show every single individual on our teams that they matter - to us! And this is really what will separate the pretenders from the contenders! This requires a huge commitment but the results will far outweigh the investment - in so many ways.

In 2010, I was offered a position where I would have had global responsibility for a specific safety initiative within the manufacturing company I had worked with for nearly 15 years. I had invested a tremendous amount of time and energy into becoming the very best in that process within the entire company. That said, the CEO of that company would likely have never known my name even if I had accepted the role unless something major happened that resulted in him seeing it in an email - like me being kidnapped or killed in some other country… I was a small fish in a very big pond! Even in a role with global responsibility across dozens of countries and about 80 facilities, I would still be basically anonymous….

The third key that Patrick Lencioni emphasizes in The Truth About Employee Engagement for making sure our employees aren’t miserable is eliminating that anonymity. As leaders, this is where we have a unique opportunity to really show our team members that THEY MATTER! This isn’t about how well they do their jobs; if we’ve helped them know what to measure, they’ll be keenly aware of that already. And it’s not about whether or not they’re making an impact on the people who depend on the work they’re doing; that should be something we’ve built into simply explaining their daily tasks. This is where it gets personal! We’ve got to show them we’re truly interested in them. I’ll say again just in case you missed it earlier: This CANNOT be delegated!

As we work to build each of these things into everything we do, it’s pretty safe to say working for us won’t suck. That’s certainly not suggesting that the work will get easier or that no one will ever be unhappy, but it will definitely make a tangible impact. And you know all those “Now Hiring” signs we see everywhere? I’d bet we’ll have far less need for them because great people will want to stick with us and they’ll probably start actively recruiting the people they care about and respect to join the team with them!

I realize this won’t solve all the problems for every organization; the pretenders I mentioned earlier will fight doing these things with every fiber of their being… I just won’t feel sorry for them when they can’t find or keep great people!