How to kill morale and start an exodus

2008

The story you're about to read is true. The names have been changed to protect the innocent. My purpose for writing this is so that by reading it, people might learn what not to do.

Zoe is the departmental director for a 45-person department. Her employees are highly-trained and regulated. Working two different shifts in three locations, they're responsible for making highly-sophisticated components.

Although for years the department was tightly knit with high morale, it wasn't due to Zoe's leadership; she was known as a task master. It was her department supervisors that kept the gears of teamwork well-oiled.

Scheduling people to cover two shifts at three locations is rather tricky. Fortunately, the locations are within fifteen miles of each other, so if one location is short-handed, it's easy for someone else to be there in just a few minutes.

The first crack in Zoe's dam occurred without notice about three years ago. A supervisor who had been with the company for 20 years came down with a debilitating disease. He eventually took a medical retirement, but during the long ordeal of treatments before that decision was reached, other supervisors had to cover his shift. That was the initial strain.

The rest of the cracks also happened without notice. One of the more competent assemblers transferred to another department. Another got pregnant and left to raise her baby. Still another moved back east to be closer to family.

Fewer people doing the same amount of work places a lot of stress on everyone

One-by-one people left, but always for valid reasons. Never was it because they didn't like their work or the work environment.

Zoe correctly viewed these departures as normal attrition, but they were also quite helpful for her. A budget crunch was occurring at the same time, so Zoe saw their departures as "gifts" that prevented her from having to make drastic cuts. She told the department that budgets had tightened, and asked them to "step up" to cover the workload.

Nobody but Zoe was keen on the idea, but the supervisors were dedicated. They believed that going the extra mile would be appreciated by Zoe, and that after the crunch subsided they could get back to normal staffing.

Eventually, most of the employees adopted a similar attitude, but it wasn't long before problems appeared. First was production itself. Fewer people doing the same amount of work placed a lot of stress on everyone.

Then there was scheduling vacations. Many employees had been there long enough to have four weeks of vacation each year. During the first year of their lean staffing levels, a lot of compromising occurred for everyone to get their vacation time.

That was last year. This year scheduling vacations was so difficult that several people couldn't get all the vacation time they had coming – they had to sell it back to the company. "We don't staff for vacations," Zoe said. The workforce was so thin, one person getting sick wreaked havoc with everyone's schedule.

Then came the department's policy on mistakes. All mistakes are documented and put in an employees file. As stress levels rose, quality checks got missed and more people were getting written up.

Zoe's department gradually deteriorated to the point they were barely able to keep up with production. People from other departments were losing respect for them. Morale was at an all time low. About a year ago, department personnel began whispering that they couldn't keep this up much longer.

Then, in an act that shocked many, Zoe hired a consulting firm to analyze her department's efficiency to see how she could save even more money.

Amazingly, one of the firm's findings was that the department was overstaffed – especially the second shift. Turns out they gave one location total credit for work that had been accomplished mostly at the other two locations. They made it look like one location produced a lot while the other two were slacking off.

Their assumption was that all three locations should produce at the same levels – hence the determination that the two "slacking" locations were overstaffed.

Supervisors tried talking to Zoe about it, but she believed the consultants. The final blow came when Zoe announced they would not be hiring any new people; that the department was meeting production goals for almost two years at current staffing levels, and she believed they could continue to do so.

That announcement broke the dam.

That very day, people started openly making plans to leave. Even the supervisors were wondering why Zoe was pinning them to the wall.

In just three short years, sky-high morale shifted to plans for a mass exodus.

Like I said, the story is true. What can you do to prevent turning into a Zoe? If you're a supervisor, what can you do to prevent this kind of tragedy at your workplace?

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About The Author

Dan Bobinski
Dan Bobinski

Dan Bobinski is a training specialist, author, and an accomplished keynote speaker. He's been providing management and leadership training to Fortune 500 companies as well as smaller, regional concerns for more than 20 years.

Older Comments

Fabulous story and example of how not to pick up on any emotional cues at all. Managers who manage by data and not by relationship and connection (call it love if you want) are on the out. Performance is inspired not conscripted. Balance is required...that wonderful balance between logic, emotion and intuition. Two things come to mind. One, something about the culture (noting mistakes for one) reinforced Zoe's preoccupation about the numbers. Secondly, Zoe is out of connection with her own emotions. Mentally willing your way through the world is no longer a viable strategy. Thanks for sharing this!

Dawna Jones Vancouver, Canada

Great example of the real world where a top-down command and control manager places herself on a pedestal and operates as if her subordinates know nothing of value. Eventually, she made them realize how she felt and they followed her lead. Why should they care about the work if she doesn't care about them?

The problem for managers is how do they learn to do it right when there are almost no models available to copy?

Thanks for the story, Ben Author 'Leading People to be Highly Motivated and Committed'

Ben Simonton

The key lesson from this superb example is that performance depends on the way that the workforce feel about what they do, not the numbers.

In this case the workforce continued to believe that they were a valued part of the production process, in the face of their managers behaviour, right up until the final straw when en masse they realised that this was not true and threw their hands in the air.

When we realise that the way the workforce feel about what they do is critical and that managers behaviour affects the way the workforce feel, we will be able to start looking for the behaviour from managers that will make the workforce feel good about what they do and therefore able to sustain the levels of performance that we need to compete.

Peter A Hunter Cranfield, England.

We are having a similar problem at the place I work. I try and try to tell management there is a problem... too much stress, too many problems, too many over-worked people. The managers just shrug their shoulders and never do anything... that's why we have had three almost 100% turnarounds in the past year alone.

Michael Atlanta, GA

And where was Zoe's manager during all this? A key senior management key responsibility is to know whether they have the right people, particularly in middle management. Sounds like Zoe's manager was either inattentive, or unwilling to address a deteriorating situation with tough action.

Lee Dolan

Love the headline. It reminds me of what a manager said to me years ago: 'The beatings will continue until morale improves.'

Dianne Austin, Texas

Stephen Covey reminds us that effectiveness is basically the art and systemic process of leading 'production (of whatever goods or services)' and maintaining and expanding the'capacity to produce' over the long haul. This story is such a vivid example of production demands blinding the leadership (at all levels) to the signs of diminishing capacity to produce (physically, emotionally, socially, intellectually). You can't drive forever without servicing and maintaining the vehicle. The story also emphasizes the importance of allowing staff the opportunity for inclusionary planning and refocusing on the 'main thing/mission of the organization'. Leadership is 'keeping the main thing the main thing'.

Pat Geary Omaha, NE

Unfortunately this story is repeated time and time again in corporate America. The 'data', A.K.A. the 'dollar', drives almost every decision made in today's working environment. As important as the dollar is, the people you employee and manage are the real asset of any organization. Without them, the money cannot be made- period! If you treat them as an asset and not as a liablility, which is so popular today in business, you will reap the benefits ten-fold. As a manager of almost 100 people (and their families), I find it extremely difficult to make decisions based solely on the dollar or the data. My main goal as a manager is to mentor and to advocate for my staff while trying my best to meet the needs of the 'company'. This is a very difficult task to say the least. However, if you treat your people as people, they will help you keep this balance and harmony by policing themselves and striving to do their best.

James Chattanooga, Tennessee

I've been a policer officer for many years working in one District. We learned to adapt to changes but recently assigned to our District is a Major and a newly appointed Captain. To begin, the Captain who was promoted should not have been promoted becuae it was strictly based on a test and interview. NOT on his personal folder or history. He has a reputation of being a 'micromanager' and he has no people skills is a reason he is hated by by his subordinates where ever he goes. The Major who lies (stated that she would not make changes made changes in being in the Distrcit for three days - scheduling changes) and who speaks poorly about the Major who she replaced (who left the District in High Morale) made matters worst. Now I believe in changes for the better and I believe that as managers or supervisor you will make changes and should but only if it is required because of safety, financial or by law. Not for the mere fact of punishment or being jealous that productivity was high.

Officer John Doe Hawaii