You think you're working smarter — but are you really?

By Mike Cook
For The Business Journal

In previous posts I may have mentioned that a long time ago, when I still had both hair and a waistline, I had a corporate position for a little over eight years. By all accounts the organization where I worked, a major petroleum company, was among the best in the world, Fortune 10 and all that.

What struck me almost immediately upon beginning my employment was the mood in the company: Anything but urgent, and the emphasis on what I would call style over substance. Within the walls of the company everything from the allowable size and frequency of a raise to whether you could have pictures on your walls or a rug on your floor was regimented and noted, depending on your salary grade in most cases.

On one occasion I was speaking with the division president where I worked in New Jersey and asked why there was no real pressure to perform at the highest level possible. He responded that our goals were set by the people at corporate headquarters, and as long as we made our numbers, they were happy, and as long as they were happy, he was happy.

And that was it. Looking good was more important than being good.

Fast forward just more than 45 years. The world has obviously changed a good deal. Mainly we are now talking about the world as a whole. Back then it was still the United States and then everybody else. As recently as 1980 that was the case.

Now the story and circumstances are very different. Our companies have gone lean; our processes are constantly under review and revision. Yet, I still don’t believe we have fully struck pay dirt when it comes to operating at our highest levels of performance. No doubt we have learned to work harder — by any account we’ve scratched the surface of working smarter, what with all the emphasis on LEAN processes, etc. But have we fully mined the human potential in our streamlined, slimmed down cost driven businesses? I’d say no, and the evidence is pretty obvious.

How much is it costing your business when employees cannot effectively develop cooperative working relationships? As author Gillian Tett in her book “The Silo Effect” puts it, “…why do humans working in modern institutions collectively act in ways that sometimes seem stupid? Why do normally clever people fail to see risks and opportunities that later seem blindingly obvious?…”

In my view, the problems of friction and inefficiency arise when you apply the most basic of market economy principles as it was originally envisioned by Adam Smith: the division of labor. That’s right, the division of labor is the source of both the inefficiency and low levels of employee engagement scores we see in most organizations. Simply put, it is no fun working with people who are not prepared emotionally, psychologically or functionally to collaborate effectively in the interest of the organization.

Think about this for a moment: you’ve trimmed out your organization as best you can to minimize the overall cost of labor. Everyone of your employees has lots to do, their work is critical, and yet productivity stubbornly stays at unacceptable levels. Turnover is costly and “happy” is not what you’d call your workplace. What is going on?

Consider this — your workforce has not been prepared or measured to the level of emotional maturity required to be effective at this leaned-out level of employment. Your processes require recognized interdependency, but your workers, managing multiple commitments, are not prepared to juggle, negotiate, partner, barter, cooperate, collaborate or prioritize to the degree your business model demands. They focus their attention on making you happy rather than determining and committing to the needs of their co-workers and customers. They are masters of excuses rather than understanding the necessity of making powerful requests and promises to each other.

The inspiration for this post today came from a conversation I had earlier this week with one of the business owners in my peer advisory group. We were talking about holding yourself to account for having tough conversations, even when you had no guarantee that they would go well.

To paraphrase him, he said, “…as the business leader I need to recognize that simply because I cannot see how to have a particular conversation with an employee end well does not give me the right to avoid having the conversation when it is critical to serving a customer or the business as a whole. And, I need to hold my employees to that standard. If they no not feel confident of this standard, they must understand the responsibility to ask for help, training etc. and it is incumbent on me to provide whatever assistance they need.”

Mike Cook ‘s columns appear on every other Tuesday. He facilitates a CEO peer advisory group in the Whatcom/Skagit area. He can be reached at He recently published ‘Thriving in the Middle: Why Managers Need to Be Coaching Each Other.”That is a statement made by someone in search of excellence.

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