by Michael Houlihan and Bonnie Harvey, authors of “The Entrepreneurial Culture: 23 Ways to Engage and Empower Your People“ and “The Barefoot Spirit: How Hardship, Hustle, and Heart Built a Bestseller“
Is your company in a bad mood? The signs aren’t always overt. People aren’t biting each other’s heads off or glaring sullenly across the conference table. (That’s home, not work!) Instead, it feels like everyone is just… coasting. Rather than digging for solutions, they make a cursory effort and then lay the problem at your feet. They’re not cage-rattlers and idea-sharers; they’re “yes men” and passive compliers.
And if you could be the proverbial fly on the wall (instead of the boss in the hall), you suspect you’d hear far more bitching and blaming than the faked enthusiasm you usually hear.
That’s bad mood in workplace parlance. Your apathetic clock-punchers are the creations of a culture that’s set up to squelch their inner entrepreneur.
Jeff Hayzlett, who wrote the foreword of our new book, says bad mood comes from employees believing their best days are behind them, not ahead of them. I think that’s a brilliant way to put it. And of course, it’s culture that creates that belief — and it’s leaders who create the culture.
Sometimes a culture’s mood sours over time, before you even know it’s happening. A stifling rule here, an ignored idea there, and before long you’ve zapped the entrepreneurial spirit that enabled your employees to create great things at your company in the first place. The only cure is to make your employees realize they really do have a stake in their future and the ability to make it a great one.
Of course, before you can shift a bad mood, you need to know you have one. Here are 11 red flags to look for:
1. Everyone plays the blame game.
As soon as a ball is dropped, the finger-pointing and blame-dodging begins. “It was her responsibility, not mine!” “Don’t look at me — I wasn’t told about that policy change!” “He was supposed to email me the update, but I never received it!” You know how this goes. And odds are, it isn’t happening because all of your employees are vengeful, spiteful jerks — it’s happening because employees are afraid of what the consequences will be for whoever is left holding the bag.
When a technical error is made, realize that making an example of the culprit isn’t necessarily the best way to go. Instead of blaming, aim your focus on figuring out what went wrong, and how you can prevent that error from occurring again.
At Barefoot, our approach to mistakes was to say, ‘Congratulations! You found a new way to screw up, and that’s a good thing. We didn’t know that this could happen, but now that it has, we can keep it from happening again’. This attitude gave our employees the freedom to take risks, encouraged entrepreneurial thinking, and led to an all-around better mood.
2. Employees are paid for attendance, not performance.
In organizations that are overshadowed by bad moods, most employees come to work each day and perform the tasks within their job description, but no more. If they don’t consider a problem to be “their responsibility,” they pass it on to the next guy or they bring it to you expecting a solution.
At Barefoot, we found that the key to turning worker bees into solutions-oriented entrepreneurs was simplifying our structure into just two divisions — Sales and Sales Support — and linking everyone’s pay to the performance of Sales. The reasoning behind this decision is simple: Everyone in your company gets paid from sales. Without sales, there is simply no money to pay salaries, bonuses, or benefits. When we began giving our Sales Support people bonuses based on quarterly sales amounts, Barefoot became more efficient, more responsive, and even closer-knit.
For instance, if a salesperson in Michigan needed statistics to convince a store owner to place an order, the office staff hustled out a report. If our crew needed signs and posters for an event in Seattle, the marketing folks jumped right on it. Income was at stake for everyone — and everyone responded accordingly!
3. Information is treated like a commodity instead of freely shared.
Some companies use information as a type of currency — the right juicy piece of info can buy you lunch, help get you a promotion, bring kudos your way, or be traded for other valuable information. And then, some information is downright suppressed because it may threaten some supervisor’s concept of job security. Added up, that’s a recipe for disillusionment and mistrust amongst your workforce.
Instead of a ‘need-to-know’ policy, at Barefoot we advocated a ‘know-the-need’ approach. Your people are full of intelligence, ideas, and passion — you just have to unlock those things! So do whatever you can to engage your entire team and keep the information free-flowing. Of course, you may be tempted to keep bad news and problems to yourself. Don’t. Be honest about the challenges your company is facing and ask the entire staff for solutions. You’ll probably get them!
4. Customers are “dealt with,” not served.
Most companies have anything ranging from one person to a whole department dedicated to so-called “customer service.” But let’s be honest: For most of these departments, a more accurate name would be “complaint resolution department.” Employees take calls or answer emails from unhappy customers and then try to resolve the problem as quickly as possible (often relying on a script or protocol), then move on to the next.
You can begin to turn this particular manifestation of a bad mood around by giving your employees more freedom when they deal with customers. Instead of tying their hands with a script that’s unsatisfying and phony, show your people that you trust them to use their best thinking by giving them room to do what they think is necessary to satisfy the customer. This might involve getting rid of phone call time limits and empowering them to offer free products and/or services, for example. Not only will your employees begin to really hone their entrepreneurial thinking skills, they’ll end each day with the satisfaction that comes from knowing that they transformed a disgruntled customer into a happy, loyal one.
5. Everyone hides behind their screens.
If you notice that your employees prefer to do business through a computer or smartphone screen, even when they don’t have to, it’s cause for concern. Very possibly, they feel that your company — and their positions in it — just aren’t worth the extra time and energy that a face-to-face meeting (or even a phone call!) would require.
At first you might have to require or ‘strongly encourage’ your people to meet with certain clients, vendors, etc. — while leading through your own example, of course. But over time, your employees will begin to develop strong, mutually fulfilling business relationships, and they’ll probably also see how much more effective communicating in real time can be. (No misread email tones or long waits for responses, and increased trust!) In most cases, job satisfaction will go up, and your people will start putting in facetime voluntarily.
6. There’s an attitude, but it doesn’t involve gratitude.
Think back on the recent interactions you’ve had with your employees. Chances are, they included phrases like, “I need you to do this,” “Please have that report to me by the end of the day,” and maybe even, “We need to talk about how you can improve.” But did any of those interactions include the words “thank you”? If not, you might be unwittingly contributing to your company’s bad mood.
Even if they’d never say so, workers want to know that they’re doing well and that their efforts are valued. Don’t take it for granted when your employees put in extra hours, land a coveted client, or turn out an incredibly well-thought-out proposal, for example. Make sure they know that you have noticed their efforts and that you’re grateful for their knowledge and help. In return you’ll gain their buy-in, loyalty, enthusiasm, and over-and-beyond efforts.
7. People can’t seem to execute.
When your company isn’t able to meet its goals, your first inclination might be to blame your employees for being unable to execute. And in turn, that blame will probably make an already bad mood worse. So before doling out accusations, you should take a look in the mirror and make sure you aren’t using a leadership style that is keeping people from getting things done.
Do you find it difficult to delegate important projects? Do you insist on running every new idea through legal before letting an employee pursue it? Are you a micromanager?
If you engage in any of these behaviors, it’s important to stop, step back, and show your people that you trust them to make important decisions and do important work. When you do, you’ll give your team the freedom they need to help move the company forward—and you’ll free up a lot of time and energy for yourself, too.
8. Nobody bothers to contribute new ideas.
If most of your employees’ ideas get stuck in compliance limbo or are slapped down (or appropriated by) supervisors, even the most innovative employees will eventually become discouraged or frustrated to the point of not speaking up with future ideas.
Of course, smart leaders should always look out for their company’s best interests. But be honest: Are you being overly cautious? Are you afraid of the change the new idea could bring around? Not only should you give each idea employees bring to you fair consideration, it’s smart to proactively ask your people for their thoughts on how the company can grow and improve. At Barefoot, some of our most valuable innovations came about because our people knew that their thoughts were valued and would be taken seriously.
9. Your turnover is high.
There’s a myth that when company cultures are serious and businesslike productivity improves. But the reality is, productivity improves when people enjoy being at work and enjoy the work they’re doing.
Don’t worry, we’re not saying that you have to put a basketball court and bowling alley in your facility, or else. We’re simply pointing out that when you strive to make it fulfilling and fun to work for you, you’ll create productive, loyal employees. At Barefoot, we covered ‘fulfilling’ by putting serious thought into matching employees with positions that utilized their strengths and skills, and asking for their input regarding how they thought they could be most valuable to the company.
As for ‘fun,’ we gave plenty of time off, we celebrated birthdays, we let employees choose their own titles (puns were encouraged), and we strove to make our office an enjoyable place to work: light-hearted, cheerful, and sometimes, a little silly.
10. It’s every man for himself.
Generally, all but the most frustrated, burned-out employees can manage to turn on the charm when they’re interacting with clients — so don’t assume that you’re worry-free because your team was chipper during a sales pitch. A much better way to gauge your organization’s overall mood is to observe how employees interact with each other.
Employees who aren’t invested in your organization’s future usually won’t go out of their way to give pointers to the new hire or proofread a colleague’s report, for example. If that’s the case in your company, we suggest that you start cultivating more team spirit by starting with new employees. Match them up with more experienced mentors who can advise, teach, challenge, and encourage them. The rookie will appreciate the personalized guidance and will be encouraged to form meaningful bonds with his or her colleagues right out of the gate. Plus, all but the most cynical veterans will soften when they see how fulfilling it can be to pass on their knowledge and expertise!
11. Strategic partners don’t want to work with your company.
If vendors, suppliers, bankers, and other third parties consistently fail to renew their contracts, your company’s mood may need a major adjustment. That’s because employees who aren’t invested in your company’s future are much more likely to treat these partners with a lack of respect, to withhold information and tell white lies, and to be slow to respond.
Fortunately, it often takes only one leader (that’s you!) to break this pattern by setting a better example. Show your employees the difference it makes when you treat partners in a way that honors the relationship. For instance, treat salespeople with respect instead of dismissing them. Never have a ‘that’s just another salesperson’ attitude. Take their calls. Hear them out. When you treat third parties as valuable allies who can significantly influence your bottom line — or help you survive! — they often will. And that’s good for the morale of everyone involved.
Mood matters. Cultivating a good mood in your organization is the key to unleashing a transformative entrepreneurial spirit in your people.
If you’re not sure where to begin, go for the low-hanging fruit. Reread the list of bad mood indicators above, identify which one or two are the biggest inhibitors to progress in your company, and start there.
Michael Houlihan and Bonnie Harvey are coauthors of “The Entrepreneurial Culture: 23 Ways to Engage and Empower Your People” the companion to the New York Times best-selling business book “The Barefoot Spirit: How Hardship, Hustle, and Heart Built a Bestseller“. Houlihan and Harvey started the Barefoot Wine brand in their laundry room in 1985, made it a nationwide bestseller, and successfully sold the brand to E&J Gallo in 2005.