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Why American Employees Are So Unhappy

2011 - Doug Mewmaw

As I was flying home, I started to chuckle as I thought of my last year at my previous company. I had been there 16 years and had risen up the corporate ladder pretty successfully. The company was in turmoil as a recent merger was failing horribly. Good people were abandoning ship as no one wanted to stay around in a culture that was unhealthy and unproductive. I remember feeling how much my hands were tied, and I will never forget when I needed a director signature for a $7 set of dry erase markers... and I worked for an office products company!

In the end, I knew it was time for me to leave. I remember feeling the turmoil created an environment where people just couldn't do their jobs effectively. Turn the clock ahead a few years years...

As the director of education and analysis for my company, I fly all over the country and train key IT personnel on ways to improve their IT computer performance service levels. During these engagements, it is not uncommon for me to train the operations and systems manager as well as the employees that are in the trenches doing the work. Many times, the organization simply has never experienced some of the common best practice solutions and methodologies to improve their IT environment, so it's exciting to help others learn things that they've never experienced before. As an instructor, there is not a better feeling than seeing students "have the light go on" and see them excited about the potential of things to come.

On two recent business trips to the East coast, I trained the IT staffs of two very popular American companies. In each engagement, both had very sharp IT professionals, all very excited to learn some simple things to make their respective companies better. After days of intense training, both IT staffs experienced the "WOW" moment when they learned how they could easily improve their IT environment. They were sincerely excited and you could feel the energy in that room of people that wanted to improve their company's environment. It was a neat experience and but one example why I'm blessed to have such a great job.

The problem is what happened next. As I was ending one training session, a student raised her hand and politely said, "Those are great ideas, but we are not allowed to make those kinds of changes here."

Keep in mind, that the changes I was proposing were not major architecture changes, but merely best practice performance tuning suggestions that have proven over the years to be very effective. At first, I thought she was kidding, but as I gazed around the room, it was clear that the rest of the room started to nod in total agreement. A room full of excited, highly motivated people turned disheartened in a matter of seconds when they realized the reality of their culture. I was flabbergasted at the response. When I mentioned that these changes will improve the service levels and really help the business side of the house too, I was told the last manager that made those types of changes was fired.

At that moment, I had biggest case of déjà vu I have ever had. Employees wanting to improve their environment, yet their hands were tied, making them unable to do their jobs effectively. The culture was identical to my previous company at the point when I decided to leave.

When I started to think about all the locations I had visited, I realized a phenomenon I was starting to see within the IT business sector: unhappy disheartened employees were everywhere. These are passionate, hard-working people who wanted to make a difference, but were not allowed to. With the risk of painting with a broad brush, I thought therein lies the problem with our American working culture.

Back in the Day...
In the late 1980s, American companies started a total quality initiative when they learned that U.S. workers were falling behind their Japanese counterparts. Total Quality Management (TQM) was started to create a more productive workforce. Some old notes and some recent research reminded me about the core concepts of TQM.

  1. Quality starts with people
  2. Participative management--empowerment of employees
Companies taught us that the TQM implementation process should be concerned with more than just the physical change. A "process improvement" culture was created where employees were empowered to improve current production processes. My recent research reminded me how powerful a tool empowerment really is. In fact, it's the most important concept in TQM (Stevens, 1993). The concept of empowerment is based upon the belief that employees need the organization as much as the organization needs them and that good leaders understand that employees are the most valuable asset in the firm.

Core values such as trust, integrity, and responsibility were created and posted everywhere. It didn't matter how insignificant the process improvement was, employees were encouraged to make a difference. You know what? They did. Personally, I can remember a few changes I offered. These were simple "out of the box" creative changes that not only improved our IT processes, but these changes saved my company thousands of dollars per year. I felt like a kid making his parents proud. My boss was a big proponent of TQM and I'll always remember the culture he created within our department. As long as we were very structured in our projects and did the necessary due diligence, he always encouraged us to take risks and he wasn't afraid of failure.

We did a simple concept called PLAN DO CHECK ACT, which became a structured project methodology. This process proved to be so successful that our project implementation service levels were impeccable. In the end, our team became a group of highly motivated energized employees. For the first time in my career, I saw an energized environment where people were excited to come to work.

Why Was My Department So Successful?
Research has shown that there is a positive link between participation and satisfaction, motivation and performance (Holander, Offerman, 1990: 183). Participative management requires responsibility and trust to employees. It is important that management recognizes the potential of employees to identify and to derive corrective actions to quality problems (Stevens, 1993: 20). However, according to Stevens (1993: 20), if management refuses to act upon team recommendations, "the team members' faith in the quality program will be destroyed."

It is obvious that the TQM programs in our American companies are not being supported any longer. In fact, my research (talking to the employees one on one), shows that employees not only are not allowed to take risks, but they barely can do their jobs any longer. PLAN DO CHECK ACT, which allowed employees to take their performance to the next level, has been replaced with:

PLAN, DON'T DO, Don't Touch, DON'T ACT--DON'T EVEN think about it!

How demoralizing is that? I have been to two dozen companies over the past two years and visited all regions of the United States. While I don't own a masters degree in business, I do feel my 25 years experience has taught me the difference between a successful project and one where lessons can be learned.

Here is what I've observed in my sampling of American companies: I have only seen a handful of companies where employees were allowed to openly improve their current processes. Most companies had created a culture of risk avoidance, one where employees were so afraid to implement change simply because management looked upon it so negatively if any phase of the project failed. The end result was one where employees had no choice than to do the minimum work required. Hard working, dedicated employees turned into clock watchers and turned into what I call "9-to-5ers." This was confirmed to me by many employees who told me that they just didn't have the energy to try any more because their creative thoughts and ideas were often met with resistance or rejection.

Be Like Mike
With the risk of sounding over-the-top patriotic, the United States of America was created by people that took risks and never gave up. Name any famous inventor, and you'll see many inventions that were made after many, many more failures. People do not wake up and say, "How can I fail today?" In fact, people not only desire to do positive things, but when there is tangible evidence that their hard work actually made a difference, their motivation to do even better the next time soars. As one associate told me, "When my boss allows me to be creative, backs me on my ideas, I not only feel validated, but I feel I have purpose. It creates an environment where I would go to war for him."

To me, that kind of leadership and culture is missing in our American workplace today. A simple analogy is watching NBA basketball. Being an avid sports fan and living in Chicago my entire life, I remember watching Michael Jordan in his early years. He was awesome and he did everything but the team lost games consistently. Only when he allowed others to be an integral part of the team, the team not only began to win, but they won championship after championship. By getting out of way when it was appropriate, he learned how to be an effective leader.

Sarbanes Oxley Is Not Helping, But Controls Are Still Needed
We can thank the Arthur Andersons and Enrons of the world for the Sarbanes Oxley rules that we now follow. One former boss told me the other day; the new rules have added so much red tape to the process, that "it's impossible to get things done for the customer in a timely manner."

This space is not big enough to debate the Sarbanes Oxley act. I only mention it as another factor in the frustration for the American worker. It is what it is, and its now apart of our corporate fabric. Back in the 1980s, we were allowed to implement change without telling a soul. Today, we need an act of Congress--literally. The answer to me is simple. We just need the pendulum to come back to the middle.

What To Do
Like I said earlier, I don't have a masters degree in business, so I'm sure I've insulted a plethora of people within the business sector. I'm just a father of five kids, with a beautiful wife, and I visit American businesses regularly. As a result, I do feel I have an accurate pulse of the American worker.

Right now, the heart of the American worker is not in good shape. If the situation is not fixed soon, I'm afraid the spirit that made the American worker so successful, will die forever. That would be a ridiculous tragedy. The answers are simple: To further underscore the point, listen to what one of America's key business leaders professed in a 2006 during a press conference to announce a corporate restructuring plan. Bill Ford, the then current CEO of Ford Motor Company, said:

"We're moving from a culture that discourages innovation back to a company that celebrates it."

For the American worker, maybe there is a glimmer of hope.

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