What Does Caring have to do with a Successful Business Culture?

This is a rewrite of an unpublished article I wrote in 1994, when many businesses had recognized the importance of their internal culture and its impact on their business.  I believe the principles still hold, though the understanding of culture and how to create lasting business success seems to have slipped in the intervening years, at least in the United States.

Where were we going in the TQM era?

The intent of the Total Quality Management (TQM) cultural change effort of the late 20th century was to achieve maximum organizational effectiveness, meaning maximally effective people.  To be highly effective, people must be deeply committed.  This requires that people care about their work, employer, coworkers, etc., for they will only be committed if they care about what they are doing and whom they are doing it for.  Fortunately, people have a natural tendency to care about their work.  The sense of accomplishment available through work gives people reason to feel better about themselves, and makes caring and contributing possible and even pleasurable.  The positive self-image that arises in this kind of environment is a far more powerful motivator than any externally applied influence and results in far higher quality of work.  By comparison, fear is also a powerful motivator, but its effects are detrimental to the quality of work produced in many ways, and they all increase cost without a matching increase in value.  But how are business systems involved?

Business Systems Can Discourage Caring

To achieve (allow) maximum effectiveness, the business systems in a company must not make caring difficult or uncomfortable or deny employees pride in themselves or their work.  An expression of distrust can as easily be built into a business system as expressed by a manager, but be even more insidious when systemic, and buried in policy and procedure.  Distrust is insulting, no matter how subtle, and people cannot easily accept it because doing so requires lowering their opinion of themselves.  As a result, people who feel they are not trusted are unlikely to care about that which distrusts them.  Examples of distrustful aspects of business systems include unnecessary approvals, micromanagement, and needless inspections of work output, none of which add value or are particularly effective at accomplishing the aims of long-term operational consistency and high product quality.  One alternative is to move quality control efforts “up front” into participative planning, good training, and involvement in solution development, instead of applying it after the fact when the defects and needless cost are already realized.

Anxiety Supersedes Commitment

If people suffer anxiety about any aspect of their job, caring about the job and anything related to it becomes painful.  It is very difficult to care about something if it causes anxiety or pain to do so.  For this reason, threats of layoffs or restructuring, especially when based on factors workers feel are beyond their control, can inhibit or destroy their ability to care. This is one reason organizations under such stresses tend to perform poorly.  A smart manager watches for anxiety-producing influences in her or his organization, and works to eliminate them and keep employees informed and involved, and feeling like the important parts of the team that they are.

Can Caring Be Measured?

How can one assess how much people care, or whether they feel anxiety on the job?  Surveys and interviews can provide this information (though it is best if they are administered in a way such that they do not provoke anxiety themselves).  In a culture where fear and anxiety are already present such information is best gained quietly and anonymously.  Anonymous or not, this information most closely represents a finger on the pulse of the organization, and the manager who becomes proficient at gaining this knowledge has the awareness which is the first step towards fundamental improvement.

How to Proceed?

To be successful in changing its culture, an organization must make sure that basic business systems such as budgeting, evaluation and metric systems, and decision making processes allow people to care.  This requires understanding, commitment, and hard work on the part of management to ensure that, as much as possible, workers feel recognized and rewarded for their performance, including as part of a team.  The feeling of being part of a successful team, in itself, is a powerful reward, more influential than bonuses, raises, or extra vacation days, for example.  The manager can provide value to the organization by helping workers understand that their work for change will improve their own situations as well as those of their coworkers, the company, customers, and society in general, and hopefully top management understands the need and works to address this broad goal.  The understanding of why change is needed and how it will improve conditions and results must be included in any training aimed at positive cultural change.

The Power of Caring is Easy to See

 If you doubt the power of caring and its effect on employee commitment and organizational effectiveness, look at your past employee opinion surveys and then how the company has performed.  Speak with and listen to employees regularly to get a sense of their level of caring about their work.  Those without a propensity for caring will rarely perform as well as those who can and do, while those who care about their work and those around them will be better workers in every way.  In fact, the big advantage in effectiveness held by very small organizations over larger competitors is based on a cohesive, family-like atmosphere and the caring that it fosters.  For larger organizations with a history of bureaucracy and inefficiency, caring is a key element in achieving positive cultural change and realizing the many benefits it provides, as it is usually the key element of success that has been lost.

Summary

The potential of the cultural changes expressed in writings on Total Quality Management in the late 20th century can only be realized if individuals in the organization care enough to make the changes work.  This is true of almost any change that management wants to make.  What is the level of caring in your organization?  How hard do you find it to care about your own work?  Is anyone in the organization thinking about or investigating these matters?  These are critical questions that may better define the quality and success potential of an organization than any others.  Seeking the knowledge and answers involved, and using that knowledge effectively is a powerful step towards management and organizational success.

As always, I welcome your comments and questions.  Thanks for reading — Tim

Other interesting reading:
Can Corporate Culture Be Changed, Ana McGary, anamcgary.wordpress.com, April 2012

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