Four Suggestions For A Positive
Interactive Workplace

by Scott Valentine

"The problem with workers nowadays is that they assume no sense of responsibility. As soon as I turn my back, the whole system falls apart."

This is a popular lament heard in interviews with many managers who are having trouble coping with an increasingly transient workforce. Customer service problems, missed deadlines and faulty workmanship are common symptoms of a deeper disease that plagues many businesses today- employee apathy. Many companies are mired in poor performance because their employees are not working as effectively as they could be. But ironically, the problem does not stem from the workers; these problems are all symptomatic of leadership deficiencies. In many cases, it is the manager that holds the smoking gun.

It's All About Relationships
Most senior executives are quick to point out that organizational success is a function of how well the people in an organization perform. Studies abound which analyze techniques and instruments for facilitating the process of improving worker efficiency. Potential solutions in the form of quality circles and quality teams have sprung up in diverse environments. Spark plug manufacturers are doing it and so are airlines, cookie companies and even government organizations. Name an industry and odds are that the executives of the leading firms in that industry spend at least a week every year in workshops or meetings designed to look at improving quality and productivity. But underlying all these processes and methods, there is one element which determines success in the quest to boost productivity, quality and customer service - interpersonal relationships make the difference.

High quality interpersonal relationships in organizations influence the pursuit of quality and productivity improvements in three main ways: teamwork improves, innovation is fostered and customers are rewarded through positive fallout.

Improving Teamwork
Naturally, a group that functions well as a team is capable of higher performance and higher quality outputs. A positive interpersonal environment encourages people to share information and to get involved in areas that are not necessarily within their remits. In positive interpersonal environments, people begin to undertake small positive actions to reaffirm their place in the team. They contribute because they want to be part of the group. It is through these little contributions that progressive quality improvements are possible.

Fostering Innovation
Innovation is driven by the three elements of new information, new applications and new perspectives. These three elements are all cultivated through positive interpersonal interaction. When people interact they disseminate new information to each other. New information raises the collective level of knowledge in groups and this knowledge is often the catalyst to innovation. Interaction between people of different backgrounds and different fields of expertise results in new applications being developed through fresh insights. Clearly interpersonal interaction drives innovation. People invent; groups innovate.

Customers Benefit
As people in an organization interact with one another, an interesting by-product emerges - customers benefit. Interaction between staff helps to ensure that information regarding customers is shared. In other words, serving customers better becomes another way for people to continue to interact with one another. And in a positive interactive environment, people actually seek out reasons to communicate.

Additionally, the positive ambiance of working for a company that fosters high quality interpersonal relationships creates the perfect environment for satisfying the customer. If employees are happy, their happiness is transmitted to the customer. In a firm that exhibits such characteristics, the customer cannot but help to feel the positive vibes of good teamwork.

Systems Are Secondary
Certainly, customer service workshops, quality teams, brainstorming sessions and other more formal instruments are necessary in order to focus the interactive process on business objectives. The workplace is not merely a social club for workers. However, techniques and instruments are nothing without first achieving a positive interactive environment to support these techniques.

Four Suggestions For A Positive Interactive Workplace
Here are four suggestions for managers who wish to develop a positive interactive environment:

1. Develop A Value-Centered Group Mission Statement
Shared values bring people together. One needs to look no further than to one's own friends to understand this point. Interestingly, shared values are not as uncommon as one may think. Most people if asked would agree that working toward a proactive, positive, empathetic, professional workplace is a worthy quest. These are values that most people can agree upon. They are also values that can tie a group together and make them a family. Managers who seek to develop a value-centered group mission statement should be to ensure that these values are agreed upon by consensus. The goal of this exercise should be to establish as a group four or five values that everyone respects and agrees to try and further develop.

2. Follow Up The Mission With Regular Workshops
Mission statements become dusty documents unless they are taken out of their protective sleeve and put to use. Regular workshops to discuss how the team is progressing in terms of achieving their value-centered goals are essential. In these workshops, team members must be very specific in brainstorming ways to apply their shared values on a daily basis. For example, if the group decides that empathy is a trait they wish to work toward then a question in a workshop could be: Specifically how can we be empathetic toward colleagues, customers, and suppliers? This question alone is fodder for at least 2 hours of interactive workshops.

3. Ensure Top Management Lives The Mission
Redefining corporate culture can only succeed if the top management takes the lead. If employees see that top management is not behind the quest for developing a positive interactive environment, then they will not make the effort either. Telling senior managers to pay attention to their behavior is not enough. Senior managers should be made accountable for the success of this program. One way to ensure that proper attention is given to this program is to hold regular management meetings to review each manager's contribution toward creating a positive interactive environment. If a manager has to report back to peers with specific examples of how he or she is supporting a value-centered mission, the manager will be motivated to live the mission.

4. Clearly Reward The Advocates And Punish The Opponents
Creating a positive, value-centered culture requires a dogmatic dedication to making it work. Those who buy into the team should be clearly and publicly rewarded. Those who refuse to buy into the program should be slated for corrective action. There is nothing wrong with tying the application of values into Management By Objectives (MBO) programs. For example, if the group wishes to define itself as being empathetic, then each employee should be able to define a dozen of so concrete actions they have taken to be more empathetic. This can easily be made part of a person's job plan and performance appraisal.

For managers that scratch their head and wonder what it is about their employees that cause them to be so uncommitted, the solution is at the tip of their fingers. Employees become part of the team when the team's values appeal to them. And organizations don't represent values until managers make the effort to bring everyone together and establish clear values. For companies that can develop a positive interpersonal environment, the benefits to customer service, productivity and quality improvements are clear. However, none of this is possible until managers realize that employees are number one.


About the Author:
Scott Valentine is President of TQM Quest (www.tqmquest.com ) which is dedicated to the promotion of total quality management practices and leadership skills. Scott has years of experience in educational training and conducts workshops in customer service, leadership, total quality management and team building through TQM Quest. He has over 10 years experience living and working in Asia, primarily in business development. He holds a Masters Degree in Advanced Japanese Studies and an MBA and he currently resides in Perth, Australia. Scott can be contacted through e-mail at scott.valentine@tqmquest.com .

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Copyright 2001 by Scott Valentine. All rights reserved.

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