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Heaven or Hell: A Corporate
Rabbi Haim of Romshishok was an itinerant preacher. He traveled from town to town delivering religious sermons that stressed the importance of respect for one’s fellow man. He often began his talks with the following story:
“I once ascended to the firmaments. I first went to see Hell and the sight was horrifying. Row after row of tables were laden with platters of sumptuous food, yet the people seated around the tables were pale and emaciated, moaning in hunger. As I came closer, I understood their predicament. Every person held a full spoon, but both arms were splinted with wooden slats so he could not bend either elbow to bring the food to his mouth. It broke my heart to hear the tortured groans of these poor people as they held their food so near but could not consume it.
Next I went to visit Heaven. I was surprised to see the same setting I had witnessed in Hell – row after row of long tables laden with food. But in contrast to Hell, the people here in Heaven were sitting contentedly talking with each other, obviously sated from their sumptuous meal. As I came closer, I was amazed to discover that here, too, each person had his arms splinted on wooden slats that prevented him from bending his elbows. How, then, did they manage to eat?
As I watched, a man picked up his spoon and dug it into the dish before him. Then he stretched across the table and fed the person across from him! The recipient of this kindness thanked him and returned the favor by leaning across the table to feed his benefactor.
I suddenly understood. Heaven and Hell offer the same circumstances and conditions. The critical difference is in the way the people treat each other.
I ran back to Hell to share this solution with the poor souls trapped there. I whispered in the ear of one starving man, ‘You do not have to go hungry. Use your spoon to feed your neighbor, and he will surely return the favor and feed you.’
‘You expect me to feed the detestable man sitting across the table?’ said the man angrily. ‘I would rather starve than give him the pleasure of eating!’
I then understood God’s wisdom in choosing who is worthy to go to Heaven and who deserves to go to Hell.”
The Difference Between Heaven and Hell
is Not the Setting
Rabbi Haim’s parable applies as much to the corporate environment as to any other social setting. Companies all start with the same basic circumstances and conditions. Yet some companies are heaven to work in, while others are sheer hell. The difference, as Rabbi Haim astutely points out, lies in how the people treat each other. If employees cooperate and seek to help each other succeed, then coming to work every day is a pleasure. If, on the other hand, they lack respect for each other’s abilities and spend their time looking for ways to shift blame, no one will enjoy showing up for work. As Luciano de Crescenzo observed, “We are all angels with only one wing; we can only fly while embracing one another.”
Most people will readily recite for you the list of fellow employees and injustices making their lives miserable at work. But ask them about how they may have contributed to the pollution of the atmosphere at work, and you will get only blank stares in return. They see clearly how they suffer from a hellish environment, but not how they contribute to creating it, how their own attitudes and behavior may help create someone else’s hell.
There are no managers in Rabbi Haim’s firmament – each person chooses his own mode of behavior. So where do the managers belong – in Heaven or Hell?
That, of course, depends on the manager. Some encourage an atmosphere of cooperation and trust, while others foster back-biting and blame-shifting. Either way, a manager helps shape the organization’s atmosphere through words and gestures, reward and punishment, and decisions on hiring and firing. In many cases, the only difference between Heaven and Hell is the manager. The right manager can transform a hellish work environment into a heaven.
In Today's World
Psychologists Richard Wagner and Robert Sternberg have developed tests that predict managerial success. Here is a question from one of their tests:
You have just been promoted to head of an important department in your organization. The previous head has been transferred to an equivalent position in a less important department. Your understanding of the reason for the move is that the performance of the department as a whole has been mediocre. There have not been any glaring deficiencies, just a perception of the department as so-so rather than very good. Your charge is to shape up the department. Results are expected quickly. Rate the quality of the following strategies for succeeding at your new position:
a) Always delegate to the most junior person who can be trusted with the task.
b) Give your superiors frequent progress reports.
c) Announce a major reorganization of the department that includes getting rid of whomever you believe to be “dead wood.”
d) Concentrate more on your people than on the tasks to be done.
e) Make people feel completely responsible for their work.
Wagner and Sternberg find that good managers tend to pick (b) and (e), i.e., they would target communication and empowerment, while poor managers tend to pick (c), replacing team members. A good manager knows that the very same people that make up an under-performing team can, with the right motivation and communication, become a winning team. To paraphrase Rabbi Haim: there is no difference as far as the setting or the circumstances. The only difference is the way the people act towards each other.
The press tends to revere macho bosses who rely on fear and intimidation in the workplace. Fortune magazine regularly publishes a list of the toughest bosses. Frank Lorenzo, whose unrelenting fights with employees and unions destroyed Eastern Airlines, was hailed by the business press as a genius. When Al Dunlap, nicknamed “Chainsaw Al” for his massive layoffs at Scott Paper, was named CEO of Sunbeam, the press applauded the move and Sunbeam’s stock price rose by 60%. But results prove that management based on fear and intimidation ultimately does not work. It discourages necessary communication, demoralizes employees and drives the best people out of the organization. Dunlap was fired from Sunbeam after a massive accounting fraud, and Lorenzo lost his job at Continental Airlines because of his “scorched earth” policy towards employees.
The evidence is indisputable - companies that put their employees first and create a positive work environment outperform those that don’t. To cite one study, the “100 Best Companies to Work for in America,” selected for their favorable treatment of employees by Fortune Magazine, also outperformed the Standard & Poor 500 Index by 12% and yielded higher return to shareholders over a three year period than the broad-market Russell 3000 Index.
Many more articles in Insight & Commentary in The CEO Refresher Archives