How to get your people working like a team

How many times have you driven home at night with a gnawing feeling in the pit of your stomach because one of your key people is disgruntled for who-knows-what reason? And who among us hasn't spent endless hours fixing people's bruised egos or injured psyches after a harmless offhand remark has festered and done its damage?

Over the past 12 years, I have tried many different approaches to keeping people enthusiastic and energized by their work -- and not in my office for repairs. About a year ago, a friend who is the chief executive officer of a rapidly growing company introduced me to a technique that I've found remarkably successful. It involves nothing more than formally structuring time so that you and other members of your team can discover what makes one another tick. It's amazing how one person's seemingly trivial actions can have such profoundly negative effects on someone else. Equally amazing is how people change their behavior once they're aware of one another's hot buttons.

To illustrate both the problem and the technique, I'm going to use a couple of real examples from my friend's company.

The Symptoms
Linda, the controller, left work depressed, demotivated, and upset. She had worked until past 3:00 a.m. three nights running, polishing up the company's forecasts -- and the CEO had dressed her down for being a day late with the reports. Sure, she could have warned him that her analysis was a day behind, but he must have known how profoundly she cares about the company and how much she worries about meeting cash-flow projections. The next morning she dragged herself out of bed and drove to the office with a leaden feeling, turning over in her mind her letter of resignation.

How many times have you seen these mornings after? The problem is, you usually don't know what happened or why. All you know is that one of your employees seems down. And you hope whatever is bugging him or her will go away.

Bob sat stony-faced by the telephone, glaring at his watch. It was 10 minutes past three o'clock. The CEO had said he would call back at three. Bob had been at the company four months as executive vice-president, and everything had been going well. Now, he was uneasy. Wasn't his work any good? He had thought that he could trust the CEO. Now, he wasn't sure. After all, when you say three o'clock, that's three o'clock. When the phone rang shortly after four, Bob answered it in an icy, flat tone. He had a hard time discussing the major contract he was negotiating. He was furious and disappointed.

Again, how often have you been puzzled by a response? You haven't a clue as to what provoked it, and you get a twinge of anxiety, guilt, or anger depending on how the rest of the day has gone.

The Cure
Most people, if asked, will freely tell you what propels them to new heights of achievement and what turns them into listless, enervated drones. And most people, if they know what moves and what slows their fellow workers, will make the effort to treat them with care. The trick is to make sure the exchange takes place. Here's what I've found works best.

Gather together a small group -- it could be your managers, your board, or a work team, but should be no more than 10 people -- for a meeting away from the office. Make sure that you take enough time for people to relax and let their hair down a bit. Provide refreshments, but require no advance work, no handouts, and no flip charts. You'll want people to volunteer -- maybe you'll even go first -- to answer the following questions with complete candor.

* Why do you work here? What do you get out of your work? What are your aspirations?

* What are the behaviors, actions, or circumstances that make you motivated, energized, and happy with your work?

* What are the things that people do that dampen your enthusiasm, that make you angry or depressed?

When faced with these questions, both Linda and Bob were frank.

Linda: "You know, for me it's very simple. I love this company. I think what it's doing is great, I think the people who work here are committed and really terrific to work with. That's why I work here. Nothing fancy or heavy about it. You want to know what turns me off -- takes the wind out of my sails and leaves me dead in the water? Just doubt whether I care, or don't recognize how committed I am. When you chew me out for being late with something and imply I don't take my job seriously, I'm finished. I don't function for days after something like that. I can't give you something that isn't right. It might have serious consequences for the company I love. But if I get just an inkling that I'm appreciated, I'll work all night and still be smiling the next day.'

From then on, everybody understood the key to keeping Linda on an even keel. When she was late, instead of doubting her commitment, the CEO made sure she knew how important getting a particular job done was to the company's success. And he found that a little praise went a long way.

Bob: "I came to work here because of the culture of this company. We respect people. Our business is built on respect for the individual and on trust. Trust is the fundamental ingredient. I can't work with someone I don't trust. Trust is built up over time and derives from countless little actions -- like doing things you say you are going to do. For example, if I say that I am going to give you a report on Wednesday afternoon, then you'd better believe I'm going to deliver. Otherwise how can you trust me? And if I say I am going to call you at 10 o'clock, then I'd better not call at 11. So if you want to spook me, just don't meet a commitment. I'll get quiet and detached for a couple of days. I suppose I should be more mature about these things and confront people at the time, but I don't.'

Once Bob's quirk was acknowledged, it took little effort to work around it. People knew they shouldn't promise to call him back at a precise time. A couple of people even began to give themselves an extra day to get jobs done for Bob, and then turned them in early.

There's nothing more common in business than seeing committed, competent men and women being turned off and demotivated because of misunderstandings. In my experience, a small amount of time invested in learning about the people you work with yields impressive dividends.

James E. Bernstein, M.D., was founder of General Health Inc., an Inc . 500 company in 1985 and 1986. He is currently chief operating officer of Age Wave Inc. and president of Brooklawn Associates, a small-business development firm in Washington, D.C.


To be effective, small-group sessions should stick to the following format

* Meetings should be held off site, away from the office or plant.

* Allow at least a half day for a session.

* So that the effort will be taken seriously, the chief executive and senior managers should be present.

* Include no more than 10 people at a time.

* No minutes should be kept.

* There should be no advance preparation.

* It's up to the CEO to set a mood of candor, to see that the discussion doesn't get personal, and to assure employees that there are no personal risks involved.


Fast growth can be hard on employees

Quality Rating Very Very

Good Good Average Poor Poor

Treats employees with respect 38% 32% 20% 7% 4%

Listens to problems and complaints 22 34 29 11 5

Does something about problems and complaints 17 31 30 15 7

Shows loyaltyto employees 25 32 27 9 7

Source: 1987 survey of Inc. 500 employees