Staying Up In A Down World

When all the barriers are removed, watch which way the people run.

A few years ago, the former Secretary of Education, Dr. William Bennett, was asked a question by a 7th grader. He asked, “How can you tell a good country from a bad one?” Bennett replied, “I apply the ‘gate’ test. When the gates of a country are open, watch which way the people run. Do they run into the country or out of the country?”

I thought it was an excellent question that got an excellent response. And I think the same question could be applied to your organization. If your people were exposed to other job opportunities, and if all other things were equal, would they stay with you, or would they leave you?

The answer will tell you if you’ve got a positive or negative work environment. And it’s no small matter. That’s why one of my more popular programs is “Staying Up in a Down World: 8 Keys to a Positive Work Environment.” It always gets the people excited, and it always makes a difference in the organizations where I speak.

Positive work environments are important because negative work environments drive your best people away. And it costs 1 and 1/2 to 2 times a person’s yearly salary to replace an employee and get a new person up to speed. In other words, you have to pay for such things as advertising, recruitment, background checks, interviews, orientation, and training when good people flee your “gates.”

And there are some hidden costs in the loss of intellectual capital when an experienced person leaves and mistakes are made by the new inexperienced person. There’s the disruption of teamwork and a variety of service problems — all of which can lead to lost customers. Quite simply, you can’t afford to have a negative work environment.

The good news is you’re not stuck — if you do have a negative work environment. It can be changed. I know. I do that all the time in organizations where I speak. In fact, David G. Lewis wrote to tell me: “My wife came home this evening and couldn’t wait to tell me about your seminar. She thought you were AWESOME and gave you fives all across the board. Now you’d have to know my wife to know that fives all across the board means that next to the 2nd coming of Christ you’re the next best thing! Heck she doesn’t even give me fives across the board.”

I start with a simple premise. I call it the “Environmental Burnout Premise.” It says that people are not so much burned out on their jobs as they are burned out on the atmosphere in which they have to do their jobs.

And how can you tell if your workplace environment is causing or has caused negativity and burnout? Look at the way your people think and act.

=> 1. Are They More Like Prisoners Or Pioneers?

John Borchert, the general manager for the Army Corp/Prison Blues Clothing Line in Oregon, says, “Prisoners learn early that the way to survive on the inside is to keep a low profile and follow orders. Sadly, that’s the lesson that workers in most businesses learn.”

What about your people? “Do they,” as Dr. Terry Paulson asks, “just lay low and follow orders, or do they risk innovating and pushing the envelope for positive and strategic change?”

In positive work environments, the workers do more than simply “get by” or “survive.” They’re pioneers. They’re thinking of new and better ways to do their jobs or serve their customers. They’re excited and energized, and their enthusiasm touches everyone around them.

=> 2. Are They More Upbeat Or Downcast?

As I speak in various organizations, I can see that lots of people don’t like their jobs. And I hear about the whining, complaining, and backbiting that those people engage in. They’re obviously downcast.

Of course they’re not hard to spot. You can hear the negativity in the words they use. I remember one person saying, “I can’t get excited about anything that starts with morning.”

Another scrawny fellow was sitting at a bar staring into his glass. Suddenly a burly truck driver sat down next to him, grabbed the guy’s drink, and gulped it down.

The scrawny little fellow broke into tears. But the trucker said, “Aw, come on, pal. I was just joking. Here, I’ll buy you another drink.”

“No, that’s not it,” the man blubbered. “This has been the worst day of my life. I was late for work and got fired. When I left the office, I found that my car had been stolen, so I walked six miles home. Then I found my wife with another man, so I grabbed my wallet and came here. And just when I’m about to end it all,” the guy said sobbing, “you show up and drink my poison.”

Talk about being downcast. That’s about as bad as it gets.

What about the folks around you? Are they more upbeat or downcast? Do you see more smiles or frowns? It’s a pretty good indicator of your work environment.

And what about you? What are people going to say at your funeral? Are they going to say, “He hated every day of work, and he made sure everyone around him hated their work as well?”

When I listen to the more negative, downcast people, I can understand that a number of things contributed to their negativity. It may be the pay, the hours, the boss, or any number of things.

But I want to tell them they have a choice. They can focus on the negatives, or they can focus on the positives — because there are no perfect jobs. I want to tell them if they don’t like employment, they should try unemployment.

Of course, when I talk that way, the negative people think I’m too cheerful. They think I’m being unrealistic. But I like the way Daniel L. Reardon puts it. He says, “In the long run, the pessimist ‘may’ be proved right, but the optimist has a better time on the trip.”

=> 3. Do You See A Greater Emphasis On Sick Days Or Well Days?

As you well know, only 50% of those who call in sick are actually sick — physically sick. They’re just sick of work or have “more important things to do.”

Part of the problem may be the fact that many organizations reward negative sickness while they punish positive health. In other words, people actually get paid for not working.

Now hold on a minute. Before you get all hot, bothered, and angry at me, I’m NOT suggesting that companies remove such days. I’m not suggesting we go back to the days of worker abuse, not at all.

I’m simply saying that it might make sense to put a greater emphasis on wellness. An organization might reward people for perfect attendance over a period of time. They could put all the “winners’ names” into a drawing for a bigger prize. It would make things a bit fairer for those people who never get sick and never get to use their sick days.

Or give your employees the privilege of using a “sick day” as a “call-in-well day.” The employee could call in and say, “I’d love to come to work today, but I’m feeling so mighty good that I’m calling in well. I won’t be there, but I’ll see you tomorrow, brighter and fresher than ever.”

Action:  Take an inventory of your organization. Are the employees acting more like prisoners or pioneers? Are they more upbeat or downcast? And do you see a greater emphasis on sick days than well days? Your inventory will tell you if your organization is positive or negative.

And then if you don’t like the results of your inventory, select one or two things you can do to change your environment. Don’t wait for the other people up above you to do something. Just focus on what you can do.