Three years ago, I walked out on a job without notice. It was a rash decision, I admit, but one that has never been regretted (even though I did go on food stamps for a while).
The reason? The culture sucked. The employer shall remain nameless, but the story is worth telling.
Bright-Eyed and Idealistic
Armed with my pending degree and newbie optimism, I spent my final semester attending job fairs and sending out resumes. Even in a slow economy, two offers came – imagine my excitement. The selection was based on geography – Atlanta, Georgia just seemed like a great place to live and work. And it was a great place to live. The job however? A nightmare! What follows is a summary of my nightmare of workplace culture that existed during the daylight hours and some advice for employers who are genuinely interested in developing a work culture that will keep employees engaged and excited about their jobs.
Basic Training – It’s Not Just for the Army
When new inductees join the Army, or any other branch of service, they go through a basic training course. In the private sector, this is called “onboarding.” It involves those activities that introduce the new employee to the organization, its people, and to the various teams that are in place to accomplish the tasks and, ultimately, the goals of the organization. Organizations that have a great “team culture” workplace are excited to introduce the new member to everyone. Organizations that do not have it avoid doing this. They focus instead on things like filling out employment forms, designating a work space, and leaving the new hire to basically fend for him/herself. How fun is that!
I was given the “down and dirty” onboarding routine. My first day on the job, I spent most of the morning in HR, filling out paperwork and listening to some clerk drone on about payroll procedures, health insurance features, and procedures for calling in sick, signing up for vacation time, etc. I could have done this on my own time, if they had just provided me a manual to access online or a video I could watch on my own time. What I really wanted to do on my first day was meet people – get to know who my co-workers would be, get a feel for the organizational climate.
I was then taken to my workspace – a good-sized cubicle in a well-lit, physically pleasant section of the building. I had met my boss before – he actually was involved in the interview process, so at least I knew one person. But then, I was given several IT tasks to begin, without any further introductions, except by name, to the team members I would be working with. Oh, and I was told that if I had any questions, I could ask “so-and-so,” someone I assumed had been working there for a while. Wow. This was it?
Lunchtime came and went. I asked a team member about places to eat and was given a few options in the vicinity. This should have been my first and most important clue. These people didn’t even eat together!
Here is what I learned that first day of work.
- The whole introduction to processes, paperwork and procedures thing? Companies need to understand the priorities of employee onboarding. If they would just get the concept that streamlining the mundane tasks of onboarding will allow new hires to spend face-time with teammates instead, they would see the long-term benefits.
- There need to be planned activities of a social nature that will allow connecting and bonding between new hires and their teammates. New employees need to be embraced and welcomed in genuine ways – a team lunch or happy hour would go a long way. Beyond that, a mentor should be assigned who takes an active role in making sure the new hire is gaining more comfort and confidence every day.
This never happened for me. And that’s a corporate failure at the highest level. Building a team culture comes from the top down, and obviously this company had not been reading about designing cultures to fit the new millennial and Gen Y needs. A few lessons from Google and Facebook workplace culture designs might help.
Relationships Move Forward – or Not
I had read, in a few of my college texts, about “team culture” and how it is established, especially within larger organizations. The organization I had joined was a large financial one, and my department developed and improved banking software, which was then sold to banks all over the world. It was a project-based team, and I had thought there would be a lot of camaraderie. Sadly I was mistaken.
We had these team meetings every time a new project was announced. My boss would stand in front of us and explain the project. His next move was to assign the tasks to each of us individually and give us deadlines to have them over to him. That was it. No discussion? No meetings during the project work to see if anybody had problems or needed help? Wow. I was beginning to feel less than enamored with this company.
Finally, I was able to connect with one other member of my team. He was relatively new but had been there a bit longer. His “take” on the culture of the team and the company as a whole was this: everyone was very competitive and pretty much out for themselves. This was why there wasn’t much cooperation on projects. Everyone had their tasks and their only goal was to get them completed as fast as possible and look good to the boss. Relationships were just not important.
How Relationships Should Be Built
Looking back on this experience, I have come to realize just how important relationships are at the workplace. And, again, it has to come from the top. Our boss didn’t want relationships with us, and so none of the team members wanted relationships with each other either. There were things I could have done to help build a team, but I was new and naïve.
Team building starts with the leader, and that leader has to be the model for relationship-building. Leaders need to establish personal connections with each of their team members and then see to it that members establish connections with one another.
This means that team meetings extend far beyond the announcement of projects and assignment of tasks. It means that there is open discussion about how to attack a project; it means that there are meetings along the way so that everyone can help one another with their specific issues; it means that support and encouragement are fostered, and that the idea that “we’re all in this together” is predominant. It means that successes, both personal and professional, are celebrated together.
I didn’t even know if some of my team members were married or had kids. What a sterile place! New kid that I was, I tried to set up social activities myself – a happy hour, an office potluck for lunch. Participation was minimal to say the least. There was just no “message” from above that these things were valuable. Looking back I wish I had better tactics for building a team while not being the boss. I could have done more.
My Escape – the Final Straw
I lasted just a little over 6 months. Actually, this was not that unusual. Employees in my department and in others seemed to come and go on a relatively regular basis. Corporate response to this was odd, I thought. New hires would simply be brought in to replace those that had left, and the cycle would just repeat itself. I wondered if they ever gave any thought to the cost of high turnover among their workforce.
My exit was not pleasant. I was called into my boss’s office and given an extreme “dressing down” because I had missed one of her deadlines. Feeling a bit confident that morning, I pointed out that, in a series of emails, I had requested data and information that I needed to complete my part of the project, and that these had been ignored. I showed her the last email I had sent, stating that my tasks would not meet deadline because I still did not have what I needed.
She didn’t even seem to listen. It was at that point the realization hit. This job was going nowhere, I was miserable, and so I just quit – right then and there. I walked out of her office, picked up my few personal items, and walked out of that building. The sense of relief was overwhelming.
About This Servant Leadership Thing
I am not a corporate executive; I am not even a team leader. However, I do know this much. Servant leadership is not just a buzzword. It is a real requirement of leaders today. When members of team can get the support and the resources they need, they really do function well. When help and resources are withheld, team members lose morale; they lose motivation; and their productivity declines.
The Happy Ending
Stories do have endings, and mine is happy. I have found that workplace in which positive team culture is amazing. And it takes so little to do this. It requires the following:
- A corporate commitment to relationship building based upon collaboration not competition
- Team leaders who value relationships and connections
- Lots of communication and discussion and collaborative problem-solving
- A commitment of a leader to “be there” when the team is – to provide support and resources as they are needed
- A focus on team success, not individual achievements – and a celebration of team successes.
- Cross-training among team members, so that everyone understands the challenges and responsibilities of their teammates and can willingly fill in when necessary.
21st century companies that are going to make it in this new work environment will pick their department and team leaders carefully. They will ensure that they have the personalities for and the commitment to a “team culture.” That financial services company lost a potentially valuable employee, and many others, when it lost me. There are lessons to be learned from new corporate environments such as Google and Facebook. Let’s hope they are learned soon.