Many years ago, when I was just starting as an HR Officer working in a large public institution, I had the opportunity to participate in a meeting that I found to be very instructive about life in a large bureaucracy. A senior manager had come to the HR Department to meet with the Director to discuss the career options of one of his long-serving staff.  In short, in the manager’s view, there were none. He used the term “deadwood” to characterize the quality of this staff member’s contribution to the team.  He had come to the HR Department so that we would do something to remove this burden from his unit.

Having now spent forty years working in HR, I have come to learn that one of the functions which we are expected to perform is to take out the trash.  In the above case, the HR Director responded thoughtfully.  He noted that the staff member in question had a long service record which, while not distinguished, was certainly solid.  He asked a simple question:  how did this staff member become dead wood? 

This is a blight that unfortunately is all too common in large institutions. In many of the training workshops I have conducted on job evaluation and organization design, at a certain point in the workshop I always ask the participants:  How did you feel on your first day of work? Since the participants were working in organizations that are highly mission driven and focused on great issues of public purpose, the responses were invariably the same: Proud, nervous, inspired, anxious to contribute, make a difference. I then would ask amongst the participants how many had served ten years or more. And how did they feel today?  Again, a set of responses with a great deal in common: Disappointed, detached, cynical and not particularly motivated.

Digging into these perspectives, we found the transition from inspiration to desolation was not related to levels of pay or benefits. So, what is it about these large institutions that can take a thriving group of bright, committed individuals and turn them into the petrified forest? Some of this can be linked to culture and the reality that comes with working in an environment that is often highly political. Another contributing cause is a failure of integrity in the day to day management of the institution. While these are not small issues, most staff over time are mature enough to understand that an organization created to address issues of public policy will be by its nature political. Failures of integrity are harder to live with, but fortunately have not been generally perceived to be pervasive. 

What is seen as the major reason for this decline in morale, the stultifying nature of the institution itself and how it manages staff. Dense bureaucracy with turgid processes that are impervious to change, uninspired managers who rose to their positions not based on merit or skill but rather mastery of the bureaucratic culture and most importantly a failure to recognize, nurture and challenge staff in their jobs. Job structures are rigid, you do the tasks enumerated on the job description and keep your head down. Time passes and if you still have a pulse a little more money is doled out with all the fanfare of receiving a bowl of gruel and not surprisingly receiving a level of gratitude equal to its appetizing nature.

Yet despite this sorry state of affairs, many staff still feel a strong sense of personal commitment. They may be disappointed in how they are managed. They are uninspired by their leadership. Some have cynically “checked out” and are hanging in for just what they can get. But they still want to know that their work matters and yearn for the day where that will be made more evident.

How can we turn this situation around? What is essential is to create a strong and personal link between the work of the individual and the mission of the organization. It is a mystery to me that perhaps the strongest asset of the organization, its inspiring mission, has been so poorly inculcated into the daily life of the workplace. It has squandered the very glue that binds the organization together. Small measures such as pictures of the work being done and regular briefings by organization leadership to all staff of the accomplishments in critical program areas are not hard to do but often just do not happen, and so even with us all working in the same building we become isolated and detached.

I know these measures can be powerful. One summer early in my career, I was an intern at NASA headquarters in Washington. This organization goes out of its way to connect all staff to its mission. Regular briefings, an inclusive culture, stunning pictures of its missions and personal expressions of gratitude from senior management and astronauts makes everyone know and feel that they had a part in getting the rocket off the pad. Although this was only a four-month assignment, it had a profound influence on my thinking about how an institution can behave. Beyond improving the general culture of the organization, it is essential that we rethink jobs and how they are designed. In the past posts a strong argument has been presented that the current approach of most organizations, with a focus on input over purpose blunts any hope to building a strong linkage of the person through the job to the mission. In our next post, we will show how organizations can make this transition.

Gary is the founding and managing Partner of Birches Group.  He has worked in the areas of organization design and compensation management for over forty years.  Following a career with the United Nations, Gary has led the Birches Group consulting practice working with many leading international organizations in over 100 countries.  Gary has pioneered a new simpler way to integrate job design with skills and performance through Birches Group’s Community™ platform.  He is recognized as a global expert on job theory and design delivering workshops and lectures around the world