A mountain to climb for Eskom’s acting chief in improving staff morale.
In the midst of load shedding the past fortnight, we had an unscheduled power break. The fault was reported, a reference number provided and within a short time, power was restored.
This was followed by a rather puzzling sms informing us that we would be approached for feedback on the service provided. Mirth was quickly replaced with pique at the audacity of an organisation that has arguably disappointed an entire nation to recruit any kind of useful feedback from customers on improving service. It was therefore not surprising when the call came to find that it was one of those electronic calls which avoided interaction with another human being. I ended the call after the first key-pressing option.
It reminded me of the article I wrote some time ago on the battle weary efforts of flag bearers of our non-delivering state-owned “empires” in trying to keep customers happy. I recalled at the time, the incident in which an Eskom employee parked on a Swellendam street was severely berated by a local resident on the other side of the street and with creative expletives only indigenous Overbergers have mastered.
Therein lies Brian Molefe’s challenge – boosting morale with a severely tainted brand. The two are closely linked, something Molefe seems to have recognised in a Moneyweb Radio interview (see here). He appears to have also appreciated the need to embrace leadership at all levels.
It is often too lightly accepted in conventional organisational theory that an inspired top leadership can infect the general workforce. As important as it is, in large organisations this inspiration more often than not simply hits a solid wall of resistance at the most critical leadership of all – that band from first line supervisors to middle and senior managers. Even where workers at the coal face are motivated through a plethora of costly smile courses, team building break-aways, rah-rah events and happy working conditions, that tired, cynical and stubborn lower leadership group often seems to have its own agenda, rife with resentment and scepticism.
It’s a phenomenon I became acutely aware of in my 15 years of consulting on employee involvement in companies. Armed with background in organisational theory after a stint at Templeton Management College at Oxford, I became involved with and exposed to an overwhelming number of Human Resource orientation and inspirational interventions and processes, many of them simply packaged franchises from abroad. An earlier era saw the birth of a massive new consulting industry, with previous accounting management consultants entering the much more lucrative field and the growth of big and powerful company in house departments.
Large amounts of money were thrown at the “people” problem, with new “stakeholder” concepts proliferating the field. Ironically, all this happened at the same time as the growth and grip of the shareholder value approach and the obsessive focus on maximising returns on capital. In turn this has led to an intolerable contradiction: despite all the time, effort and money and all the smoke and mirrors which modern human capital doctors employ to convince their paymasters that the two approaches – maximising returns and involvement of labour are compatible, labour generally and globally has never felt as besieged as it does today.
One of the myths that is often peddled in costly interventions is that “happy people are involved people”. This is simply not true. Camaraderie in the workplace on its own does nothing for productivity. At one stage, for example, a financial institution was ranked as the “best place to work for” in South Africa. At the same time it was losing customers in their thousands. At a more mundane level, I remember once trying to enter a discount store in a mall well after opening time. The glass doors were locked, although I could see the staff huddled in a group inside the store. The security guard informed me that “they were having a team building meeting.”
I can relate countless more examples, but suffice to say that too many of these highly costly, lengthy and disruptive interventions either achieve very little or when they do, they are seldom sustainable. Ultimately the key to employee involvement lies in that which I have written about countless times: commitment to a common purpose. The only indivisible common binding factor in any organisation is its service to the customer, the community or society. Even that irascible first line supervisory and middle management band can be drawn into such a purpose and strengthen it by ensuring that their subordinates are enabled and empowered to contribute to it.
We keep on insisting that the primary purpose of all of those involved in an organisation is material self-gain. Not only does this appeal to the worst in staff, but it is a divisive force in the way it is constructed in companies. Yet it need not be. By following principles of common fate, in which rewards are differentiated yet flexible and directly linked to wealth creation emanating from the common purpose, it becomes the ultimate force behind employee involvement.
It is quite simple: human beings have two instinctive and primary driving forces – purpose and provision. Both find expression in the working environment. But when provision completely overwhelms purpose in that environment you destroy morale and encourage conflict.
Employee awareness, understanding and transparent communications are natural, logical, inexpensive and classical methods of solidifying employee involvement, willingness and commitment. They can fruitfully replace any of the song and dance hype-filled distractions that have become regular flavours on the consultant’s menu.
In addition to his undoubted prowess as a game changer in large SOE’s, Molefe may find some comfort in the miracles which staff are capable of performing in turning around ailing organisations – from the design by American labour leader Joe Scanlon of flexible pay to save his employers; to the Ohio employee buyout ventures. The difference there was that the initiative came from labour themselves, but the similarity is that staff came to the rescue when all hope was lost.
In many other respects, Eskom may be fundamentally different, but clearly Molefe has to have the entire workforce solidly behind him. In that he has the difficult task of rebuilding without PR spin the Eskom brand as soon as possible. This has to go far beyond a clichéd “we are doing our best under the circumstances”.
A good brand is an essential tool in motivating staff. Indeed it is the only one that counts.