Many years ago, I worked in police communications as a shift supervisor. I was given the task of turning around a group of low-functioning employees and while initially I was not enthralled with the idea; I began to think about ways I could rise up to the challenge.
The telecommunications section had an assortment of duties that were required by its employees. In those days, everyone had to rotate through the duties which varied from monitoring of security cameras, responding to public complaints and enquiries over the phone, multi-channel live radio communications with the police officers on the road, computer queries related to responses for assistance from the public; and persons and vehicle checks by the police officers; as well as data management and record maintenance.
When I first took over this shift, the employees had a very high rate of absenteeism and there was a lot of fighting amongst the group as well as complaints from police officers and members of the public. At first, I did nothing but make note of behaviours I was seeing for myself. It didn’t take long before distinct patterns emerged – Suzy Q would call in sick whenever it was her night to do radio – Joey-Beth would get into screaming matches with the public whenever she was on the complaints desk – Cindy-Lou would actually fall asleep at the security camera station and Sissy would end up in tears when she got behind on the queries and couldn’t maintain the pace. The way this group spoke to one another and the language they used was enough to make your ears bleed and at times the air was so thick with tension, you could almost cut it with a knife! This was a very dysfunctional group.
After having conversations with the police officers as to what some of their concerns were (some were worried about their personal safety and I believe their fears had some validity to them); the public complaints also appeared to be well-founded (I personally spoke to some of the complainants and reviewed tapes of calls); I could see the bickering for myself and the sick time was becoming quite an expense both emotionally and financially to the section – I started to work on a plan for change.
I spoke to the team one on one as well as in a group and we discussed what kinds of differences we might have if we were to distribute the work load to better suit the preferences of the employees. In other words; I was willing to allow them to have a voice in the assignment of duties.
I knew two of the employees on the team were absolutely terrified of doing the radio work. They were slow to respond to the police officer’s requests and did not hear well, thus having to ask continually for requests to be repeated. This frustrated and angered the police officers and consequently caused them to question their safety when these particular people were on the radio. I also knew that I had one operator that was exceptional on the telephones and handled the public extremely well (she was a former police officer who was unable to work on the road anymore). She was not particularly quick on the computer system though and really struggled when she had to do the record maintenance and would fall behind frequently, which meant her fellow operators had to pick up the slack.
I had two others that would call in sick frequently – one when it was her rotation on the security monitoring and the other when she had to work on the radio.
So, I decided to go ahead and experiment – I let everyone do what they preferred doing and did not insist they rotate through the roles. Their attitudes changes almost instantly – sick time became almost non-existent; the jobs were being done more competently; police officers on the road were far more confident and the complaints went down considerably from them as well as from the public. Two of the operators were on radio all the time and would only need to work the phones during break times. The changes began slowly at first, in terms of improved attitudes; but as the trust in everyone’s abilities grew and they began to realize the benefits of utilizing the skills they were good at, we were really starting to see positive results.
Initially, I was heavily criticized by upper management for making the changes to the duty assignments and advised that I had to change the team back into the rotational duties. I was in total disbelief by that request. I had a team that was actually getting along now – morale was increasing – we had surprise pot luck nights – wore costumes on Halloween – the group was engaged and it was evident in the lack of complaints from the public and police officers that we were successfully strengthening the team.
What I find truly astonishing though; and why I wrote this blog to ‘toot my horn’ is that I was doing this in the early 90’s.
I had gained respect of the team; the police officers and my peers and now, many years later; a young man named Marcus Buckingham writes about how the world’s greatest managers flout conventional wisdom by breaking the golden rule, playing favourites, and turning their focus away from improving people’s weaknesses.
His books, “First, break all the Rules”; “Now, Discover Your Strengths”; and “Go, Put Your Strengths to Work” are the results of over 25 years of research – he has shown that the link between people and performance is vivid.
The most “engaged” workplaces (those in the top 25% of Q12 scores) were 50% more likely to have lower turnover, 56% more likely to have higher-than-average customer loyalty, 38% more likely to have above-average productivity, and 27% more likely to report higher profitability. (http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/49/buckingham.html)
According to Buckingham, when a company makes a statement such as, “Our Company’s greatest asset is our people!”…while it’s a nice motto, it’s meaningless without introspection and application. And the truth is, people aren’t your greatest asset, unless they’re in position to leverage their greatest strengths – those things they do well consistently and energetically.
At a time when organizations are trying to do more with fewer people, it’s critical to engage each person’s strengths, and do it at scale across the organization. The strengths movement isn’t about making people happier; it’s about making organizations more productive. It’s about yield. The best companies are made up of great teams. And those teams have individuals who know their strengths, take them seriously & offer them up to the organization. (http://www.tmbc.com/mb/biography)