One Way to Refresh a Resigned and Cynical Workplace

The most important thing in bringing a low-energy workplace back to life is completion. I once worked with a newly hired manager, Evan, who was shocked at how slow and negative his department was. He said, “If I had known these people were so dispirited, I might have thought twice about accepting this job.”

“They just have some bad habits,” I suggested. “Let’s look at what we know about the way they work, and see what we can do.”

We worked together to make a list of habits that were weighing on people – in some cases literally weighing them down. For the sake of brevity, here are the top three:

  1. In-boxes full of email. People were proud to compare how many emails they had: 500, 1200, and over 2000.
  2. Cardboard boxes of files in their offices, sometimes behind their desk, or next to the bookshelf, and sometimes with plants or family photos sitting on top of them.
  3. Lateness: most people showed up late to meetings and took 2 days (or never!) to answer an email. People rarely used deadlines or due dates, and didn’t honor them when they saw one.

We targeted those three things first. Evan called a meeting, and the invitation said:

“We will meet in room 214 at 10 AM on Tuesday morning. Coffee will be provided. Meeting requirements:

  • If you are storing any boxes of files in your office, bring one of those boxes with you to the meeting.
  • Look at your email in-box before you come, and bring the number of emails you are holding there to the meeting.
  • Be on time. Do not be late for this meeting.

It was a good start – people seemed excited when they arrived. Evan had them put their box of files on a table at the side of the room and gave them a post-it and a marker so they could label it with their name. Then he had each person share their number of emails, and wrote the score on the board. The “winner” had only 54 emails in her in-box. Evan identified the 3 people who were late. “No stories,” he said. “We don’t need to know why you were late.”

The meeting was short. He said that being on time was going to be important now. And that reducing the size of the in-box was going to be a new habit the group would build over time. The first target was to get everyone down to no more than 54 emails – the lowest number in the group.

“We’re cleaning house,” he told them. “Not just habits and not just files. We’re going to change the energy level here, and take back our power.” People looked at each other, curious, but there was already a new kind of attention in the room.”

“Last thing,” he said. “You’re going to empty that box of files you brought in here, because it’s not going back into your office. If you need to keep a couple of papers, that’s OK. But the box stays here. You have until lunch to sort through this stuff – put some in the shredder over there, and the rest in the recycle bin here. Help yourself to coffee while you work!” And he left the room.

People who didn’t know that completing things creates energy got a good lesson that morning. They were surprised; some were laughing and others crabby – but mostly in a good way. They emptied their boxes, joking about what they could do with the new-found space in their office.

Three weeks later, their meetings weren’t about boxes of files and emails anymore. They had a new whiteboard in the meeting room (the shredder stayed) with a roster of team member names. Everyone had their assignments posted – with due dates – and they liked putting stars next to their on-time tasks. It was a whole new workplace, and Evan was finally glad to be there.

2 replies
  1. David Sapper
    David Sapper says:

    I like Evan’s story and can see how it provides a platform to complete the past and move ahead. What’s missing for me though, is the understanding conversations that would allow for discussion, questions, pushback linked to the range of reasons why people may be resigned and cynical.

  2. Laurie Ford
    Laurie Ford says:

    This story is only a small part of what Evan did, and he certainly had lots of Understanding Conversations. You’re absolutely right that there is a range of reasons for resignation and cynicism. This blogpost addressed one approach that had a much bigger impact than I expected: changing some basic workplace-housekeeping habits seemed to lift a burden off many people and changed their relationship to their work in surprising ways. One woman told me she had not looked at some of the new needs and interests of customers in a very long time, because she was “buried in unfinished business”. So I just picked this one thing to write about. I guess I should look for other examples to begin to address the multitude of reasons for being resigned and cynical! 🙂 Thanks for the comment.

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