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Getting a Buzz

Managers must be sensitive to the emotional status of their staff if they want to get the best out of them
A bee on a honeycombMost managers are good at managing the numbers and most companies have a structure of numeric reports that require an intellectual, analytical assessment. As success is often perceived through performance indicators expressed in this way, it is usually the primary focus.

Managers who are brought up with a scientific background will have a particular bias for evidence and facts. This is sometimes referred to as the rational approach to management and, generally, it is something that the pharma industry is quite comfortable with. In fact, the basis of much management teaching tells us that strong logical thinking is the prerequisite for success.

The emotional status of an organisation is different. Where emotions are concerned, the application of rational analysis and logic are obselete, as they add nothing to our understanding of the emotional status of a company.

Sometimes the concept is wrapped up in the word 'culture', which we all know differentiates companies, but is notoriously hard to define. The emotional status of an organisation is very important. If we believe the mantras that a 'company is only as good as its people' or that the greatest challenge for a manager is 'dealing with people issues' - both of which are frequently cited - then there is no question it is important.

The ability to motivate and inject positivity into the work force is generally accepted as a basic management skill that can help in turning a potential failure into a success. 

A failing or underperforming company will exude negative feelings in many ways and, as people are often at the core of the issue, this phenomenon will create a downward spiral of negativity, which becomes self fulfilling.

A typical example is a salesforce that cannot revive a flagging turnover or folds in the face of emerging competition or adverse market circumstances. Despite superficial proclamations, deep down they do not feel good about what they are doing. On the other hand, in a company that is going places, there will be a strong 'feel good' factor that many believe is a driver of success and the work force will put in the extra effort.

What is clear is that this particular aspect of the management mix is something that an individual executive can influence. The significant new blockbuster or the date of patent expiry are industry factors outside the control of most pharma managers, but the emotional status of groups of people is an area where management skill can make a significant difference.

The emotional status of each company is different and can be thought of as a continuum, where the positive extreme might be described as 'buzzing' and the negative extreme as 'malaise'.

Most firms probably sit somewhere along the scale rather than at the extremes. However, an effective manager will be able to move the collective corporate emotional status towards the positive end. There are a significant number of managers who are unaware of how their company is different to others, largely because they have not worked in many (or sometimes any) other environments.

It is important to identify the current emotional status of both your company and that of others you interact with. Some managers believe that you can tell what a company is like from one visit to the offices - that you can develop a 'feel' for the company by walking around the corridors.

Such managers insist on visiting the premises of all potential suppliers and partners. It is important while doing this to use a number of diagnostic indicators to determine the emotional health of a company.

While the word malaise describes an extreme, it is surprising how many managers encounter it at some stage in their career. Do you recognise any of these symptoms in a company that you have had contact with or, even more worryingly, have you encountered them closer to home?

No one ever answers the phones around here: First impressions matter. Although seemingly superficial, the way the telephones are answered makes a huge difference to how a company is perceived, even by its own employees, let alone customers and outsiders. Unanswered calls and disinterested, unhelpful receptionists have a disproportionate effect on how it feels to work either with, or for, a company.

Conversations in the corridor are always about something that is wrong: The most telling diagnostic is the nature of the 'corridor conversations' - the informal gossip that happens by the coffee machine or the water cooler. If these frequently turn to complaints about the company, it is a bad sign. Sometimes an acceptance of cynicism about the organisation means that casual negativity becomes the norm in conversation. More specifically, there is a tendency to blame an ill-defined 'them' - implicitly the senior management - for everything that is wrong. The collective mindset that moves in this direction ignores the fact that 'them' often means 'us' as the people who work for the company are the company and their collective actions make up 'how things work around here'. However, logic is irrelevant when there is a pervading emotion that drifts towards malaise.

Do meetings ever start on time here?: This does not refer simply to one meeting, but also the general attitude of all attendees if a meeting starts late. It can become a self reinforcing characteristic if the idea that 'meetings never start on time here'i takes hold because everyone will always turn up late. This gives the impression that we are not that serious about the issues at stake.

The reports that come across my desk never add up: Nothing is better designed to convey the feeling that a company does not have a grip on its business than reports that do not make sense. A frustrated export sales executive, when he finally reached breaking point, was once heard to exclaim: Why is it that none of the reports we are given in this company are ever correct? The numbers never add up. This reflected a deep sentiment that the company was not in control of its business.

No one takes action points seriously: This seems so basic that it could be attributed simply to poor executive discipline, but there are companies where it has become the norm that action points are not carried out. An environment can emerge where managers know they will not be asked why something has not been done. Action points become a theoretical exercise and, when you reach the stage where this is the usual collective expectation, you can be sure there is some level of malaise.

Many of these diagnostic signs are superficial and relatively trivial, but when three or four are manifestly noticeable over a period of time in the same organisation you can consider that the malaise end of the scale is being approached.

However, malaise is more deep-rooted when there is a problem that is deemed immoveable. When one part of the company has been functioning badly for years and no one believes anything can be done about it, there is an acceptance of poor performance. This might be a manufacturing issue where years of back orders have become the norm, or a medical department that never completes trials to agreed timelines. It could be a regulatory department that is always regarded as a bottleneck by the rest of the company because of the attitude of the personnel, or a moribund long-serving sales folk resist anything new, such as calling on new customers, adopting new practices, etc.

Usually, this type of problem is deep-rooted, frequently related to particular personnel and thought to be unfixable by most staff.In reality, even the seemingly insurmountable challenges can be fixed and, generally, there comes a point when they are addressed.  In the meantime, it is the acceptance of the unacceptable that is the greatest concern for anyone on the look out for symptoms of corporate malaise.

Most of us know when it feels good to be part of or to deal with a company. Here are some of the signs that you might recognise.

The receptionist is always exceptionally helpful - even when things go wrong: The first postive indicator is again reception and how the telephones are answered. The friendly, helpful receptionist - often the first impression - carries huge weight and the impact lasts a long time. Good office practices, such as meetings starting on time, office equipment that works, smart meeting rooms, may seem superficial in themselves, but taken together, they convey seriousness and urgency.

The company has developed its own language: Many companies have a corporate language which, even if it sounds overdone to some, does create a distinctive atmosphere. If the phraseology is upbeat, it conveys the impression of a 'can do' attitude that is self fulfilling. Mission statements are often viewed with cynicism but sometimes they are presented with the words 'we really mean it'. When a number of people say this without embarrassment, you know the seriousness of their intent.

We work hard, but we like to have fun: If humour is acceptable in the office it can add to an upbeat environment, as can social events. One company, otherwise renowned for its long and intense working hours, included 'having fun' in its mission statement, and this simple phrase had great positive influence on their approach to work demands. Their frequent socialising helped greatly when the same people faced difficult office-based situations.

Management by walking around: When an office is buzzing there is a significant amount of positive informal communication. Key managers have open door policies and do, in reality, talk seriously to anyone, sometimes at unusual moments in the working day. Conversations are often about successes - what has gone well, challenges to overcome and what might go well in the future. The notion of management being visible fits well in this context.

We like to over-deliver: Perhaps it goes without saying that delivering on commitments is an integral part of what a company does. However, companies that are seen to over-deliver have an increased fell good factor and elevated status.

We are a learning organisation: Some organisations take learning from experience seriously, devoting time and effort to what is a relatively non-standard activity. They implicitly recognise that things will go wrong, it is alright to admit mistakes, no practices are unchangeable and we can always do better. Such an attitude to working life, when you find it, generally indicates that a company is at the positive end of the emotional status scale.

Observing organisational symptoms is an essential diagnostic exercise and will allow a manager to analyse, or perhaps more appropriately, get a feel for the emotional status of an organisation. One or two symptoms do not mean much, but collectively they add up to something that points to an organisational rather than a trivial problem. Companies where telephones are not answered, people frequently moan, meetings never start on time and managers do not expect the numbers to add up are probably further along the scale towards 'malaise' than they should be.

Of course, the big question is, what can be done about it?

Superficial symptoms are relatively easy to fix, but if there are a number of them they are likely to reflect something more significant. They represent an insight into the collective feelings of a large group of people.

There is not one route to implementing change, but in most cases, the starting point is to achieve 'buy in' from the people affected. The difficulty is that most people are unwilling to accept openly that they are part of a malaise or indeed, in many cases, even that their department is underperforming. There is a natural emotional resistance to criticism.

There are ways to approach this and various techniques, usually to be found in the consultant's tool box.

One first step that tends to work quickly, albeit carrying some risk, is to confront management with facts that are difficult to dispute and, in this way, to gain their acceptance of the need for change. An analysis of an underperforming situation will, in most cases, produce some clearly unacceptable fact-based issues, which can be used in a 'now is a time to face the truth' exercise.

Here are some examples:

  • The profit and loss numbers are often the first trigger. Most people will accept that an unprofitable function cannot be maintained forever
  • An ageing product range with treatments coming off patent imminently on fixed dates has also been used as a catalyst for change
  • Benchmarking exercises showing underperformance in, for example, time-to-market or similar measurable areas, can also build the case for doing things differently.

Another view is that a dramatic event - basically an extraneous catalyst - is required to convince people of the need for change. There needs to be acceptance that a world, which carries the comfort of long familiarity, has reached a point when it cannot be sustained and the future has to be different.

The most common of these in pharma in recent times has been mergers or acquisitions. In the biotech sector running out of cash is often the catalyst. In some circumstances senior management have been known to manufacture a compelling event to force the issue in the direction they want.

It is not enough for a manager to be highly intelligent and good at rational analysis - although he usually needs to have these skills. The effective manager needs to be sensitive to the emotional status of the groups of people he works with, and aware of what it feels like to work in different environments. We all like to work in a buzzing environment and the manager who knows how to create one will stand out from the crowd.

The Author
Brian Roche is a director, Conseptua Training & Consulting. He can be contacted at (

10th April 2008


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