Pride Goeth Before a Profit

For best results, managers should tap into the pride of their employees. This article from Harvard Management Communication Letter explains how.
by Theodore Kinni

At General Motors' Car Assembly Plant in Wilmington, DE, there is a film that managers like to show when times get tough. Dating to 1991, the film opens with a GM executive saying that the plant will be closed in three years. There is no possibility of appeal, no chance the decision will be reversed, he says.

The next scene shows the plant's general manager. Maybe we can't save the plant, he declares, but we can make them feel really stupid for deciding to close it.

That's exactly what plant workers did. With nothing to gain, they built cars so well that dealers started specifically requesting them. Still slated to lose their jobs, the workers built cars so efficiently that they earned the right to a new-car launch. And when the time came to shut the plant down, headquarters had to refuse: The employees at Wilmington had made themselves too valuable to lose.

Jon Katzenbach, founder of the New York City-based consulting firm Katzenbach Partners and author of Why Pride Matters More Than Money (Crown, 2003), likes the story of the Wilmington plant because it communicates what he calls "institution-building pride."

To make a commitment to communicate about pride is to tap into a very powerful motivating force.

In a tough economic environment, when there is little money for bonuses and a lot of concern about layoffs, Katzenbach says it becomes even more important to communicate with employees about the value of their work and reinforce the pride they take in it. This is not a recommendation to manufacture a false enthusiasm to gloss over problems. Speaking about and to employees' pride has to be authentic; employees will quickly sniff out managerial insincerity, and the manager's communication will backfire. As Donald N. Sull writes in Revival of the Fittest: Why Good Companies Go Bad and How Great Managers Remake Them (Harvard Business School Press, 2003), a new book about turnarounds, "successful managers exhibit a close alignment between what they commit to and who they are—and disconnects in that communication are disastrous."

To make a commitment to communicating about pride is to tap into a very powerful motivating force. Pride is an intrinsic, deeply seated human emotion, says Katzenbach, one that drives performance in the workplace in a number of ways, from creating and delivering a great product or service to winning a colleague's respect.

While the prestige and group identity that spring from working for a particular institution can be a motivating force for employees, it's pride in what they do—recognition of the intrinsic value of a job well done, whatever the job itself—that's the real powerhouse motivator because it speaks to employees' identity and self-worth.

Caring About Accuracy

Dave Thompson was appointed a measurement technician at El Segundo, CA-based Unocal's Van, TX, oil field in 1993. He was responsible for making sure that the amounts of oil and natural gas pumped from the field were accurately recorded. This wasn't a challenge when it came to the oil, but gas was another matter. "Oil was always what buttered everybody's bread," he says, but no one seemed to care much about natural gas. In fact, only one Unocal field in North America had passed a natural gas measurement audit in years.

"We were selling seven to eight million cubic feet per day and I was responsible for it. I thought we should take a better interest in it," says Thomas. The problem was that although he was in charge of the machines that recorded the gas, he had no authority over the pumpers, the workers in the field who were directly responsible for keeping the recorders running twenty-four hours a day.

So Thompson appealed to their pride. "A lot of it was they just didn't know. What I did was I talked to them individually, and I explained why this should be done," he says. "They didn't always like it, but I explained to them that they ought to have pride enough in their jobs to learn about this piece of equipment and what it did."

He created a simple analogy to drive home the need for accurate measurement: If you were pumping gas into your car and the pump stopped registering at five gallons, even as the gas continued to flow, you wouldn't drive away without paying for the whole tank. "This was about doing the right thing," says Thompson. "Pride and integrity go hand in hand with me."

Two years later, the company auditor gave the Van field the equivalent of a "B" grade on its gas audit. "This was like a fireworks display," remembers Thompson. "It reflected on the whole operation, and we took pride in the fact that the Van field and its employees were taking care of business." Two years after that, Van got the first "A" awarded by the company auditor in his thirty years at Unocal.

Now a production foreman, Thompson still lives and works in Van, just like always. "We are all blue-collar guys, we all like what we do, and we all feel confident and blessed," he says of himself and coworkers. "And I would take our group of twenty-two here and match them up against anybody in the industry."

Employees' Award-winning Ideas

At Aetna, the Hartford, CT-based insurer, Rich Schlichting, a customer reporting and business operations manager, works closely with sixteen people, almost all of them longtime employees, in his department. Those employees "own" the projects they work on, he says, because he assumes that they have the answers to most problems, if he will only listen.

"I've got tons of years of experience sitting right outside my cubicle. It only takes a little effort to stand up and walk outside and get everyone's opinion," he says.

When he first started the job, Schlichting realized that there were a couple of people who were de facto leaders in the group. "There were two people who everybody looked to for answers. So, I focused on them initially—gaining their trust and asking them what we could do to make things better."

When he receives good ideas, Schlichting lets the employees implement them. "Giving a project out gives them a little more pride," he says. "They've got ownership, and they want to make sure that it gets done." He makes sure that employees are recognized for their ideas within the department during small recognition ceremonies, like a quarterly lunch. And when appropriate, he nominates them for greater honors, such as Aetna's corporate recognition program, the Pathfinder Award.

"I know there are some managers who don't want to take the time to fill out a simple form," he says, "but it really doesn't take that much effort."

The electronic reports get to customers up to two weeks faster and save Aetna $300,000 annually.

Five employees in Schlichting's department have won Silver Awards with a $300 prize, and two have gone on trips to Florida afterward to compete at the second (Gold) level of the three-level program. One of them went on to win the annual Platinum Award and its $5,000 prize for the implementation of his idea to deliver the department's monthly claim reports electronically to self-insured customers.

"It was his idea, he ran with it, and he took ownership," says Schlichting. "There was no funding for the project, and it was all done within the unit. Everybody wanted this to be successful, and everybody stayed extra hours to make sure it was done properly." The electronic reports get to customers up to two weeks faster than mailed copies do and save Aetna $300,000 annually.

"I inherited a good crew," says Schlichting. "They take pride in their work. They realize that I do listen and I do take their advice, and I do recognize and reward people who are doing a good job."

Pride In Numbers

As Unocal's Thompson and Aetna's Schlichting show, a strong bond between manager and employee is an essential element in pride building.

"Relationship, trust, and pride are all intertwined," says General Motor's Rick Sutton, the site manager for two Saginaw, MI, power-train plants employing 3,000 people. "The way I look at it is, in order to build pride, you have to have trust, and in order to have trust, you have to have a relationship. So you've got to figure out how to connect and spend time with people."

But how do you establish a personal connection when you manage thousands of employees who may well be working in different locations and on different shifts? One way that Sutton makes the connection is through videotaped messages. He recognizes the impersonal nature of a taped message, but he overcomes that by using an "unscripted fireside chat. It's 'Here's what we are doing well,' with a lot of thank-yous and kudos and pointing out wins and successes, and then talking about how we need to redirect energy into what comes next."

Sutton uses the videos to issue an invitation. "There are 140 teams in this organization, and I tell them that if any team would like to talk to me further, I will come to their team meeting any day, any time, on their turf." The employees do respond; Sutton averages one team meeting per week.

The meetings are where Sutton gets beyond metrics. "When you sit in the front office and let the layers of management filter out what is really going on in your plant, it is very different from meeting with these guys and listening to what they are telling you." Just as important is responding to the expressed needs. "They might give you more than one chance, but not many more. But once you make that connection and people understand that you care about their problems and you are there to help, the energy in the organization is amazing."

It has worked at Saginaw. Since 1999, the employees have delivered $20 million or more each year in cost savings, with capital expenditures of less than $500,000 total.

"We're talking $80 million out of a $400 million cost structure," says Sutton, "and it isn't that amazing, once you really understand the talent, ability, and power of proud people."