The Collective Mental State

Jan 14, 2002

If you look at the effect the events of September 11 had on everyone in this country, it’s really pretty amazing. The collective funk that ensued hurt businesses of all types in an unprecedented way. But that’s over now. People are already feeling better. The stock market has recovered. And even though the numbers of layoffs are mounting and we’ve all recently learned that we’ve been in a recession since March of last year (thanks for telling us now), the mood of people everywhere seems to be improving. Seeing how these events impacted the entire country so quickly and so severely got me thinking about how the same thing can happen on a smaller scale inside any one firm. Some bad news, and the entire company goes from flying high to struggling for survival in a very short time. The collective mental state of the employees who make up a firm is incredibly fragile. It can go south quickly, and the firm will suffer, big-time. Conversely, everyone can be feeling good, and amazing things will happen. To ignore the significance of a firm’s collective mental state is, unfortunately, typical. It’s rarely— if ever— discussed, and if it is, little is done to change it. Yet it may be the most important variable when it comes to growing, making profits, doing good work, having fun, or more. If you are concerned that your company’s collective mental state is not what you want it to be, here are some things you may want to consider to help pick it up: Make some money for a change. Now, this may seem obvious to you. And it may be a question of which comes first, the chicken or the egg. You may be unprofitable due to the poor collective mental state of your people, yet to change that mental state you need to be profitable. It’s paradoxical to some extent. But I never have a seen a firm in this business that could not cut its costs below its revenue and make money. So recognize that not doing what you are supposed to be doing as the management of the company not only costs you now, but also down the road. It’s your responsibility to match up your workload with your cost structure. Cut costs and make a profit, and get everyone back to believing the firm can make money. Set reasonable goals and accomplish them. No one likes to constantly feel like a failure. And that’s what happens when a company routinely sets goals that are not met. Even if the performance is a good performance by any standard, if a goal was not met, some people feel like failures. So watch how you set these goals, and don’t just automatically adopt a goal as a good one because someone suggests it. Beat your chest inside and outside of the firm. You have to keep reminding everyone how good your company is. This includes clients, employees, and the public at-large. Sure, some members of each group will get sick of hearing it from you, but don’t let that stop you from doing it. Sell, sell, and sell the place. If you don’t, you’ll perish. Be spontaneous and zany, and make work more fun. With the lousy economy, staff layoffs, and the events of September 11, lots of people are depressed and demoralized. Although it’s good to see that some of this malaise is definitely subsiding, making the workplace fun again could accelerate the process. I’m not saying we need to get carried away with razor scooters for all, but there are things that can be done— parties, jokes, music, workplace props, and more all contribute to the feeling of fun in the workplace. Maybe now is the time to take a fresh look at this issue. Get rid of all demotivators (or as many of ‘em as you can). Maybe it’s just my personal prejudice that I’m showing here, but I really hate meetings, approval processes, and unnecessarily rigid policies. And a lot of this stuff tends to escalate in tough times. Bad times give firms a reason to be Draconian. Individuals become less trusted to make good decisions, and the company can get away with not paying much attention to morale because alternative employment options decrease so rapidly. But the damage these demotivators cause is insidious, and the hangover from not paying attention to them shouldn’t be underestimated. Spice things up (or change for the sake of change). The change I am talking about includes your leaders. You may need to change some of them to give the place a different feel and re-energize hope. Change your office layout. Change your logo and colors. Change your organizational structure. Change your company name. There are a lot of changes that can be made, and one thing they have in common is that they say, “things aren’t the same.” If “the same” is bad, then “change” can be good. Originally published 1/14/02.

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Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.