Extremely Tough Workplace? Stay Focused

by Shaun Kieran

Going in, Diane knew that the workplace she was heading to was never going to win anyone’s “50 Best Places to Work” award – but she still wasn’t prepared for what she found when she arrived. Her experience doing the training and implementation of network software for warehouse systems had given her this seemingly golden opportunity to earn “pretty big” money taking on an old, static cold storage facility and it’s “do or die” attempt to transition into the modern age.  So off she went from the suburbs of Portland, ME, to a warehouse barely a half mile from a cloverleaf interchange off of U.S. 80 in north central Pennsylvania.

The ancient paper-based record keeping was barely the half of it. The tiny office staff did have computers – but mostly just to do word processing. And actually, some of the oldest staff members hardly knew what Word was, let alone a spreadsheet, and preferred typing envelopes on a 25-year-old Selectric typewriter.

As for out in the warehouse itself, well …it wasn’t the archaic storage and retrieval process that was the problem so much as the semi-Neanderthal, “old-boy” work culture. When she’d walked around introducing herself to the “troops” – inside and on the loading docks – the attitude was barely civil, and she actually found herself feeling intimidated by a couple of extra-surly fork-lift operators who made no bones about what they thought of “still another” attempt to change the way things worked.

This was a first for her – having to manage people who conveyed an element of physical intimidation. She wasn’t sure how to proceed and, truthfully, she wasn’t really sure whether she wanted her direct report to know the situation – at least, not yet.

By the time she called me, she’d already spent more time alone in her office – ostensibly “tweaking” the network software before the rollout – than was probably wise.

Over the course of five weeks, we had several phone sessions focusing on some basics.

Diane needed to not be isolated. She saw that she needed to walk around regularly without fail, letting them know that she was always going to be around. She knew she wasn’t great at schmoozing, but the unpleasant reception had surprised her and dented her confidence in her ability to connect with a primarily male, blue collar group.

I strongly suggested she be super- curious, and engage them by asking questions – about the history of the place, what still works well, etc. Right away she learned about the “innovative” refrigeration system still going strong after 20 years. She could feel the sense of loyalty and even pride they had in that system, even among the ones who had no clue about cooling technology. Just the chance to talk positively about themselves and their unusual little outpost helped defuse some of the negativity. A few employees loosened up.

Being unfazed and classy in the face of resistance is the way to go, and almost always works – for the long haul. In Diane’s case, her workplace was kind of lost in a time warp – extra backward – so she needed to give it extra time to adjust to her, and the changes she was bringing with her.

Yes sir, rudeness and non-cooperation are performance problems that (ultimately) need to be taken head on. Being slow to take offense is good, being unwilling to enforce minimally decent workplace behavior is not.

Diane and I agreed she should not get caught up in the old Darwinian pissing contest; the good old boys would sense immediately if she was vulnerable to that. They may take a run at you, but most of them will stop when they see you’re not “biting.” Diane needed to stay focused on what she was there to do – implementing the new systems and processes – and see it as an ongoing dynamic: start implementing, then start learning: perceive what happens as “information” coming toward you, to be understood, re-worked, and re-framed as fluid problems to be managed or solved.

It isn’t rocket science or magic. The key is to keep your grip on yourself, manage your own “self talk.” Show focus – be patient, learn, validate employee concerns, admit mistakes – but stay locked onto the goal, model that, and keep everyone moving forward.

As so often happens, our telephone consultation sessions ended before the whole story played out. (I consider it a success when a client says, “Thank you for your help, I’ll take it from here.”)

Six months later a little email “thank you” note from Diane essentially said, “They now have touch-screens on the warehouse floor, laser printers and Excel in the front office, and the warehouse is on a fiber optic line running direct to the owners in Pittsburgh. It wasn’t all fun, but I’m not leaving with my tail between my legs. Thanks.”

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