7/1/2006 | 3 MINUTE READ

Marginal: Avoiding the Spiral

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On a recent flight out of Detroit, I overheard two flight attendants talking.


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On a recent flight out of Detroit, I overheard two flight attendants talking. They weren’t in the least bit happy with the way their employer was treating them. One, who apparently had lots of seniority, was finding that she no longer had the scheduling flexibility she’d once had, something that she and her colleague felt she’d earned. The other, who was about as enthusiastic as someone about to undergo oral surgery, muttered, “’No.’ That’s all [the airline] says, now: ‘No.’”

Welcome to the world of unhappy employees, where employers try to downsize their way to not prosperity, but to existence. There are three legs to this stool: the employer, the employee, and the customer. So what do we have here? There is the employer who is in a bad way, who tries to get better by doing something to the employee, who then gets in her own bad way. This leaves the customer. The customer is the one who probably had a whole lot to do with the employer being in the position that it is in. That is, the employer, who is responsible for providing the product or service in a macro sense, wasn’t doing so in a way such that the customer bought it. Many of these employers were in denial, thought that their fortunes would shift, or blamed things on not wholly blameless extrinsic factors, and so didn’t come to grips with the issue in a timely manner. Consequently the employers, like the airlines, either find themselves in Chapter 11 or flirting with it or something like it. Now once it gets to that point for the employer there is nothing, or so it appears, it can do other than to cut benefits and shed staff. In some regards, it’s almost as if the employees are seen as being nothing more than ballast—sometimes necessary, but sometimes expendable. Meanwhile there are those who remain, with their pay and benefits cut. The calculating logic has it: “They should be happy they have a job.” But does anyone truly think they’re happy? Yes, they may feel good that they’re not unemployed, but I think that the concept of happiness vis-à-vis what they do everyday is something that has been crushed, thoroughly, if it ever existed in them. They may do it, but they don’t have to like it—or be happy about it. Which brings us to the customer. While the employer, or the company, is strategically responsible for delivering the product or service, the product or service is directly made or delivered by the employee. And now we have a situation where the employee isn’t particularly enchanted with where he or she works. So that is reflected in their performance. Or it may be something that is no longer there: the zeal, drive or spark to do something extra, something better, something extraordinary that the customer perceives in a positive way. The flight attendants did a workman-like job at distributing the beverages, but you surely didn’t get even an inkling of, say, the Southwest experience, an experience, in part, that goes a long way to explain the success that that airline is receiving.

Today OEMs and suppliers are shedding workers faster than a cranked-up stripper sheds clothes. How are these employers treating their employees, not simply the ones who are being offered generous buy-out packages, but those who remain? This is going to be one of the biggest leadership challenges these employers are ever going to face: Creating the conditions that will allow those who are still with the company to feel that doing something extraordinary isn’t going to just have them deposited on the dustbin like those with whom they once worked. If they don’t feel the enthusiasm requisite to be competitive today, the customer is going to continue to go elsewhere and the spiral will tighten.