What’s with the Attitude? Improving Employee-Manager Relations

Filed Under: Article , INitiative

We've all heard the lament from a frustrated studio manager, design firm principal or in-house design team leader, or maybe we've said it ourselves: “I've done my best, but certain members of my staff just have a bad attitude.” This comment may be followed by expressions of sympathy from fellow managers and dark conversations about replacing staff or taking up drinking.

It's true that bad attitudes are a real problem, but the source might not be workers who are intentionally lazy or difficult. Think about it: How many creative people do you know who take delight in not being productive?

Of course employees have always blamed the problem on bad management. And it makes intuitive sense that good or bad management can affect worker attitudes and performance. However, until now the scientific evidence has let management off the hook.

Employee attitudes have been the topic of thousands of studies worldwide, but these studies have usually looked at individual workers. Few studies looked for the existence of “group workplace attitudes” and none tried to find linkages between these attitudes and productivity. So, not surprisingly, no clear linkages have been found.

This made it easy for managers to continue wringing their hands and complaining about the quality of the new graduates and general bad attitudes—while also continuing to manage the same way they always have and wondering why the results never seem different. Well, guess what? A 2004 paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research says the employees may have been right after all.

The study—by Ann Bartel and Casey Ichniowski at Columbia Business School, Richard Freeman at the National Bureau of Economics, and Morris Kleiner at the University of Minnesota—is the first to provide clear evidence that management does matter. Their report concludes the workplace can induce positive or negative attitudes among its employees and that such “workplace attitudes” affect economic outcomes.

Their study compared the “group attitude” among workers at 193 branches of a major U.S. bank in 1994 and then returned in 1996 to study 143 branches of the same bank.

The results support two main conclusions and put much of the responsibility for worker attitude right back in the lap of management. The study's results show there are happy and unhappy workplaces, as well as happy and unhappy workers, with profound impacts on productivity and turnover.

Branches where workers reported they felt fairly compensated, well trained, listened to and respected had better productivity and lower turnover than those branches where workers had less positive attitudes. In fact, branches with unhappy workers performed so badly they were more likely to simply be closed. Furthermore—and this is the part that grabbed my attention—attitudes persisted at individual branches over time, and newly hired workers were infected with the good or bad attitudes that the branches exhibited before they arrived.

So, what does this have to do with you? The good news is the report provides some clear indicators of what good management looks like and what we can do to improve worker attitudes and the creative and economic results of our own design departments.

The employees of branches with good attitudes and good economic performance reported greater satisfaction with four factors any studio manager or design firm principal has the power to control:

  • compensation and rewards
  • teamwork
  • training and development
  • management communication

On the surface that's not much help, but if we look a little deeper at the survey responses there are some clear messages we can take to heart.

  1. Employees felt they were fairly compensated when they knew how their performance was being judged and believed compensation decisions were linked to performance.
  2. Good teamwork occurred when the supervisor actively encouraged teamwork among group members, encouraged continuous improvement and demonstrated by day-to-day decisions that quality was a top priority.
  3. Employees were happy and productive when the company invested in adequate training for them to do their job and when their supervisors took the time to provide ongoing coaching and guidance to improve performance.
  4. The employees with positive attitudes reported that their supervisors listened to their ideas and concerns, gave them regular feedback about their performance and respected them.

It takes a lot of commitment and courage to create this kind of environment. But it just might be a lot more satisfying—and productive—to lead a staff of creative professionals working together as a team with great attitudes. What do you think? Are you up for the challenge?