The Tone Gets Set at the Top

Originally published on LinkedIn on 2/20/2018

In a conversation about what we would be giving up for lent, a new acquaintance replied, “Actually, I plan to speak more positively. I work in a place where there is so much complaining, I find myself being sucked into that, and I don’t like it.” My guess is that it’s unlikely that this woman walked into work the next day lavishing compliments in a high-pitched voice whilst humming the tune to “The Lollipop Guild.” But obviously, was saying that she works in a culture of negativity and she wants to avoid the personal detrimental effects. Maybe she even wants to do her part to change the tone. That got me thinking about something that’s been rattling around in my brain lately – the tone gets set at the top.

As a Penn State student, when I wasn’t at a home game it was because I was working at a brand-new restaurant on campus. It was a 50’s diner, so our white polyester uniforms were embellished with saddle shoes, bobby socks, hair bows, and red lipstick. A very specific color of red that if we didn’t wear, we were sent down the street to buy. Hair bows needed to be big and Bazooka bubble gum was chewed throughout the shift. Coffee pots, heat vents, food containers, shelving, underneath tables, and molding were cleaned – every…single…night. We did it without complaint (much) because the manager was fastidious and showed us the value and pride in working in a meticulously clean restaurant. The tone gets set at the top.

When I started my career as a banker calling on large corporate accounts all over the middle of the country I was always amazed at how each company had a distinct personality. Some intense, some relaxed; some creative, some stodgy; some quick thinking and acting and some slow as molasses. My own company was a really great company to work for, largely because it was an honest-to-goodness team effort no matter which division I worked in, who was part of the team, or how much of a struggle the project was. The tone gets set at the top.

My daughter spent a summer as an unpaid intern at a major national sports league. She loved her experience and she thought the world of her boss. He treated both of his interns like adults, he asked for and valued their opinion, he appreciated their work, he communicated issues effectively, and he made sure that they both grew and learned during their time there. Every other intern outside of her group was miserable. Why? Every other intern was managed by a former intern. It seems that they got treated like garbage while interns at the organization, so it was instinctive that they pass that down the line. The tone gets set at the top.

I’ve worked for and volunteered for several organizations and been through multiple management changes. I’ve seen morale rise and fall with each change. Now in my experience, that rise and fall is rarely dramatic; in fact, it’s always very subtle, but the shift is most decidedly there. In my opinion, the root of the matter is motivation but that manifests itself in different ways: work hours, conversations between employees, commitment, tone of e-mail exchanges, passive aggression, laughter or lack thereof, fresh ideas, problem solving, creativity, compliments vs. criticism, etc.  Put simply, how do employees feel on Sunday night when they realize they are back at it on Monday?

So how do you gauge what kind of tone you’ve set? Here are some suggestions on questions to ask your staff (and yourself) that might help you find out:

–      Do you talk about your job with your friends? What do you say?

–      What’s the most exciting project you’re working on right now?

–      What’s the most frustrating initiative you’re a part of here?

–      If you could pick an adjective to describe this organization, what would it be?

–      What’s the most common complaint you hear from co-workers and/or customers?

–      Why do you want to work here vs. a similar organization?

–      What do you want to say to me that you find difficult to say?

–      If you had a friend looking for work, on a scale of 1-10 how likely would you be to encourage them to look here?

–      If you were in my job and looking to make change, what are the top three things you would do?

–      What do we do here that makes you feel valued?

–      What do you need to do your job better and how do you define better?

Just a little something to get you thinking and help you set a positive and productive tone no matter where you are in the organization.