Companies are nothing more than the collective efforts of people. And people aren't always willing to be accountable for their actions—particularly in times of discord. A story from my own company, FWI, illustrates how this can happen.
FWI has built a solid reputation for editorial integrity and excellence. Internally, the company is organized into three distinct areas: sales and marketing, administration, and editorial. As is common at many companies, there is an inherent tension between sales and production. Those in the editorial department are necessarily focused on the product: top-notch news pieces that are clear, accurate, and topical. Meanwhile, true to their mission, our account directors work tirelessly to land business—but sometimes landing so much business puts the rest of the company into overdrive.
It's important to point out that our culture is one that celebrates free time. I'm concerned that my employees keep reasonable hours, that they have a life outside of work. However, as is often the case at smaller, more entrepreneurial firms, it's also understood that when an urgent need arises, everyone needs to unite and pitch in.
Nevertheless, when a staff gets overwhelmed with work, preexisting conflict and tensions can be exacerbated. This is the situation we encountered a while back. For a two-week period, nearly every writer was out of the office, traveling to several medical conferences we were covering simultaneously. To handle the onslaught of work, virtually everyone involved with production was putting in eighteen-hour days. Office couches became makeshift beds. Unfortunately, and perhaps as a result of stress and frustration, there was a common perception among the writers and administrative staff that the salespeople weren't pulling their weight—that they were only interested in closing deals and didn't care how the product would actually be delivered.
Fed up, the writers went to their supervisor, the managing editor, to complain. She informed them, however, that there was little she could do and suggested that they write a group letter to her manager, the company's vice president and general manager. Meanwhile, he had already made it clear that this was a short-term problem and that everyone should stop complaining. Around this time, one of the writers came to me directly and asked me to intervene. The misery in the office was palpable. Later, after talking it through with the GM, we decided that the best course of action would be to have a companywide meeting and allow everyone to air their grievances so we could work toward a solution.
Soon afterward, we had our meeting. I chose my words carefully, knowing that what I said and how I said it would set the tone for what followed. I opened up the floor for discussion, encouraging everyone to speak their mind. I waited. I nudged and prodded. Abject silence. After more cajoling, I managed to pry loose a few comments, but no one was willing to go out on a limb.
I left the meeting totally dejected. Given the opportunity to take a stand, to lay their concerns on the line, no one was willing to claim ownership of his or her role in the situation. We were all looking for someone to blame. The writers blamed the GM for overworking them and not being sensitive to their concerns. The managing editor relinquished her responsibility, placing blame on the GM and the sales organization. Coming from a sales background, the GM didn't fully understand the writers’ perspective and had little empathy. And I wasn't without fault. After all, I was the CEO. The buck stops with me, right?
About a week after our meeting, we instituted several policy changes that would help address work spikes in the future. But I wasn't worried about minor pragmatic fixes. What concerned me more was that in this situation, we—as individuals and as a collective—had willingly relinquished accountability. And it would take more than a new paragraph in the procedure manual to repair that.