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Looking back in anger – an interview with Brayton Bowen

pp_default1 The way in which we are dealing with our anger as a society and as workers is beginning to take a toll on productivity, customer relations, health, product quality, and employee commitment.
This is the latest in a series of columns written for HR Zone from management education portal

Brayton Bowen was the classic corporate type, a real grey suit. That’s because he served as human resource officer in five giant corporations.

A decade ago, he looked at the transition from one CEO to another and decided, “Enough!” He bolted from corporate life to his own consultancy, the Howland Group, to build “better worlds of work”. He also began to focus on two key issues: worker attitudes, and recognizing and rewarding talent.

In 1998-99, he worked with public radio to produce and host a five-part series on “Anger in the Workplace”. Each segment featured not only workplace experts but real people airing real anger. Last year, McGraw-Hill published Recognizing and Rewarding Employees, Bowen’s best shot at profiling the progressive policies he came to regard as crucial for the new millennium. Sales of the book zoomed. From his Louisville, Kentucky office, Bowen talked to FTdynamo about his findings and recommendations.

FTd: Anger? Rewards? Recognition? What’s next?
BB: When I started focusing on how people were feeling about their work and workplace practices, I didn’t realize how deep the feelings ran. Not only did other public radio stations air the “Anger” series, but initial response to the book indicated many workers are starving for something from management that goes way beyond a paycheck.

I’ve been giving a number of talks and I’ve been interviewed by local and national media. All of which has fed my core dream of trying to frame the workplace as more than an economic engine. Every company is a social system, a kind of “community.” I’m trying to decode how that system works, exactly.

FTd: Some folks you’ve talked to are “steamed”?
BB: Many of the people I interviewed were victims and/or survivors of “downsizing”, a phenomenon that still claims more than 800,000 jobs annually. Other angry or disengaged people I talked to were workers for whom the pressure to “do more with less” was approaching flash-point. What’s struck me has been a determination on the part of any number of workers never to put themselves in a situation of “trusting” others to take care of them or even play fair with their careers. Any number had become fearful or emotionally detached – and some were still angry.

FTd: But, everyone can’t be that angry!
BB: Recent studies indicate one out of every four people is angry at any point in time. In other words, we all are likely to be confronted with anger – and even become angry ourselves – on a daily basis. Moreover, the way in which we are or are not dealing with our anger as a society and as workers is beginning to take a toll on productivity, customer relations, health, product quality, and employee commitment.

According to government reports approximately 1,000 homicides are reported in the workplace annually and 18,000 assaults weekly. These are alarming statistics that translate into real losses both in human lives and in billions of dollars of lost revenue and productivity annually.

FTd: But your book was not about anger.
BB: It was a fluke. I was asked to write a book on recognizing and rewarding employees as part of a series. I’d already done the research on what contributes to workplace anger. I’d advised clients on anger management and still do. The book provided a unique opportunity to present another view of what could be done to build a new reality.

I decided to illustrate how work can (and should) be its own reward and to identify specific ways work environments could be made healthier, more constructive. In fact, from my own experience as a human resources professional and from extensive research, I’ve found organizations can be more profitable, healthier, and more productive through the use of enlightened policies and practices centering on the value of people – as people – and the intrinsic value of work.

FTd: Doesn’t it just come down to “Show me the money”?
BB: Interestingly enough, having designed countless pay and incentive programs over the years, I personally had come to believe too much emphasis was being placed on pay systems – or, more pointedly, on “manipulating” and even “punishing” employees by trying to “motivate” them to salivate at the bell.

But recognizing and rewarding employees, done properly, begins with the awareness that motivation is an “inside job”, it comes from within each person.

Pay does not motivate, not in the true sense of the word. To be sure, it might influence a person to make certain decisions; but, ultimately, it either meets people’s needs or it adversely affects morale. It is perhaps the fifth most important factor when it comes to employee interests. Many managers overrate the importance of pay; by writing the book, I felt I could kill two birds with one stone – the subject of workplace anger and that of pay.

FTd: Are we heading for a Blade Runner workplace, no matter what anyone does?
BB: Blade Runner suggests an environment where workers are entirely on their own – “free agents” without commitment or loyalty to any one leader or institution. It’s a harsh, “you’re on your own” world. And, to that extent, downsizing in particular has changed worker attitudes toward employers. But so have other factors like “employment at will” policies reminding employees that job loss can happen without cause – just or otherwise.

Then there’s the impact of outsourcing, telecommuting, globalizing, and the “virtualizing” of many corporations. Employees have been forced to be more alert to the conditions of expendability, to be more “adult” in a world that is focused on bottom-line results and global competitiveness.

Today’s workers generally understand the importance of learning and having to add value continuously. That’s the “good news”. The bad news? Those who feel disenfranchised can become uncaring, despondent, even destructive. This is a fire that may well rage out of control.

FTd: With e-business and all kinds of automation, aren’t human feelings less important?
BB: In one sense, workers are becoming appropriately sceptical about institutions (corporations, businesses, etc.) as the be-all and end-all of their existence. Interestingly, technology is improving productivity while at the same time it is freeing people to work in ways that permits them to reclaim their own identity – to assess who they are, who they can be, and what is really important to them in a larger context. The doors of business are being opened to allow the “shut-ins” of the past to venture out.

FTd: Do you harbour some workplace anger? How do you vent it?
BB: Venting anger is so important. It has taken years of experience for me to learn to step back and to see the growth opportunities life presents. Call it philosophical, call it spiritual – in some real sense, it’s vitally important I maintain perspective, a larger view, if you will, and that I deal with issues at the appropriate time in an appropriate way. Like that expression, “don’t sweat the small stuff…and it’s all small stuff”, you have to maintain a healthy perspective and not “stuff” the anger or deny your needs.

At times I find writing to be an excellent way of “seeing” on paper (or on the laptop) what’s bothering me – it allows me to verbalize in a way that prevents nuclear meltdown. Sometimes, I resort to a “worry jar” where I write my worry on a piece of paper and toss it in a jar. I then go to my calendar and schedule an “appointment with me” to review the problem at some later date. Effectively, I put off worrying or getting angry.

At the appointed time I usually find the problem has resolved itself or I can deal with it more dispassionately. In essence, time allows me to regain my perspective.

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