Employees Down in the Dumps? That's Great News!

Last Updated Sep 15, 2010 4:49 PM EDT

According recent polls and op-eds, most Americans think we're in decline. This is the best news in a decade for executives!

Why?

Because we're finally in a state of national mourning -- not for our greatness, but for our belief that greatness was easy. We've gone through a decade when companies became stupid and managers focused on simplistic solutions. Even universities got into the act by suggesting that the road to success is merely a degree away. We're grieving our beliefs that we can be saved by moving our collective cheese, exercising the five dysfunctions of teams, tapping "The Secret," or transporting our penguins to a new iceberg.

The feeling of despair you feel from your employees, and in your own heart, is the realization that it's going to take everything you've got to build a great organization, and that no set of simple steps will save you, or us. The great industrialists knew how hard success is, and that's why they spent so much time thinking, experimenting, reflecting, and trying again. No one had ever built massive corporations before, so they weren't surprised when their first attempts failed. And their second. And their third.

So what do we do from here?

First, we kill hope. Churchill often told wartime Britain that the war was going far worse than they thought. He knew, and we should keep in mind, that people only rally when they see the situation for what it is. We're not in a cyclical downturn, we're experiencing economic and managerial karma.

Second, we admit we're in a hole of our own making and we drop the shovel. We not only throw out our formulas and checklists, we throw out our addiction to formulas and checklists.

Third, we turn the collective "oh sh--" into a productive "oh sh--." We start engaging the minds in our organizations about how to turn around our departments, divisions, and companies. I'd be hypocritical to offer simple advice in this blog post, but a good place to start is to make meetings more like debates and less like football huddles.

This week, I was honored to share a stage in San Francisco with Chip Conley, founder and CEO of Joie de Vivre. Chip's story of running boutique hotels in Northern California after 9/11 and the dot-com crash is remarkable because the setbacks sent him on a quest where he rediscovered Abraham Maslow. His search didn't end in steps but in a deeper perspective. Yet as I looked around the room and saw a ballroom full of company executives taking notes, my fear was that they were hearing a message about wisdom as another set of key managerial takeaways.

The key takeaways from this blog post are:

  1. Simplistic ideas got us into this mess.
  2. We need to use the mess as an opportunity to build enduring organizational greatness.
  3. Never, ever trust a list of key takeaways.
Sarcasm aside, there is one thing we can do to speed up this national purge. We can "out" all the bad managerial advice -- the lists and steps and magic bullets -- that sounded good but, like a subprime mortgage, turned out to be very bad for us. I've told you some of my pet peeves. What's on your list?

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Photo courtesy Paul Stevenson, CC 2.0

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    Dave Logan is a USC faculty member, management consultant, and the best-selling author of four books including Tribal Leadership and The Three Laws of Performance. He is also Senior Partner of CultureSync, a management consulting firm, which he co-founded in 1997.