Building morale is one of the toughest challenges any leader faces. So when Foxconn, the Chinese company that manufactures the iPhone, announced it was holding morale-boosting rallies for its staff, I had to wonder whether that would really be enough to take its workers' minds off of their colleagues' suicides. If you'd rather be dead than turn up to work tomorrow, can a pep talk really change your mind?
A degree of cultural humility is required here. I'm not Chinese and I've never worked in a factory. So no, I don't know what it feels like to live in a company dormitory or to assemble iPhones all day long. And I don't know what it's like to run a business that will soon have over a million employees. But here's what I do know about morale:
- Managers don't end crises; people do. You can't decide when a crisis is over, and you can't tell people when to stop grieving.
- Action is all that counts. For Foxconn to say things are improving won't impress their workforce, and it shouldn't impress customers like Apple and Dell. If the company wants to be believed, it needs to do more than it say it will change. Repeatedly.
- Ducking the issue convinces no one. When Louis Woo, special assistant to Foxconn's CEO, says that "suicide is a very common accident" for which there is never a single, simple cause, he may be right â€"- but it sounds like he's trying to duck responsibility.
- Morale is not about PR. It is about strategic action. Companies always call in PR and crisis communications companies when they are in trouble. But appearances aren't the issue; reality is. Doubling salaries and expanding the workforce will prove more meaningful than rallies.
But I wonder: are these rallies really for the workers? Or are they designed for us, the consumers? If Foxconn is betting that a few TV shots of happy employees will have us all rushing back to buy that new iPhone, then the PR mavens will have done their job and the root problems will remain entrenched. Few news stories maintain interest for more than a couple of weeks, so it's hard not to think that these rallies are just the newest kind of Potemkin village, all show and no substance.
Personally I'll need to see more than a few TV clips to persuade me that I'm not colluding in a sweatshop.