Company-wide “Bad Mood”? Boost the Entrepreneurial Spirit

When bad mood pervades a company, employees don’t feel they have a stake in its future — and that’s a problem

by Michael Houlihan and Bonnie Harvey 

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When a company is in a bad mood, the signs aren’t always overt. People aren’t biting each other’s heads off or glaring sullenly across the conference table. Instead, it feels like everyone is just … coasting. Rather than digging for solutions, they make a cursory effort and then lay the problem at their manager’s feet. They’re not cage-rattlers and idea-sharers; they’re “yes men” and passive compliers.

That’s “bad mood” in workplace parlance. Those apathetic clock-punchers are the creations of a culture that’s set up to squelch their inner entrepreneur.

Jeff Hayzlett, who wrote the foreword of our new book, says bad mood comes from employees believing their best days are behind them, not ahead of them. And, of course, it’s culture that creates that belief — and it’s leaders who create the culture.

Sometimes a culture’s mood sours over time, before the company’s leaders even know it’s happening. A stifling rule here, an ignored idea there, and before long they’ve zapped the entrepreneurial spirit that enabled their employees to create great things at their company in the first place. The only cure is to make the employees realize they really do have a stake in their future and the ability to make it a great one.

Of course, before a company can shift a bad mood, its leaders need to know it has one. Here are some red flags to look for:

Everyone plays the blame game. As soon as a ball is dropped, the finger-pointing and blame-dodging begins — because employees are afraid of what the consequences will be for whoever is left holding the bag. At Barefoot, our approach to mistakes was to say, “Congratulations! You found a new way to screw up, and that’s a good thing. We didn’t know that this could happen, but now that it has, we can keep it from happening again.” This attitude gave our employees the freedom to take risks, encouraged entrepreneurial thinking, and led to an all-around better mood.

Employees are paid for attendance, not performance. In organizations that are overshadowed by bad moods, most employees come to work each day and perform the tasks within their job description, but no more. At Barefoot, we found the key to turning worker bees into solutions-oriented entrepreneurs was simplifying our structure into just two divisions — Sales and Sales Support — and linking everyone’s pay to the performance of Sales. The reasoning behind this decision is simple: Everyone gets paid from sales. Without sales, there is simply no money to pay salaries, bonuses or benefits.

When we began giving our Sales Support people bonuses based on quarterly sales amounts, Barefoot became more efficient, more responsive, and even closer-knit. For instance, if a salesperson in Michigan needed statistics to convince a store owner to place an order, the office staff hustled out a report. If our crew needed signs and posters for an event in Seattle, the marketing folks jumped right on it. Income was at stake for everyone — and everyone responded accordingly!

Customers are “dealt with,” not served. Most companies’ “customer service” department would more accurately be named “complaint resolution department.” Employees take calls or answer emails from unhappy customers and then try to resolve the problem as quickly as possible (often relying on a script or protocol), then move on to the next.

Give employees more freedom when they deal with customers. Let them feel they are trusted to use their best thinking by giving them room to do what they think is necessary to satisfy the customer. Not only will they begin to really hone their entrepreneurial thinking skills, they’ll end each day with the satisfaction that comes from knowing they transformed a disgruntled customer into a happy, loyal one.

There’s an attitude, but it doesn’t involve gratitude. Even if they never say so, workers want to know they’re doing well and their efforts are valued. Don’t take it for granted when employees put in extra hours, land a coveted client, or turn out an incredibly well-thought-out proposal, for example. Leaders who let them know they noticed these efforts and are grateful for people’s knowledge and help will gain their buy-in, loyalty, enthusiasm and over-and-beyond efforts.

People can’t seem to execute. When a company isn’t able to meet its goals, its leaders’ first inclination might be to blame the employees for being unable to execute. That blame will probably make an already bad mood worse. So before doling out accusations, consider whether it’s a leadership style that is keeping people from getting things done.

Delegate more; avoid micromanaging. Trust employees to make important decisions and do important work. This not only gives them the freedom they need to help move the company forward, but the leaders gain time and energy for themselves, too.

Nobody bothers to contribute new ideas. If most of their ideas get stuck in compliance limbo or are slapped down (or appropriated) by supervisors, even the most innovative employees will eventually become discouraged or frustrated to the point of not speaking up with future ideas. So give every employee idea fair consideration. And it’s smart to proactively ask for their thoughts on how the company can grow and improve.

Your turnover is high. There’s a myth that when company cultures are serious and businesslike, productivity improves. But the reality is, productivity improves when people enjoy being at work and enjoy the work they’re doing.

That doesn’t mean having to put a basketball court and bowling alley in the work place. Employers who strive to make it fulfilling and fun to work for them create productive, loyal employees. At Barefoot, we covered “fulfilling” by putting serious thought into matching employees with positions that utilized their strengths and skills, and asking for their input regarding how they thought they could be most valuable to the company.

It’s every man for himself. Generally, all but the most frustrated, burned-out employees can manage to turn on the charm when they’re interacting with clients, so a better way to gauge an organization’s overall mood is to observe how employees interact with each other. Employees who aren’t invested in their organization’s future usually won’t go out of their way to give pointers to the new hire or proofread a colleague’s report, for example.

One way to start cultivating more team spirit is to match new employees with more experienced mentors who can advise, teach, challenge and encourage them. The rookie will appreciate the personalized guidance and will be encouraged to form meaningful bonds with his or her colleagues right out of the gate. Plus, all but the most cynical veterans will soften when they see how fulfilling it can be to pass on their knowledge and expertise!

Strategic partners don’t want to work with the company. The reason: Employees who aren’t invested in their company’s future are much more likely to treat these partners with a lack of respect, to withhold information and tell white lies, and to be slow to respond. Fortunately, it often takes only one leader to break this pattern by setting a better example. When a company treats third parties as valuable allies who can significantly influence its bottom line, they often will. And that’s good for the morale of everyone involved.

Mood matters. Cultivating a good mood in an organization is the key to unleashing a transformative entrepreneurial spirit in its work force.

Michael Houlihan and Bonnie Harvey are co-authors of The Entrepreneurial Culture: 23 Ways to Engage and Empower Your People, the companion to The New York Times best-selling business book The Barefoot Spirit: How Hardship, Hustle, and Heart Built America’s #1 Wine Brand.

The Barefoot Spirit chronicles Barefoot’s journey from its humble beginnings in the laundry room of a rented Sonoma County farmhouse in 1986 to the boardroom of E&J Gallo, where the brand was successfully sold in 2005. 

From the start, with virtually no money and no wine industry experience, Houlihan and Harvey employed innovative ideas to overcome obstacles and create new markets and strategic alliances. Widely used as a case study in schools of entrepreneurship, they now consult with Fortune 500s and other companies. 

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