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The Difference Between Heaven and Hell

Rabbi Haim of Romshishok, Lithuania, told this story to his congregation:
“I wanted to know the difference between heaven and hell so I decided to visit them both. I first went to hell. There I found people sitting at long tables filled with sumptuous food, but they were all emaciated and starving. They had spoons that were six feet long and could not bend their arms in such a way to feed themselves.

I then went to heaven and saw a slightly different situation. The people there were also sitting around long tables piled with food. They too had six feet long spoons, but they were all well-nourished and happy, because they were feeding each other across the table. I then understood. heaven and hell offer the same circumstances and conditions. The critical difference is in the way people treat each other.”
(Adapted from the parable called The Allegory of the Long Spoons).

The Problem
So, is life in your organization more like heaven or hell?

Do you often hear exchanges like the following?

  • One sales representative to another: “Don't those SOBs in operations realize that if we don't deliver on our promises, our customers will take their business elsewhere?”
  • One worker in operations to another: “How could those jerks in sales tell the customer that we will have things ready for them next week? Sales reps will say and do anything for their commissions.”
  • One field manager to another: “Those high-paid, ivory tower folks in corporate don't know what they are doing. Don't they understand what really happens here in the trenches?”
  • One manager at corporate headquarters to another: “Those idiots in the field just don't understand that there are good reasons for our corporate policies. All they care about is their paycheck, not the long-term success of our organization.”

You get the idea. Employees in one department often blame, criticize, finger-point, and disparage those in other departments. Anger and resentment build and cooperation and communication grind to a halt. The result: unhappy employees, poor quality work, and bad service to customers.

The lack of cooperation and communication between work groups is more the rule than the exception. According to our surveys of employees in more than 85 organizations:

  • More than half of all employees say cooperation is poor between their department and other departments.
  • Six out of 10 employees believe communication between their department and other departments is bad.

Our research also shows that poor cooperation between departments is related to:

  • Operating inefficiency
  • Low quality products and services
  • Employee dissatisfaction
  • Employee turnover

The Underlying Psychology
Poor cooperation between groups in organizations is often due to negative stereotypes. For example, sales employees often stereotype production employees as people just putting in their time with little regard for the customer. Similarly, production employees stereotype sales employees as self-centered and interested only in their sales commissions, with little understanding of how products are really made.

This tendency can be explained by “attribution theory.” Social psychologists Edward Jones and Richard Nisbett demonstrated that there is a fundamental difference in how people view their own behavior and the behavior of others. Individuals typically view their own behavior as being caused by the situation but view the behavior of others as due to their disposition. These negative attributions of others in the workplace are destructive. It would be much better if, for example, the salespeople really understood the situation facing production workers and vice versa.

What to Do
1. Implement the JFK Exercise
The JFK Exercise is the process the Discovery Consulting Group has successfully used for improving internal cooperation in organizations. It changes an organization's culture of finger-pointing, blame, and poor internal customer service by re-focusing employees to take responsibility for what they can do to meet the needs of their internal customers. The underlying principal of the approach is similar to the sentiment espoused by John F. Kennedy in his presidential inaugural address: “Ask not what your others in your organization can do for you; ask what you can do for them.” Learn more about the JFK Exercise.

2. Conduct an Internal Customer Satisfaction Survey
The objective of this survey is to assess how satisfied employees are with each of the other departments, work groups, and support groups in the organization. This survey serves two primary functions:

a. Each department receives an overall internal customer satisfaction rating that serves as a benchmark. The management of each department is then tasked with improving the rating they receive from their internal customers. (Ideally, the improvement will be set as one of their annual job performance goals.)
b. The survey identifies the specific departments or work groups with the least satisfied internal customers. These poor performing groups then become prime candidates to participate in the JFK Exercise.

3. Call Attention to the Problem
CEOs and presidents must continually communicate to employees that “we are all in this together” and that “poor internal cooperation is unacceptable.” They should also try to catch people in the act of speaking negatively of other groups and insist that they cease from doing so.

4. Reward and Recognize Good Cooperation
CEOs and presidents should publicly acknowledge when good cooperation occurs between groups. In addition, they should reward managers for working well with other groups in the organization.

5. Rate Employees on How Well They Cooperate
Since internal cooperation is so critically important, it should be part of all employee assessment. Performance ratings, salary increases, and bonuses should be based in part on how well employees provide support and service to others in the organization who depend on them for service.

6. Rotate Employees Through Different Parts of the Organization
Negatively stereotyping other work groups can be decreased if employees stand in others’ shoes. For example, production employees should be required to spend time shadowing a sales rep and vice versa.

7. Encourage Employees to Say “We” Instead of “They”
This is a mindset that needs to be changed, and one that managers should role model. When supervisors overhear employees saying “they” instead of “we” when speaking about other departments or work groups in the organization, they should tactfully correct them and ask them to please say “we.”

Conclusion
Lack of cooperation between work groups is a major problem in organizations. It has a negative impact on productivity, employee morale, and customer satisfaction. Negative stereotyping, finger pointing, and blame can paralyze an organization. As the parable about the Rabbi visiting heaven and hell reveals, the problem can be solved if everyone just reaches out to help others.

About the Author(s)

Bruce L. Katcher, Ph.D. is an industrial/organizational psychologist and founder and president of Discovery Surveys, Inc. (http://www.discoverysurveys.com/) and the Center for Independent Consulting (www.centerforindependentconsulting.com). He is the author of 30 Reasons Employees Hate their Managers (AMACOM) and, most recently, An Insider's Guide to Building a Successful Consulting Practice (AMACOM, 2010).