Morale

Department directors and I had a long discussion Wednesday about morale within the organization.  The consensus opinion seemed to be that morale was reasonably good considering that cutbacks and concerns about job security have been a common theme in recent years.   We also acknowledged that morale is something that changes frequently in response to events.

I know my morale is better when my health is good, my family is doing well, and I get the opportunity to do satisfying things.  Like everyone else, I have bad days at work; but my attitude toward my job remains positive because I continue to believe I’m making a contribution.  I hope all City of Albany employees have the opportunity to feel the same way.

I continue to believe the City is a great employer that provides better compensation and working conditions than any other organization where I’ve worked.  Nearly all of my employers over the past 40 years have treated me fairly and helped me accomplish the goals I set when I took the job, although I have never worked in a place where there were no complaints.

I once spent two months working as a journalist on a Canadian destroyer in the North Sea, where I had a great opportunity to see how quickly morale can turn.  I joined the ship in Stavanger, Norway, after a series of flights from my home in Virginia.  The 36-hour trip left me exhausted, and then I had to hike about a mile carrying a heavy suitcase from the center of town to the pier where the ship was docked.  I remember walking up the gangway, saluting the officer on deck, and stumbling over to the side to be sick.  I made a great first impression.  Despite my bad beginning, I soon settled into shipboard life and was generally accepted as a friend by the Canadian sailors. 

We had been at sea for about two weeks when I began to notice some bad feelings among my shipmates.  The weather was bad, the sea was rough, and most of the sailors had been away from home for an extended deployment.  Grumbling seemed to increase daily, and there were some incidents involving alcohol that culminated with one sailor diving through a hatch and seriously injuring himself when he landed two decks below.  Rumors were circulating that ship would be at sea for an additional month when I innocently walked into a crew meeting one afternoon and heard one happy soul yell, “Get the #$#@ Yank out of here.”  Morale seemed to be deteriorating to my detriment.

The captain of the ship was a distant figure to me, although I probably had more contact with him than most enlisted people because I was assigned as a staff person to the squadron commodore.  He gained my enduring respect when he called his crew together on the helicopter pad of the ship and gave a brief talk that had an immediate impact on morale.  He told the assembled sailors that the ship would be docking in Copenhagen within the next three days and that there would be extended shore leave for all hands while we were there.  The captain then explained that the ship would be headed home to Canada where they would be recognized for a number of outstanding accomplishments during their deployment.  The substance of the speech was that the bad times were over and the good times were about to roll.  I don’t recall a single complaint during my remaining two weeks on the ship.

The lesson I learned from this experience was that uncertainty and misinformation are the enemies of good morale.  Conditions on the night after the captain’s speech were no better than they were the night before, but everyone knew they would be changing soon.  I doubt the captain could have made his speech any sooner because he probably didn’t know what his orders would be. 

Like the sailors on the HMCS Huron, we have been on a difficult voyage over the past four years that has included constrained resources, some layoffs, and a heavier workload for many.  Our consolation is that our compensation has remained relatively constant and nearly all of our staff reductions have been through attrition.  We have avoided furloughs and other schedule adjustments that are now common in cities throughout the country.  Unlike the Huron’s captain, I can’t say when our course will change.  I can only say that I remain committed to preserving services and the jobs that make them possible, as well as to providing citizens and employees with the best information available regarding our financial condition.  I am optimistic about the future, and I am happy to explain why to anyone who may have questions.

Teamwork

I want people to know for the record that I did write a column last week.  I tried to write about a sensitive issue (child pornography) and was told by my team of reviewers that I probably shouldn’t publish it.  I think this is the first time in nearly seven years that an entire column has been rejected by my censors. 

Writing a weekly blog or column carries some risk for a city manager; so I always ask Laura Hyde, Marilyn Smith, and Diana Eilers to check it out for me to make sure I’m not offending someone, writing poorly, or passing along incorrect information.  David Shaw, Bob Woods, and Stewart Taylor also provide advice when I’m writing about something they know more about than I do.

I still manage to occasionally offend someone with my writing, although I’m sure the aggrieved number would be much higher without the honest commentary I receive from colleagues.  I have no problem writing about controversial subjects or occasionally offering an opinion on a difficult subject.  I would prefer, however, not to gratuitously anger readers who may already be cranky about something I’ve said or done.

I feel very fortunate to have coworkers who are willing to criticize my work when it deserves it and praise it on those occasions when it has been earned.  You know you have earned someone’s trust when they can be critical of you when the need arises.  I’m also grateful that the need doesn’t occur too often.

I received a copy of the following e-mail sent this week to Mike Murzynsky in Finance from Tari Hayes with the Community Development Department:

“Mike,

Here’s the story in the Oregonian we were talking about this morning. Can I just say thank you again for all the auditing and good work you do? I was telling a tax payer upset about this story last night that I am confident we are in good hands.

http://www.oregonlive.com/clackamascounty/index.ssf/2012/04/with_lax_oversight_mismanaged.html

The story Tari referred to is about financial problems with the Cities of Molalla and Oakridge, and I would encourage people to read the article.  I am very familiar with events in Oakridge because a close friend is serving as the interim administrator there, and I hear from him nearly every day.  There are many lessons to be learned from these two cities, but perhaps the most important to me is a point contained in Tari’s message and the example of how my column is reviewed.  Making a city or any other organization work requires contributions from many different sources.  Oakridge’s problems (and Molalla’s, I suspect) could and should have been identified by a number of people before they became a crisis.  They weren’t, in part, because too few people were actively involved in keeping track of the city’s finances.

We are most fortunate to have people like Mike and Anne Baker serving as city accountants, but we are equally fortunate to have competent people like Tari throughout the organization who are not shy about recognizing issues and raising questions when there is a reason to do so.  Albany has also made a commitment to involving our citizens in their government by making our financial information available to everyone online.  I recently saw a blog post from one of our most persistent citizen critics where he cited information made available through our Dashboard.  He may not appreciate that ours is one of the very few communities in the world where this information is readily accessible to anyone who wants to see it, but the fact that he was using it to criticize the City is encouraging to me.

Groupthink should never be mistaken for teamwork.  Good teams try to involve as many people as possible in calling out their problems as well as recognizing their accomplishments.  That’s why there was no column last week and our financial condition is healthy in comparison to many cities around the country.