By James V. D’Ambrosio

Building on my last column on supportive management, I’ll share a real-life example of how such efforts can reap benefits in the workplace.

Some years ago I worked in public relations in central administration for a large public school district  — 7,000 students and 1,000+  employees — reporting to top management. I was a one-person PR office wearing many hats.

Each year prior to the first day of school, I spearheaded a complex mailing project involving sending thousands of letters to parents. It involved managing three clerical workers stuffing, sealing and labeling thousands of 9″x12″ envelopes sent out two weeks before school began.

Realizing the work was repetitive and tedious, I made it less onerous: bringing in bagels, cream cheese and orange juice every morning; encouraging regular breaks; infusing a sense of humor and optimism; making sure all supplies were available; and pitching in to do some of the work. This year the pressure was greater: a printing delay created a tighter deadline and parents were clamoring for information.

The week-long project was going well; by Thursday we were in range of meeting Friday’s deadline. But everything would have to neatly fall into place for that to happen. Then came the unexpected: at 4:45 p.m. I heard a loud boom and the power went out. At the time I didn’t know it, but this was the beginning of the Great Blackout of 2003, paralyzing large areas of the Northeast, Midwest and Canada. 

As the magnitude of the blackout became evident, I cancelled evening plans and focused on waiting for power to be restored and preparing for work the next day. As the outage continued into the early morning, I began to wonder: Would staff report for work? Had their schedules been so disrupted that work would take a back seat? Would they feel committed to finishing the project? After all, they were hourly temporary staff, not permanent employees. I was literally and figuratively in the dark (pun intended).

Power returned at 4 a.m. and I left for work at 7:30 hoping for the best. To my delight, all staff were present and ready to go. The day’s work progressed normally and the deadline was met. I thanked them for their efforts, emphasizing how important it was to the school district and parents. It was as if nothing had happened.

Driving home that day, I reflected: Did my supportive management style increase staff commitment? Did workers feel a duty to come through for me? To be sure, there was no way to know for certain. But my efforts earlier that week surely didn’t hurt, and maybe, just maybe, made the difference in staff not ‘mailing it in,’ i.e., like football players not giving their best effort near the end of a game trailing by a wide margin. 

So the larger message is this: treating staff in supportive fashion can help create a sense of professional reciprocity where employees feel a greater sense of dedication to their work. Indeed, making working conditions more pleasant and enjoyable may have paid off handsomely. 

QUESTION TO READERS: Can you think of a management experience where supporting your employees resulted in positive outcomes?             

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