February 4, 2013
When I see a companywide email from the boss, I, like most employees, assume it's an announcement of a promotion —me to senior vice president of awesomeness.
If not that, then perhaps a salacious press release detailing how a co-worker I dislike has been let go over a sex scandal involving a prostitute and a company Xerox machine.
More often than not, however, it's just another digital blip in an otherwise routine day.
But what if the missive from the boss contained facts that served to unify and eschewed the trappings of corporate buzzwords, taking on a tone rarely found in the working world -- sincerity.
In an audacious experiment, George Halvorson, chairman and CEO of health care giant Kaiser Permanente, has been sending such notes to his nearly 200,000 employees for more than five years. A collection of them has been published in a book titled, "KP Inside: 101 Letters to the People of Kaiser Permanente." (All proceeds from it will go to two nonprofit organizations, La Clinica de la Raza and Asian Health Services.)
These communiques are not filled with grandiose prose. They are lengthy, fact-based compositions that highlight -- Halvorson prefers the term "celebrate" -- things that people in the company have been doing right. Successes large and small are put into context so employees can see specific examples of how their work is helping people, in many cases saving lives.
For example, Halvorson sent several of these weekly letters on the not-particularly-glamorous subject of pressure ulcers and how the company has reduced them in its facilities. He provides data. And charts.
And then he writes:
"Consistency is golden. Being consistent with best practices saves lives. Look at the chart. Lives are being saved. Ulcers are being avoided. So my letter this week celebrates the really smart and practical caregivers who figured out what we needed to do to prevent those ulcers and -- even more importantly -- my letter celebrates all of the caregivers and care teams at Kaiser Permanente who care so much about the wellbeing and safety of our patients that the things we need to do for our patients' safety are being consistently done -- over and over again -- for each patient in our care."
This isn't a management-babble attempt to create some phony esprit de corps. It's a boss giving his employees data-based examples of what they're doing well and making them feel good about the results.
Employees have a natural suspicion of corporate peppiness. We don't like to have sunshine blown up our iPhones.
I asked Halvorson the key to creating a weekly note that resonates with even B.S.-detecting employees.
"Absolute honesty," he said. "Don't go into this and spin it. Don't go into this and use it as a way of explaining away something. People are very smart. Make sure when you're writing it that it's about something that's very true, and don't let somebody put some political jargon or fuzzy language in. If you're going to do something like this, people need to be able to trust what they read. If you break that trust, you never get it back."
When Halvorson began writing his "celebrations," the plan was to do it for a year. But by the time that year was up, he had gotten a strong response and saw that the letters helped him as a manager. So he kept going.
"One of the things that's nice about these letters is that I'm now constantly looking for new things to celebrate," he said. "So I'm looking at the company a little differently than I was before."
And since he started communicating regularly with employees, the employees have been communicating back. (It's amazing what happens when people act like human beings at work!)
Recently he heard from some doctors who had used Kaiser Permanente's patient database to cross-check whether certain patients had their spleens removed, a situation that might alter their treatment or what drugs they should receive.
Calling it "this lovely, esoteric search to find these patients," Halvorson can highlight their work, hoping that it inspires others to explore new ways to use the database.
"They would not have written me that note five years ago," Halvorson said. "They would've done the work, but they wouldn't have written me the note. And I'm now going to figure out a way to explain that to everybody else so other people can think, 'Gee, we can do something like that too.'"
The beauty of what Halvorson has done is its simplicity. Why shouldn't a boss be in regular contact with employees, regardless of the size of the company? Why shouldn't attempts to boost morale be based on honest assessments of work done and not on vague Management 101 blather?
We read books on being good managers and workers, listen to lectures and go to conferences. And there is value in all that. But if we focused a bit more on the fact that human interaction is the same at work or wherever, we might find ourselves happier.
And one step closer to being named senior vice president of awesomeness.
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