One hundred kilometers south of Gdańsk, where Lech Wałęsa and the Solidarity trade union upended decades of communist rule in Poland, Elżbieta Górska-Kołodziejczyk is working on a more modest revolution.
She wants to make her employees smile.
Making initial inroads toward that goal wasn't easy. But by listening carefully to her team members, adjusting her recognition and praise in response to their concerns, and most of all, by persevering, Górska is making her department more productive while also making it a better place to work.
Górska manages the warehouse in the formerly state-owned paper-making plant in the city of Kwidzyn. International Paper purchased a majority stake from the government 14 years ago, and dramatic changes have taken place at the plant since then. Four-thousand five-hundred people once worked in the facility, but now only 1,600 are needed. The enterprise used to produce 200,000 metric tons of paper each year, but now ships three times as much. As a state facility behind the Iron Curtain in 1980, it packaged paper in five different wrappers. Today, as a private concern and with Poland now a member of the European Union, the paper leaves the plant in 300 different patterns or brands, bound for stores across the continent.
A daunting personnel challenge
Situated in the basement, lacking the natural light that surrounds the machinery on the main level, the warehouse posed a particularly difficult managerial challenge. The obstacles had undone three previous managers, all men in a male-dominated facility. For reasons she does not know, Górska was asked "out of the blue" in 2002 to assume responsibility for the 24 people who supplied pallets, packaging, plastic wrap, and glue for the plant's operations. Suddenly, the diminutive new manager, who once hoped for a political career, was given the chance she always wanted to improve people's lives -- and it scared her.
"If I was afraid of anything in this job, that I could not handle it, it was the people," she explains in Polish. "I knew the specifics of the technical side of the work here. I was just really terrified with how to manage the people, to be responsible for them."
She had reason to be daunted. The workflow in the warehouse was poorly organized. Employees did not have a good sense of their individual responsibilities. There were no computers in the warehouse; everything had to be looked up in catalogs or tracked on paper. There was no team spirit and there was nowhere for team members to meet, formally or informally.
A malaise hung over the warehouse. Employees there felt the rest of the plant looked down on them, both literally and figuratively, and that they were in "a dark, forgotten place."
On top of it all, being the only female middle manager didn't help.
"When I inherited the team I had four men -- big boys, healthy-looking guys -- who could not in any way accept the fact that a woman, and a tiny one -- because I am not a very tall woman -- was going to give them orders," she says. " In the beginning, they did not want to do what I told them. It was unpleasant. For a long time, they were resisting. I tried to get through to them. I tried to convince them that if a man takes a broom, for example, he will not have an allergic reaction to it."
The team seemed to have an allergic reaction to Górska's initial attempts to introduce recognition and praise into the group. One autumn, production was curtailed while the machinery on the main floor was upgraded. The pace in the warehouse settled proportionately, leaving additional time on the employees' hands. Four members of the warehouse team took it upon themselves to put things in order. At their own initiative, they conducted an internal inventory check, packed up loose items, and better organized their work areas.
At one of the new team meetings that Górska initiated, she gave the four employees what she considered well-deserved praise for their efforts. But instead of the acknowledgement and smiles most managers would expect in that situation, they shyly hung their heads, and said they were just doing what was needed and no recognition was called for. After the meeting, word came back to Górska that her comments disrupted the group, causing feelings of jealousy and perceptions that she was playing favorites. "I have to say that it hurt me," she says, "because this wasn't my intention."
The manager chalks up part of the reaction to "our Polish mentality: 'sit quietly, let them give you what they are supposed to give.' We are a nation of solitaries, and we just complain -- wrong, too little, not good," she says. "If it rains -- not good. If the sun shines -- not good. Forty degrees -- not good. Minus 20 degrees -- even worse." Data from a Gallup World Poll, a survey that annually collects people's opinions in countries around the globe, suggest Górska's impression is correct. Among the residents of 33 countries asked the question, "Do you feel enthusiastic about your future?" only 36% of Poles responded "yes," the lowest percentage among the nations studied. The average among the countries surveyed was 77%.
But it's typical for teams in any country unfamiliar with regular recognition and praise to react in an unexpected fashion when a manager tries to increase positive feedback. Because kind words are viewed as a rare commodity, they sometimes inspire more envy than gratitude and motivation. When introduced into the warehouse team after decades with little praise, Górska's congratulations backfired. She needed to devise a strategy for a situation more complicated than it first appeared.
One of the most effective ways of improving employee recognition is to discover what forms of feedback mean the most to them. To help her better manage the team, Górska began meeting individually with her workers. "I started with listening to them, what they have to say, how they see it, how they would want the work to be organized, what more would they expect, what kind of work materials are they lacking," she says. "At the same time, I wrote down their problems and issues they wanted to be resolved. When we met again, I reported on what had been done. It also brought us closer." She disregarded comments that she was mothering her employees and followed her instincts.
Because of the extreme sensitivity to public praise, Górska found that one-on-one conversations were not only crucial to understanding what praise was most important to each worker, but to delivering it so it would not provoke jealousy. "All of them expressed that they would prefer I come to them individually when they were at the beginning of their shift and not to [praise them] at the meeting," she says. Górska was resolute that she would continue giving them praise, but she was aware she had to be careful about when and where to dole it out. "I don't spare the praise, but just how to get through to them all, so that everyone would be happy? It was difficult."
"She says things such as, 'Girls, keep going. Good job. It was super!'" says Irena Krajewska, a five-month employee at the warehouse. "Elżbietę is happy when she sees everybody. She's like a colleague, without the formality." One sign of the feelings between the manager and her team: They address and refer to each other in the informal form of the Polish language, something only done when both parties agree they are on such friendly terms.
Asked how she acknowledges when an employee has done a good job, Górska reaches over and with one hand embraces the neck of two-year employee Ania Haffke, gives her a peck on the cheek, and flashes a big smile. "She's approachable, like a colleague," says Haffke. "She's also demanding. It's better not to say what she says when she's demanding. But she's not controlling every person every minute. She shows people their errors and mistakes without raising her voice. She shows you how to do things right."
"The face and eyes speak for the person."
The warehouse employees are still getting used to receiving recognition, even in private. They frequently act shy and dismiss their efforts as just part of their jobs. But Górska knows it means something to her team members; they are learning that "their heads will not be cut off if they receive public praise" and her positive words are slowly having the intended effect. "Sometimes they are a little bit shy, but the face and eyes speak for the person," she says. Employees say they are more likely to help each other and to thank each other for assistance, and that a spirit of reciprocity is building where once there was little team cohesion.
Because of the team's initial reaction of jealousy and favoritism, Górska now ensures that any praise she gives can be backed up with objective examples. She gives public praise only to the entire team, such as the time she wrote in the log book at the end of the weekend's entries, "Thank you everyone for making everything shining clean!"
The men on her team were the most difficult to persuade. "They were like cement at the beginning," she says. "Like cement." They resented that she is a woman and, as experienced as they were, that she would presume to give them orders. They took her instructions as personal whims rather than crucial safety guidelines. She felt they were trying to draw her into a conflict with some of their derogatory comments, and she refused to take the bait. "I would pretend I didn't hear or see [anything]. They were not executing my orders. I smiled and gave them other orders. I displayed zero anger."
In largely Catholic Poland, most people have a larger celebration on their saint's day than they do on their birthday. Górska keeps a calendar with the important dates of all her employees and brings them flowers she's grown at home or other small tokens of her affection. And for the men on her team? "I give them heart-shaped lollipops or a teddy bear. Maybe a pen. Something to surprise or amuse them. They are surprised." Slowly, following her instincts began making a difference. "A smile and good words open any door," she says.
Recently, she and one of the men on her team came to terms. "At the end of his last evaluation, we had an honest talk," she says. Although she hastens to add she is not a psychologist, Górska hypothesizes that in giving the employee special tasks, then showing him how well he performed, she boosted his confidence and made him more open to receiving both praise and direction from her. "He felt sorry he behaved like that. He said it was wrong. We are set up to have a beer together in the future."
The manager also tried to bolster the team's sense of worth, reminding members that without their efforts, the entire plant would come to a halt, and that they were just as important as any other part of the facility. She tried to instill in them the advice her father gave her to "avoid stupid people" and "go around the foolishness."
"Stand up straight," she told them. "Put your head up. Don't care if someone from production screams at you. Production is them and us."
Becoming a "real warehouse"
The manager says it took two years of hard work, with 12-hour days when she first assumed the role, to change the warehouse's culture. She introduced computers into the operation. She encouraged cross-training so team members could adjust to changing work demands. She petitioned for the funds to create a "social room" with a refrigerator, microwave, cupboards, table, and chair, to make work life more enjoyable for her team. Those efforts drove employee engagement from the most disenchanted quartile in the Gallup database to the top quartile. The team progressed from a "disorganization" to a "real warehouse." The change attracted the attention of Klip, International Paper's in-house magazine, for the Kwidzyn facility. They approached Górska and her team about doing an article.
Reluctant at first, the team agreed to the article. When it appeared, it became a crowning achievement of all the hard work. They felt acknowledged in a way they never anticipated. "Everyone took a copy. Everyone wanted to have it," she says. "They were proud. They were very happy that it turned out that way. There were a lot of discussions that it was worth to try, it was worth the work. Today, they look at themselves differently. They value themselves. They know that their work means a lot here."
Finishing Department Superintendent Włodzimierz Wódecki pulled Górska aside one day while he was looking over the improvements in the warehouse. "He told me that I had done a hell of a good job," she says. "This I do remember this, yes, I remember. This really gave me satisfaction. This was my compensation for all the hours spent here, for the work, which I had done, for all my efforts and trouble." Her eyes well up when she thinks about all the years she hoped to make such a difference, and now finally it is happening.
"I must be crazy. I'm so positive about people," says Górska. "I know that some people tap their finger against their forehead behind my back, but it doesn't bother me at all. I have my private philosophy, and it keeps me alive."
Górska aspires to have her employees be increasingly cheerful, knowing that if they have a good day at work, they will have a better life at home. And in the future, "even if they don't work here, I hope they will remember me as a good mother -- remember the times here, and they will be smiling."