As anyone in the field of emergency management will tell you, the regrettably sluggish governmental response to the Hurricane Katrina natural and manmade disaster boils down to the argument over jurisdictions (a perennial challenge in the world of emergency management) and a gross lack of execution. As a result of the governmental infighting and dearth of critical decision-making in the early stages of this catastrophe, American citizens were victimized. People suffered, people died.
In the analysis of the Hurricane Katrina emergency response lies a key lesson for American businesses: When organizations fail to empower their people to provide the greatest possible degree of service, they do their mission, employees and the people they serve an enormous disservice. And yet, this self-limiting organizational behavior is all too common. The question is, why?
The American workplace is brimming with well-educated, considerably experienced, extremely capable workers. Unfortunately, if not tragically, their innate ability and desire to be of service is all too often constrained by a "shortleash" style of management, a rigidly zoned (and aggressively enforced) turforiented workplace, and blind devotion to job descriptions-all barriers to service.
Granted, regimentation of work roles serves an important purpose. Look no further than the military in its extremely detailed methodology of rank and specialties to see that such an orderly approach to performing the mission is essential. The military trains its members in how to decisively engage given the dynamic conditions materializing in some of the most difficult human situations imaginable. This sometimes calls for acts of valor above and beyond the call of duty.
The bottom line is, soldiers are ultimately empowered to be successful in their commitment to service in responding to any circumstances they face. That's why our war heroes are decorated for their bravery: Such extraordinary daring and selfless behavior is strongly encouraged as part of the U.S. armed services, which is, paradoxically, the most dedicated system of command and control known.
Why can't this can-do service spirit prevail in our workplaces? Why is it that all too many organizations prevent their qualified, resourceful and willing employees from serving their customers to the best of their ability? Why don't they free their people to sidestep any roadblocks to complete customer satisfaction? Why don't organizations unleash their full customer-service potential?
The answer to these questions is painfully clear: Many of these organizations are hamstrung, often unintentionally, by antiquated bureaucratic thinking that inhibits the delivery of truly great service experiences. Leadership fails to realize the service potential of its people-to the detriment of all concerned.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, let's not miss this message: Our organizations in both the private and public sectors need to make time to earnestly explore their service potential. Clearly, this will require radical change in leadership perspective and employee engagement. Hardly an easy undertaking. But you can change the world by trying.
Mulherin is an organizational development consultant specializing in management experience in health care, insurance, education, state government and the hospitality industry.