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Fish! A Remarkable Way to Boost Morale and Improve Results by Stephen C. Lundin, Harry Paul, and John Christensen

Peter Camilli, Western Michigan University

Fish! A Remarkable Way to Boost Morale and Improve Results is a managerial/leadership book written in the form of a parable and inspired by Seattles famous Pike Place Fish Market. The authors, Stephen Lundin, Harry Paul, and John Christensen, suggest that an organization that learns to have fun can be more productive, have less turnover, and be more customer focused.

The story is centered around a woman by the name of Mary Jane Ramirez who finds herself in a supervisory position at a financial organization in Seattle. She is promoted to manager of operations on the dreaded third floor of her company. The third floor department is infamous within the organization for being a toxic energy dump (Lundin, Paul and Christensen 2000, 24). Although the employees on the third floor are basically good people, everyone in the department seems to hate their jobs and it is reflected in their bad attitudes and poor performance, both internally and with the companys customers. Mary Jane is given the task of changing the mind-set of the operations department but has no idea how she will accomplish her mission. The Pike Place Market influences the story when Mary Jane notices how their employees behave while doing their jobs. Pike Place is famous for the way its employees have fun while working and for the way they interact with their customers. While experiencing the amazing energy of the fish market, Mary Jane is befriended by an employee named Lonnie who begins to teach her how she can transform her department. The authors wish to convey this philosophy to the reader as a guide for transforming a hum-drum organization into a workplace that is fun. The following are the main points of the Pike Place philosophy and what they mean:

  1. Choose your attitude there is always a choice about the way you do your work, even if there is not a choice about the work itself (Lundin et al. 2000, 37). Even if you are bored with your work, you can still choose to go about it with a positive approach.
  2. Play this is exactly as the word denotes. The authors suggest that even the most mundane jobs can be made more fun and energetic by learning to play while you get the job done! The authors suggest that you involve your customers in this fun as well.
  3. Make their day memorable moments are achieved as a result of going out of your way to do something special for your employees and customers each day.
  4. Be present in the midst of all the energy and fun, it is critical that you focus on your customers (both internally and externally) during the time you are dealing with them. Make them feel as though they are your one and only concern at that moment.

Initially, Mary Jane is concerned about the reception of her department to this new approach, but she finds that her employees are eager and enthusiastic about the whole concept and they eventually become the most energetic department in the entire organization. Although the concept of making work more fun and energetic is not a new concept, it is not exactly the type of theory that organizational behaviorists have expanded upon in any great detail. The basic premise of Fish! has some validity and is supported by a number of successful business people and organizations that employ its message. Job satisfaction is defined as the degree to which individuals feel positively or negatively about their jobs (Schermerhorn, Hunt, Osborn 2000, 144). This gets to the heart of the message of Fish! Poor performance often results from doing the same, mundane tasks day in and day out. Employees begin to develop a negative attitude about their role within the organization if they are unable to create an environment that makes those tasks more enjoyable to perform.

Choose Your Attitude

One of the main principles of the book is to choose your attitude. What this means is that, while we cannot always choose our daily work tasks, everyone can choose the type of attitude that they come to work with each day. Pat Croce, the owner of the Philadellphia 76ers has adopted this philosophy. His philosophy is that, if you act as though you feel great, then your body will follow suit and eventually you will have a more positive approach to your life and your job (Croce and Lyon 2000). Pat Croce has often giving credit to this approach as being the main reason for his rise from team trainer to owner. Can a person really wake up in the morning and decide which type of attitude they will bring into work that day? Attitude is defined as a predisposition to respond in a positive or negative way to someone or something in ones environment (Schermerhorn et al. 2000, 139). Furthermore, it is essential to recognize that the link between attitudes and behavior is tentative. An attitude results in intended behavior (141). So, not only does research suggest that an attitude is a predisposition (likely based on the schemas that we have developed over the course of our lives), but it also suggests that attitudes do not necessarily result in the intended behavior! An example of these limitations on choosing our attitude would be if a customer service representative decided that she was going to have a positive attitude regarding a certain customer that was notorious for creating conflict with the customer service department in her company. Her intentions might be honorable, but as soon as a conflict occurs with this customer, it will go against her nature to keep a positive attitude. The point is that it is one thing to say that you are choosing a positive attitude, but it is more difficult to follow it up with the corresponding behavior if it goes against your basic nature.

Play

The next step in transforming your company according to Fish! is to incorporate play into your organization (e.g., the way that Pike Place employees throw the fish to each other). Certainly this does not make any sense and has no part in the workplace, right? After all, as stated in Take This Job and Love It, Growing up, we were told that excitement was for play and games and Our parents taught us that people worked because they had to: to earn money so they and their family could have a good time outside of work (Jaffe and Scott 1988, 4). A number of companies now use play in their workplaces in an effort to stimulate the creative juices of its employees. Microsoft was one of the first widely publicized companies that allowed and encouraged its employees to have fun. Organizations such as Southwest Airlines and The Container Store are further examples of successful firms that deliberately integrate play into their organizations in an effort to improve performance and retain employees. However, one need not look any further than the dot.com bust to see just how effective it really is to incorporate play into the work environment. Yes, there are examples of extremely successful companies that have adopted this philosophy (e.g., Microsoft), but there are many more companies that copied Microsofts behavioral model and failed because they didnt have the product or talent to go along with the fun work environment. This goes to the heart of the dispute that the mere integration of play into a companys everyday business model is a recipe for automatic success. Rather, it is more likely that, the combination of a good product, talented employees, the right market, and the addition of play might result in an increase in job satisfaction and performance. For example, if you have never been to Pike Place Fish Market, you might assume that they are a typical fish monger company that stands above the crowd because they have learned to play while they work. The employees are extremely talented (just try to catch a flying fish and you will understand how difficult it really is) and require considerable time and training to perfect their craft. They are also famous for having some of the freshest fish in the Pacific Northwest. Adding playtime without having a good product and talented employees will do nothing more than ensure that the employees like to come to work, but they might not have a company to work for after a while.

Make Their Day

Many managers will testify to the power and effectiveness of creating goodwill with their customers and subordinates by making their day. What this concept implies is that you should go out of your way to do something extra special for your employees or customers every day. The intent is to do something that will make a positive impression. If you do it often enough, then you can create overachievers and foster loyalty. An example of a company that practices this philosophy is Nordstroms department store. In the retail industry, Nordstrom is well-known for the way in which they try to make every customer feel special and appreciated. It is difficult to argue against the positive impact of doing something to make your coworkers, customers, or subordinates feel special each day. All things being equal, I would agree that this approach might be effective in customer and employee retention and job satisfaction. The fact is, however, that things usually are not equal. In Fish!, the author describes how the operations department has done such damage to the companys relationships with several customers that they have threatened to take their business away. The reality of this degree of poor customer service is that many customers are unforgiving due to the primacy effect (when a strong and lasting impression is based solely on the initial encounter). If this is the case, then special treatment probably will not salvage a relationship that was damaged from the very beginning. Another problem with making peoples day is that it requires a lot of discipline, patience, and conscientiousness on the part of the person who is making someones day. In order to make it a staple of the companys customer service plan, it would require a major overhaul in both attitudes and logistics for it to have a major impact.

Be Present

Being present refers to the art of making someone feel as though they are the most important person during the time that you are engaging them. This becomes especially important in relationship to the concepts offered in Fish! when dealing with customers. This concept of being present is illustrated when, on Mary Janes first visit to Pike Place, Lonnie listens to her story about the third floor operations department. Even when a fish smacked the ground beside them, he never lifted his gaze from Mary Jane. Despite all that was going on around him, he kept his attention in the present (Lundin et al. 2000). According to the authors, one of the most important parts of transforming the workplace is to raise the level of customer service. Many salespeople train their whole careers to learn to be present; it is difficult to imagine how other employees are going to be effective at being present, considering all of the distractions that impact their attention spans? One may argue that being present applies only to customer service employees and managers, but that is not what the authors of Fish! suggest. They suggest that anyone having any contact with customers can benefit from being present.

Conclusion

If you place stock in McGregors Theory X and Theory Y, then you believe that there are only two types of workers: 1) Those that basically dislike work and must be forced into doing it, and 2) Those that believe work is a natural activity and that people, when placed in the right situations, will excel at their jobs and for their organizations. Theory X proponents would have significant issues with Fish! The biggest flaw in the reasoning of the authors is that they portray the transformation as something that will be readily accepted by both upper management and lower level employees as well. Every major endeavor in an organization requires a champion in the upper ranks of an organization in order to be successful. It is very difficult to gain a champion if you cannot show an immediate improvement to the bottom line. For example, suppose the manager of a nationwide network of distributors devises an entirely new distributor campaign that adds a little fun, energy, and excitement to the distribution channel (which had become tedious, boring, and humdrum). Even if distributor feedback shows an overwhelming positive response from both internal employees and distributors, and even if the budget covers all expenses, it might never get off the ground because, when it gets to the Presidents desk, he might very well decide that that money could be better spent elsewhere in the company. This happens frequently in the corporate world even with proposals for projects that often show solid and quantifiable financial outcomes. How accommodating is upper management going to be for a proposal that offers few quantifiable projections. The point is there are many obstacles to overcome before a corporate culture can be changed to the degree that Fish! suggests. Another problem with the book is the lack of specific instruction so that any manager or company can adopt this approach. The lessons taught in this book cannot be used as a panacea for most companies. There are too many variables and behavioral factors that would work against such an idealistic approach. A company might be able to recruit and hire individuals that have a predisposition for making the workplace fun, but to suggest that any individual can change their personality and attitudes is unrealistic.

References

Croce, P. and B. Lyon. 2000. I feel great and you will too! Running Press Book Publishers: Philadelphia, PA. George, J.M. and G.R. Jones. 2002. Organizational behavior. 3d ed. Prentice Hall: Upper Saddle River, N.J. Jaffe, D.T. and C.D. Scott. 1988. Take this job and love it. Simon and Schuster: New York, N.Y. Lundin, Dr. S., H. Paul, and J. Christensen. 2000. Fish! A remarkable way to boost morale and improve results. Hyperion: New York, N.Y. Schermerhorn, J.R., J.G. Hunt, and R.N. Osborn. 2000. Managing organizational behavior. 7th ed. John Wiley & Sons, Inc.: Hoboken, N.J.

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