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For Organizations in Pain, a Cure is Possible

Office of Laboratory Animal Care Employees Describe an Inspiring Comeback After an Era of Low Morale

By Cathy Cockrell, Public Affairs
Posted March 22, 2000

With the help of free resources available on campus, a troubled but committed organization can change its culture for the better. That was the uplifting story told by staff and managers of the Office of Laboratory Animal Care at a brown-bag presentation March 16.

To set the stage for this "success story of organizational transformation," Director Helen Diggs summarized the troubles that beset the office before she sought out assistance in ironing out the organization's problems.

She described the unit's origins, in 1989, when the campus brought its 20 separate laboratory animal programs under one umbrella.

The newly consolidated office was soon beset with many problems, including university-wide budgetary and staff reductions, new construction and animal rights protests. Many supervisors were insecure about their supervisory skills, Diggs said. Employees often knew more about UC policies and union contracts than their managers.

Staff morale and productivity were at a low by the time Diggs became director in 1995, and research faculty who depended on the staff to care for their lab animals were vocally dissatisfied. According to staff panelists, the day-to-day problems included favoritism, low attendance, profane language and frequent miscommunication on job-related tasks.

"I hated coming to work," recalled Quig Driver, management services officer for the unit. He wasn't alone.

With the help of Human Resources, Diggs laid the foundation for organizational health by clarifying reporting and putting in place accurate job descriptions and standards for performance and performance evaluations.

She then began working with CARE Services for Staff and the Staff Affirmative Action Office, which has expertise on organizational issues related to diversity, among them ethnicity, race, gender and age, management status, work experience, seniority and union affiliation.

"When I first met Edith (Ng, director of Staff Affirmative Action and Diversity Programs), I wanted a canned, two-hour presentation," Diggs recalled. That was not in the cards. As Ng asked questions about the unit, "I realized I had to let go," Diggs said.

Her unit embarked on a three-year process in which staff and management defined their shared values, and along the way mended many of the unit's ills.

Ng's office met regularly with management, providing coaching and helping to facilitate "fishbowl" exchanges in which the entire staff was encouraged to talk about what they wanted the office to look like, and what they wanted in their jobs.

At first supervisors insisted on being included in this discussion, which made for "the most polite workshop I have ever experienced," Ng recalled. Managers later agreed to meet again, this time speaking among themselves as staff observed and then allowing staff to discuss their concerns without management present.

The experience was eye opening. "I hadn't realized how isolated the managers were," said senior animal technician Anna Chung. "They were islands in a stream."

Quig Driver and Animal Resources Manager Kathy Moorhouse agreed to co-chair a values committee charged with coming up with a list of commonly shared values. With effort, they recruited a diverse and representative group. The committee met weekly with the entire department to develop the values statement, "down to the wording," Driver said.

One constellation of values the department came up with relates to professional development, safety training and "cross training." To help make those ideas a reality, the office now has criteria for attending profession meetings, and an "exchange program" that sends staff to work temporarily at locations other than their own.

Other values address respect, communication, supervision and management, assumptions and stereotypes, and recognition. To implement the latter, staff now rate each other's performance, and two-thirds of each merit award is based on this rating.

Many organizations decide to create a values statement, Ng notes. But the document ends up "on the shelf" because it was created in a "top-down" way, short-circuiting the inclusive process that gives it value in the first place.

"This department has picked up the challenge of beginning to live the values it created," said Ng, "with managers taking the first step and staff taking some steps. It's infectious."

Moorhouse agreed: "It wasn't the statement, in the end, that was the main thing," she said. "It was creating an inclusive network for communication."



March 22 - April 5, 2000 (Volume 28, Number 26)
Copyright 2000, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the
Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
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