Frequent Leadership Mistakes: A Chilling Tale

It’s dang cold out!  This is not news to any of you in the Midwest – and it looks like it may stay chilly for a while longer.  The frigid weather offered me an opportunity to see a good example of frequent leadership mistakes.

Last week, my wife and I were asked to come into a business to sign some needed documents for a loan we were closing on.  The person who greeted us and escorted us to her office was delightful and competent.  As we were entering her small, but nicely appointed office, she apologized that it was a bit cold.  She explained that although the building was new, “When the temperatures get down like today, the three small offices on this side of the building are cold.”

Of course, we said it was no problem – as we kept our coats on – but a bit later I said with a smile, “It would be lousy to have to feel cold all day – maybe you should swing by Target up the street and get a small space heater!”  (I was actually thinking of just going and picking one up for her and bringing it back.)  She instantly responded, “Oh, that would be wonderful, but they aren’t allowed.”  What a nice example of bureaucratic leadership AND a missed opportunity.

Here we have the dreaded “company policy” in play – I am sure that someone up the chain of command would condescendingly explain to me that space heaters create a fire hazard and/or draw too much energy, so they are not allowed.  (Note that sometimes the expert executive who issued the policy will explain that their use is prohibited by fire code, but that is not always the full story.  Many jurisdictions do allow the use of space heaters in personal work areas given some conditions and precautions.  If interested, you can easily research that yourself for your specific local.  Consumer Reports recently reviewed and suggested the use of personal space heaters for office areas, i.e., those that have outputs of that range from 200 to 900 watts instead of the more common 1,500 watts.)

A study recently reported in the journal Nature Climate Change found that office temperatures are still typically calibrated according to a decades-old formula developed when men regularly wore suits to the office and before women made up almost half of the work force.  Several studies show that women feel cold more acutely than men due to metabolic differences; women generally prefer a temperature about five degrees higher.  The result is that the old 68-degree setting will now feel darn cool to a man in casual dress and flat-out cold to many women.

Years ago, when I was CEO, we had a situation in a new building where I walked past an office and found one of our great staff members sitting at her desk working in her coat.  When I stepped in I immediately knew why – it must have been 62 degrees.  When I asked her if she had called maintenance to come get this fixed, she explained that they had come over, but said there was not much more that they could do.  Apparently they seemed to have concluded that this was just an inevitable part of living in Nebraska – from time-to-time you just have to put up with the impact of frigid weather. She further explained that they had strongly reminded her that space heaters are NOT allowed in the building!

I called the maintenance crew in to visit, along with the executive who had put out the edict prohibiting space heaters.  I told them that I had noticed that the office area where the maintenance guys hung out was not cold, and the executive’s office was quite comfortable.  My irritation was that they were so passive at the discomfort of another – and they were working from a perspective of why we couldn’t do much instead of showing a sense of urgency along the lines of, “This is nuts and we have to get this fixed.”  It turns out that there are lots of ways to fix cold offices – some may take a bit of engineering/HVAC creativity and money – but there is simply no excuse for bureaucracy to get in the way of having it right.  For example, after our brief visit the maintenance guys installed a plastic cover over the window frame in her office, put in some softer (warmer) surfaces, found a radiant heater that warmed her seating area, and tweaked the heating system to be more generous in her area of the building.

Now imagine last week if an executive from corporate headquarters had gotten out of his or her warm office on that frigid day, visited the branch where we were closing the loan, noticed the cold office and said, “This is nuts!  We will get this fixed ASAP!”  That simple expression of concern and caring would come back to that company several times over in terms of loyalty and appreciation…and the story would resonate in that branch for a long time about the kind of company they work for.

Is this a huge thing?  I suppose not.  But small things really matter to employees – and they will remember.  For example, almost twenty years later, with a smile, that same employee who I noticed sitting behind her desk in a coat reminded me about her cold office – and how much she appreciated my concern.

Your office workers should work in an environment that THEY judge to be comfortable.  I suspect this would be fixed quickly if we just made this simple rule: no one will be less comfortable with the temperature in their work area than the CEO.