Something is fishy about Harry Paul — he’s always in a good mood. And his main mission is to make sure other people are in just as good of moods every day when they head to work.

Paul is co-author of Fish! Tales: Real-Life Stories to Help You Transform Your Workplace and Your Life, a best-selling business book that imparts the basic wisdom a group of fishmongers have used to make the Pike Place Fish Market in Seattle a fun and profitable place to work. And he’s ready to teach building service contractors that philosophy at the ISSA/INTERCLEAN convention in Las Vegas, Oct. 17.

The staff at the world-famous Pike Place Fish Market has made the traditionally unsavory job of handling freshly-caught fish much more appealing by employing four main tenets: choosing to have a positive attitude, playing with their customers and each other, making their customers’ day and being present (physically and mentally) in the moment. Paul’s book, which offers real-life examples of how different industries have practiced these points in a sequel to the original best seller, calls this the “Fish! philosophy.” (See the October 2001 issue of Contracting Profits for a detailed review of Fish! A Remarkable Way to Boost Morale and Improve Results.

“I think I always have practiced the Fish! philosophy, but I never had the structure of the system,” says Paul. “I’ve always loved to play; I’ve always believed that when talking to someone, he or she deserves my full attention, and I’m not looking over their shoulder.”

Because he already lived by the Fish! mentality, Paul was suggested as a potential co-author of the new book by fellow motivational author Ken Blanchard, also an ISSA speaker. Paul helped Blanchard self-publish another best-selling series, The One-Minute Manager.

Since he helped write Fish! Tales, Paul has become a motivational speaker, helping a variety of business executives and their employees change their workplace and their attitudes.

Advice for contractors
Most of the examples in Fish! Tales are from companies whose teams are large, and whose employees rarely work alone. But Paul believes the Fish! philosophy can just as easily help contractors improve their off-site work environments and the commitment of their employees.

For instance, when cleaning workers are alone, they still can “play”, a major focus of the Fish! philosophy, says Paul. For example, they can listen to the music of their choice using headphones. Allowing workers small concessions such as this costs the company nothing, but gives employees some control over their work environment.

Todd Hopkins, president of Office Pride Inc., Franklin, Ind., agrees. He brought in a Fish! program speaker to a franchisee retreat last year, hoping to spark some enthusiasm amongst the various owners.

“People will perform better if they enjoy their work,” he says. “Fish! reminded people to have fun.”

Paul also has seen companies improve morale by allowing employees to dress as they see fit. For instance, in a Sprint call center, managers relaxed the former no-blue-jeans, specified-skirt-length dress code; since call-center technicians weren’t actually face-to-face with customers, dress guidelines beyond a tidy appearance were unnecessary. Janitors, on the other hand, often wear uniforms, but even that can be individualized.

He cites the movie Office Space as an example of relaxing within a uniform code. In the 1999 comedy, employees of a chain restaurant must wear at least 15 pieces of “flair” — buttons and other embellishments pinned to suspenders to convey enthusiasm. Though the idea of enforced expression obviously falls flat, Paul says the restaurant almost gets it right.

“Flair is the individuality you bring to the conformity. Yes, you have a dress code, but you’re not an automaton,” he says. In the case of a cleaner, flair could be a unique button, or a scarf, or a name-tag lanyard — anything that doesn’t interfere with the job or with safety, and that isn’t imposed on the employee.

It’s that sort of atmosphere that can help BSCs keep employees. High turnover isn’t usually because of low pay, but because of attitude, Paul says.

“What happens to these people? Do they go from one low-paying job to a better paying job? No — they go from one low-paying job to another low-paying job to another,” he points out. “They don’t feel appreciated, and they don’t feel they make a difference, so they go elsewhere.”For contractors who think it isn’t possible to improve working conditions when employees are cleaning on site for customers, Paul offers this advice:

“In November, I did a program for a trucking company, and they wondered what to do with their over-the-road drivers, who were usually alone,” he says. “In that case, it’s about focusing on when you do have interactions — do they feel valued? Do they look forward to the interactions, or do they think, ‘ugh, I’ve got to call into the office again?’”

Stumbling blocks?
Although he hasn’t seen any all-out Fish! flops, Paul admits implementation can be difficult because of resistance from both employers and managers.

“Play can be the biggest stumbling block. It’s the most fun, but too many people have trouble letting go,” he says. “What you need is a safe place to play — ‘you can play within these limits.’”

Managers often have trouble trusting their employees with the Fish! philosophy, but most change their minds when they see productivity gains of other companies. Workers, on the other hand, usually will buy into the program sooner, but often have trouble believing it’s for real — especially when Paul or another consultant, rather than a company manager, conducts the training.

“Employees will come up to me and say, ‘management will never let us get away with that,’” says Paul. His response is “Well, who brought me here? Management did, and they knew what I was going to talk about.”

Paul also believes employers don’t give their employees enough credit, and tend to lump them all together.

“Managers say their work force is unmotivated. I’d say your people are plenty motivated — follow them around when they’re not at work and you’ll see they’re motivated. It’s what happens at work that sucks the motivation out of them.”

Hopkins’ franchisees came back from the weekend retreat feeling energized and upbeat. Office Pride didn’t implement any specific Fish! activities at the corporate level, leaving it up to franchisees at their locations. But what the weekend did do was help improve the overall attitude at the company.

“The janitorial industry has a high burnout rate, and you need these things to give you a shot in the arm,” he says. “Fish! was more of an individual attitude thing. It reminds us how we can be creative, and just have fun doing what we’re doing.”

Fish! Tales: Real-Life Stories to Help You Transform Your Workplace and Your Life by Stephen C. Lundin, Ph.D, John Christensen and Harry Paul, with Philip Strand (Hyperion, 2002. $19.95 hardcover)

Summary: This sequel to the 2000 bestseller, Fish!: A Remarkable Way to Boost Morale and Improve Results, expands on the original book’s concept of improving your business by mirroring employees at the Pike Place Fish Market. Unlike the first Fish!, which illustrates the points within a fictional story, Fish! Tales uses examples of four real-world companies and how they employ four points of the Fish philosophy. For instance, to “play,” managers at the Sprint Global Connection Services Call Center in Lenaxa, Kan., brought in music, disco balls, bingo games and toys to keep their night and weekend employees upbeat and on the job.

Benefits: Like its predecessor, Fish! Tales is short and easy to read. Because the book is based on real-life examples from a variety of businesses, building service contractors are likely to find something to which they can relate, or a suggestion they could implement.

Also, the melodrama of the story in the first book is refreshingly absent here — Fish! Tales is, of course, very positive and upbeat, but personal relationships and sentimentality are kept to a minimum.

Drawbacks: While the authors do mention that some of the businesses profiled lost a few experienced and otherwise dedicated employees who quit rather than change, the book rarely touches on other mistakes made in implementing the Fish! philosophy.

Usage tips: At the end of each session are several “Small Bites,” paragraph-long examples of each of the four points. These tips are ideal for busy BSCs to read in a hurry, or to share with other managers and employees. They’re also action-oriented, rather than philosophical, for easy implementation. For instance, one woman spiced up a presentation by letting her children color her flip charts with crayons, something a contractor could easily and cheaply do.

In addition, the final section, “Let’s Go Fish!ing,” offers 12 weeks’ worth of activities for implementing the Fish! philosophy in work and in life. The exercises range from reading assignments (which may require another trip to the library or bookstore) to brainstorming about various attitudes to have. These activities are presented in a 12-week sequence, but most can be done independently, in any order.

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