Nurture Your Workforce


What are some of the key company paybacks for investing in employees and employee relations?

The companies in your audience pretty much sell the same products as their competitors. All that separates them is how well they deliver their services and products, and that depends on the quality of the people. If those people are not feeling respected, we run a much greater risk of losing them. Companies can’t afford to lose good people. Companies will readily invest in upgrades for truck fleets and software, but often balk at similar investments in their employees. Leaders need to remember that it is employees who make the difference in how well they succeed.


What can employers do to improve company performance by improving employee motivation?

One of the things I stress a lot in supervisor training is that you can’t motivate another person. Motivation comes from within – it’s something a person does to himself. What managers and supervisors can do is influence motivation. Get to know each individual’s interests, needs and drives. Provide opportunities and target conversations to tap into these unique motivators. Recognize each person’s efforts and commitment. Your efforts will pay off in how your team performs on the job. If they believe their work is appreciated by leadership, they are more likely to deal effectively with demanding, frustrating customers. They’ll be more likely to keep their cool and promote a good image of the company if they feel the company has their back.

Think about the last time you were in a store. You probably got clear glimpses of how the employees are treated by management by how they treat the customers. If they won’t attend to you, you figure that’s what they learned from management. If we want employees to provide quality services, they have to see that from every person in leadership.

It’s also important to recognize when motivational efforts don’t make sense. If you have an employee who just doesn’t care, he needs to be moved out of the organization as quickly as possible. There is nothing you can do to force a person to care. Keeping him can not only affect the level of your service but also have a negative impact on the other members of the team.


How important is it for employees to understand the company’s mission and priorities? What are some steps that owners can take to help employees understand what is needed?

Employee engagement can be defined as the extra effort that employees put forth, even when no one is watching. In the last 20 years, extensive research has shown that, when a person feels truly connected to something, he or she is willing to go above and beyond and provide extraordinary service.

One way to promote this connection is to make sure everyone understands the “why” behind what is being asked and the bigger picture. In the old days, workers may have simply done what they were told, but things are much more complex in today’s world. Now employees want to understand the purpose behind the task and the reasoning that goes into setting priorities. That’s why it’s important to not just talk about what we’re doing but why. To be effective, leaders need to start with true dialogue, not lectures. That is often the biggest mistake: talking at employees. There needs to be conversation.

The connection becomes deeper when the employees become involved in the process of setting priorities. Cargas Systems has an engaged workforce, in part because we have processes in place to make sure that happens. We’re now setting goals for next year, and this is not done by the executives; it starts at the level of the work teams as they start defining what the needs are. We also have an interactive process called Ideas Unlimited where any employee or small group can put together a 10-minute presentation on a new approach or an improvement suggestion. These ideas are often where our new initiatives come from.


What is the payoff for employers of getting employees more involved in setting goals?

People start to take more ownership. When they’re confronted with a problem, they don’t bump it up the ladder. They take it on and resolve it on the spot. You can’t empower people if they don’t really have a voice. The payoff is that you are more responsive to the customer, and you get problems fixed.



Please discuss the issue of likeability in a boss. How important is it to be likable when you are leading a staff?

I’m thinking of the bosses I have had. If someone was likable, it was probably because it was someone I trusted. If a person is real and genuine and says what he means and follows through, he gains credibility, and that can make a big difference in likeability. Someone who treats people with respect earns respect as a result of that. A boss who is abrupt, rude, disrespectful and controlling is not effective with today’s employees. You get surface compliance and underground sabotage.



What is your advice on some effective ways to reward excellent performance? How about correcting sub-standard performance?

The most effective way to influence motivation is to provide immediate, eye-to-eye, specific feedback when, as a manager, you see something you like. You ask yourself what was it the person just said or did and comment on the specific behavior, not just about how Harry is so nice or such a swell team player. It’s about what Harry did, so that he knows exactly what it was, and he can do it again later. If you’re being honest, sincere and specific, it’s almost impossible to give too much positive feedback. Those are the supervisors we’d walk through fire for.


This explains why you can have four teams with the same salary and compensation, and one team outperforms the others, and there is higher morale and lower turnover. It’s probably because the supervisor is tapping into what the employees need and helping each employee value themselves. The front-line supervisor is the key person in every organization. They have the power to make it good or miserable. Employees don’t leave companies; they leave supervisors.


Feedback is also the first step to dealing with unacceptable performance. When you see something you don’t like, you’ve got to nip it in the bud. You can’t let it slide. If you don’t say something right away, you’re telling them that it is OK. You must give immediate negative feedback whenever an employee doesn’t meet your expectations. A lot of supervisors figure the employees know better, so I’ll say nothing. Then after they’ve done it 20 times and you try to discipline them, they can’t understand why. One expert reminds us that what we permit, we promote.



How should employers view and handle employee feedback? How important is it to hear your employees’ frank opinions and ideas?

The healthiest companies are the ones where leaders truly value feedback. If you’re perfect it’s not necessary, but since that’s not likely, any information you’re given on what you’re doing and how you can improve it can help you get better. Feedback is the mirror that many of us don’t want to look into. We ask for feedback when what we really want is validation. If we don’t want honest feedback we shouldn’t ask for it. But employees will always talk about the boss. Would you prefer honest feedback to having people talk about you behind your back?


Honest and free-flowing feedback can also prevent problems. It’s tempting to cover up issues or shade a problem so my team doesn’t look bad. The unexpected result of hiding or filtering feedback is that leaders don’t get an accurate picture of what’s going on. They make flawed decisions because they’re dealing with flawed data.



How do you get employees to bring their own ideas for the company to your attention?

Every company is fighting the history and baggage that each employee brings from all the places they have worked – the dusty suggestions box that was never opened, or the boss who asks ‘What do you think?’ and then spends three hours explaining why you are wrong. We have all had those bad experiences. Over time, you have to show that you are not only listening but also hearing and using their ideas – and make sure everyone knows that change comes as a result of employee input.


The other side of that is that if you’re not able to use that input, don’t ask for it, because that is a tremendous de-motivator. Don’t ask for input unless you want to know and will use it.



With diversification and consolidation, employers have to reassign responsibilities. How can you assign new responsibilities to an employee and help them see that as a positive?

If you have a foundation of honest communication, that helps. If bosses talk openly about the future and the competition, it’s easier to explain when you have to make changes. It takes more time to do that kind of communicating, but if you want to be successful, it’s important.


Of course, it’s also a lot easier to get them to take on new or additional responsibilities if you compensate them fairly. Many organizations have been running lean for a long time. Most of our employees have been willing to jump in and take on something extra, but at some point it’s going to start to break down. That willingness is being stretched to the limits in many organizations. Leadership has to look at how hard they can push people. Do we need to give better raises or more accurate titles? Do we need to bring on more staff?


There are some generational factors with this. I’m an aging Baby Boomer, and many of us peace-and-love Boomer types became incredible workaholics. But the younger folks that are just coming in are not willing to do this – they want to have a life. As we boomers start to leave the workforce, companies will have to start adding bodies. I see this as the coming crisis of the next 10 years. We can’t just keep dumping more and more on employees.


The other piece of this additional responsibility issue is that, as we diversify, we have to ask people to do stuff they don’t want to do. We give up tasks that are no longer necessary and learn new things, and not everyone will be happy. Managers have to be realistic. Employees don’t have to whistle while they work; they just have to do it and work well with others.



Training is a challenge for small companies because of time and money constraints. What are your thoughts on the value of training and how companies can overcome obstacles to get employees trained and expand the company’s expertise?

Professional development is not an expense; it’s an investment in your future, especially for team leaders, because that is problem prevention. The more we equip supervisors, the better they are at heading off problems. Supervisors need to have some type of training so they have tools to draw on. For a small company, professional development doesn’t have to happen off-site. The best training is often done on the job by a peer coach or mentor. Supervisors who can work as mentors and coaches can help employees develop competence and confidence. Managers and seasoned supervisors can also serve as mentors for new supervisors.


The trick in using a lot of in-house training is choosing the right people to do the training. You have to find the supervisors and managers who are skilled in helping people learn and develop skills. You can also use line employees. If you have one employee who is very organized, you can ask if he would be willing to coach a co-worker.


Short chunks of time for training can be really effective. People don’t have long attention spans. If you have a one-on-one meeting with a coach or mentor once a week or twice a month, that can be more successful over time than sending someone to a daylong training.



Is supervision an overlooked and under-nurtured skill?

When we get promoted, our managers often think we’ll just naturally know what to do and not to do. What most companies forget is that we choose our supervisors and managers based on how good they are at their job, because they have the best technical skills, they are the most dependable, hard-working, organized, practical, down to earth, etc. Because they are so good at their jobs, they get made supervisors, and now they need a whole different skill set, because they now are successful only through the work of others. There is a loss of control, and they may have trouble delegating. And, most importantly, they now need a huge range of people skills.



If an owner is preparing to sell the company, what, if anything, should they share with employees?

There are some tricky parts to this. With some sales processes, you have legal restrictions and you can’t say much. Otherwise, they should share as much as possible in as many ways as possible. You need to communicate three times as much during hard or uncertain times. Nature abhors a vacuum, and if you don’t tell employees what is going on, they will make it up.


We had a client in a comparable industry, and the owner had decided to acquire another company but he didn’t think he had enough information to tell his own employees. Unfortunately, the owner of the acquired company told his staff, who then mentioned it to their colleagues in this small and close industry. The employees found out through this informal grapevine and they were ticked off at the boss. He thought he was helping them because he had no final details of the deal, but there was a huge loss of trust.


When you talk to employees, you have to tell them the truth. If you’re selling the company, tell them you will keep them informed. Human beings can cope with almost anything if they know what it is they have to cope with. The thing we can’t deal with is uncertainty. You have to at least talk about the uncertainty and say this will just feel crummy for a while because we don’t know what’s happening. When you get bosses trying to smooth things over and pretend nothing will change, it doesn’t work. Today’s employees are too cynical, and they have great hypocrisy meters.



Do you have any advice for running an effective staff meeting?

One of the best things you can do is video yourself leading a meeting and then take the tape home and watch it. It will tell you more than you want to know about the effectiveness of your meetings and your facilitation skills.


Don’t spend time in a meeting doing things that could be done by e-mail, like making announcements. It is face time – time to interact and not just tell them things. If you’re bringing people together, you have the benefit of multiple brains. Meetings are the time to discuss the future and explore problems with our system and processes. Often we face system problems that seem impossible to solve. With multiple brainpower, you get synergy – one person’s suggestion get improved by another’s ideas and another’s and you get solutions that no one could have thought of on their own. Employees have answers. The challenge is getting them to trust that we really want to hear it. The hardest thing is getting employees to believe they have a voice. Companies that are successful are the ones that truly involve employees and listen.

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