When you made the decision to start your business, chances are you did it because of knowledge or a skill you want to contribute to the working world. Whatever your business, it is likely that you are trained, skilled and talented at it, or you would not have wanted to take on the financial or reputational risk involved with starting it.
Every business wants growth, but in order to grow you need to be able to hire employees, you simply can’t do everything yourself.
One of the biggest unintended consequences of a growing business is the headaches that come with employing people. Like with all things, some knowledge, awareness and insight into how to manage people goes a long way and you can avoid the common pitfalls that cause the relationship unintended harm.
Knowing how to employ and manage people is a very tricky learning curve, most employers say it takes years to understand how to manage people, and for some it’s a steeper learning curve than others with challenging financial consequences. With the threat of Tribunal claims and payouts if you get it wrong, or reputational damage from disgruntled employees if things are not smooth sailing, it is no wonder the messages around employing people are so negative.
I want to help you understand how to build strong foundations with your employees that will support you in your business growth goals. These are the top 5 ways relationships start down a bumpy road and how to avoid them:
1. Inconsistent application of rules and boundaries
Relaxed or flexible rules are quite common in a workplace that has never had any difficulty. Being flexible and laid back can work well if all the elements are right and everything is being done as it needs to be, however it is often not too long before an employee tests these flexibilities beyond the limits.
The common response is to clamp down on the employee who is pushing things too far. This is an attempt to correct the imbalance rather than address the flimsy status of the rule that created the issue. This approach often backfires because the employee in question feels that the rules are being applied strictly to them, leading to feelings of being singled out and unfairness.
An office’s work day ends at 3pm, however it is common practise that once all the work is done and wrapped up that the employees leave at 2.45pm or 2.50pm. One employee repeatedly leaves every day at about 2.35pm, regardless if the work has been completed or not. One day the manager checks to see if an assigned piece of work has been completed only to discover it hasn’t and the employee has left for the day. The next day the manager makes a point to say that the employee must stay until 3pm every day.
The initial level of flexibility in the office rules lacks definition and therefore is the problem, not necessarily the behaviour of the employees. The employee is behaving as they always have done; and how they perceive everyone else is acting also. The true issue is in the lack of definition in the rules and how they have been applied. The employee feels singled out because after all, their colleagues are still leaving at 2.45pm or 2.50pm but they are “in trouble” for leaving early.
Rather than single out one person for pushing the flexibility beyond its boundaries, reiterate to all staff that their day ends at 3pm. If the work is completed then the remaining 10 or 15 minutes is to be spent helping colleagues with their work, planning for the next days / weeks, or engaging in debrief sessions about how things are going and participating in future planning for big projects.
2. Too much responsibility without the tools to succeed
Being able to delegate responsibility to employees is essential for you as a business owner. However not everyone has the necessary skills or tools with which to be able to deliver more responsibility in an effective manner. The most common example of this is the assignment of the role “manager”. Being an effective people manager does not happen as soon as a title is given; it is something that is learned and developed over time.
A business owner needs to be spending their time in the field and less time managing day to day office operations. They grant the longest serving employee a promotion to office manager. They are now responsible for managing the team they were previously a part of but with no additional skills or training. This decision has not gone down well with the remaining office staff. One employee starts causing difficulties as the team reacts to the new management style. The new manager feels overwhelmed and disrespected, they handle it by clamping down on the rules and telling the employees they will face disciplinary action if they don’t fall in line. The business owner receives complaints from the team about the new manager. They respond by being critical of the manager’s handling of the situation as now there is unrest and conflict in the office where there was previously none. The manager feels stressed and upset about the situation and the new responsibilities and feels set up to fail.
Spotting potential in an employee and developing that into more duties and responsibilities is always a good thing. However potential is a seed not a fully grown plant and it requires attention and nourishment to grow strong. The best way you can help someone grow into new responsibility is by building a strong foundation and then growing the skills gradually. It is best to start with some foundational training around the theory of the new role and skills so that they gain insight into why training is important. From there you can assign some initial duties to see how an employee adjusts to the new responsibilities. Slowly allow the employees around them to adjust to the change. Frequently touching base about how things are going and giving the employee a safe place to discuss their challenges means they don’t feel abandoned with a team that is determined to cause issues.
In any new role with additional responsibilities a person needs to try applying the skills they have learned multiple times before they feel secure. Managing difficult people is guaranteed to cause stress and without a sounding board to help with developing insight; emotionally charged decisions will be made that will cause bigger problems down the line. With any new responsibilities the formula applied should be a gradual process of: learn, integrate, test and apply. Management should never be a sink or swim environment or it will certainly cause harm to someone.
3. Ineffective or inefficient processes
As someone who finds great comfort in slick processes I am often amazed at how they are disregarded when it comes to helping support balanced relationships in the workplace. Happy employees are productive, effective and listened to.
Every business has processes that determine what steps need to be taken in order to make sure it can deliver. Yours will be no different although what those processes are varies in every business. It is generally the responsibility of the employees to follow processes and deliver efficiently and effectively. If processes are clunky, ineffective, unintuitive and generally time consuming then they themselves can be the barrier to productivity, not the people trying to follow them. Typically when a business wants more productivity out of its employees, it piles on the “people pressure” without scrutinising the processes; this is a recipe for workplace stress and harm.
A business has adopted a new service design. Employees have been told that productivity needs to improve and pressure applied to make the new processes work. The new service design was done without employee consultation and doesn’t take into account how they actually operate. The employees find that they have to run around more than previously, jumping from one area of the business to another. The system they are using is not designed to automate what the employees need so they find themselves duplicating paperwork and spending more time shuffling admin than actually delivering the service.
The result is employees are tired, flustered and making simple errors. Some resort to other, additional processes to try and get work done, but this takes more time. Overall productivity reduces, frustration increases and morale sinks.
The business owners don’t understand why productivity decreases rather than increases and the staff have become increasingly unhappy. In a few months’ time, absences start due to work related stress and they start to worry they have a negativity pandemic on their hands. They increase employee access to well-being services but never actually consult with the staff as to how the service design is working and what their frustrations are. They believe that the workplace should be positivity-only.
If a business wants happy and effective employees, it should always include input and feedback from the people delivering the job into the new processes. The people who deliver the processes daily understand how they operate and the limitations of their tool.
They also understand how they currently build workarounds to their barriers; therefore they are already skilled at incorporating intuitive solutions around existing barriers to increase their productivity. Processes that consider the user first and system capabilities second are far more effective and intuitive and less likely to have manual work around adopted. Processes that look slick in a process flow without ever considering the human element will frustrate the staff, cause untold levels of stress and result in lowered productivity.
4. Performance at any cost
We all know that genuine high performance in a business is a tough balance to strike. High performance does happen but often takes a long time to get the mix of business processes and employees just right before it will thrive.
In a desire to get high performance, many business owners adopt a performance at all cost mind-set. This blinds them to the issues it can lead to.
When pressure is applied to meet KPIs that the employee has little to no control over, some employees will adopt bad behaviour to reach them. These bad behaviours separate them from others who are struggling, which is often noticed initially as the start of high performance. However if those bad behaviours are reinforced and rewarded, then the employees left behind (the ones who refuse to blur the lines) are maligned and mistreated. In reality, it is likely that the high performers’ behaviour should get less credit, and those struggling, should get more. This is a problem that is rife in the sales environment although it is seen anywhere KPIs are set. This can cause genuine talent to go unrecognised and eventually leave those roles. If your employees with the most integrity leave due to a lack of acknowledgement, the business is left with underlying issues that affect the reputation of the whole business.
The sales rep role is to canvas door to door speaking to estate agents and get them to sign up to a new service. Only the lead estate agent (qualified) can sign up on the website for the KPI to be met. One sales rep, after spending all day in the field says that although they saw 20 estate agents, only 3 of them were qualified to sign up. On the bright side, they did get all 3 to sign up. Another rep comes back and says that they also saw 20 estate agents and they all signed up, no problem! Every one of them was qualified. The first sales rep is singled out as not being “a closer” and asked in front of the whole team why their success rate was not as high, despite having no control over how many qualified. Over time the first sales rep gets tired of the negativity, feeling they are not good at their job and leaves. When doing the back office validations, it comes to light that despite the second sales person claiming all the estate agents that signed up were qualified, they weren’t. Upon closer inspection the estate agents were also given promises that could not be delivered upon by the company, which resulted in considerable reputational damage.
As a business owner you should look deeper than an employee’s own claims about success before making judgments and comparisons. People who are willing to stack results over rules will often do it with confidence and bravado, making genuine validation and scrutiny essential. KPI results are not the only marker of how successful a person is at doing their job. In the above example the first sales rep actually closed every qualified lead they encountered, which is a tremendous closure rate. If this sales rep were given genuine qualified leads without the exhausting task of spending time seeking them themselves, they could possibly be very successful. However their legitimate talents were overlooked because someone else appeared more impressive. Be aware of appearance vs. reality with the behaviours that you actually want to see grow. Focus on the skills that can be grown and developed rather than those that will eventually harm the business.
5. Resourcing spread too thin
Resourcing is a tough issue for any business because people cost money. In terms of money, it is always more cost effective to ask someone to do more than it is to hire someone new. However not resourcing correctly can be more costly in the long term if the result is a high long term absence rate and workplace stress.
A business has 3 geographical areas coordinated by 3 managers. Each manager has approximately 20 employees who report into them on a daily basis. The managers are responsible for the coordination of schedules, absences, workloads and delivery of services for those employees. The managers have expressed difficulties when it comes to covering a wide geographical area; they are on the road for hours each day in addition to being available on call to all their employees who have their own individual set of problems and needs.
The only mechanism for covering annual leave and sickness is the 3 of them covering for each other, resulting in them feeling guilty for taking time off. One of the managers leaves. Rather than replace them, the business decides to restructure the regions. To save money they combine the 3 geographical areas into 2 areas. Now, rather than 20 employees checking in every day, the managers have 30. Some of those employees have real problems and need significant support, which the manager feels unable to properly provide them with because they are spread so thin. The new geographical area is now so large that they find themselves travelling vast distances daily. When the other manager is on annual leave, the remaining one has the equivalent of the entire territory to manage. The level of responsibility and duty to the employees becomes overwhelming and when combined with constant travel, the manager starts to become unwell and exhausted, leading to a long term absence for workplace stress.
The only way to genuinely not replace resources is to eliminate duties from the job. Having the same number of duties and the same level of responsibility but carved up for less people is a recipe for workplace stress. We are all aware that the pressure is definitely on businesses to be able to do more with less, but make sure that a genuine understanding of the resource needed to do a job is undertaken before requiring significantly more from staff, particularly those with management duties as it could result in damaged relationships.
As a stressed out business owner I know your resources are spread too thin. Dealing with employment issues can fritter away any enjoyment that the business once held if they have escalated into real problems that are time consuming, expensive and emotionally draining. That time and energy is a precious resource that is needed by you to be able to focus on business growth and your future goals. Rather than look at these things as more to-do’s on your already long list, consider them as an investment in stable growth. By spending some time reflecting on how you operate from an employee’s perspective you may gain some insights as to where you could make some adjustments in your approach. Relatively minor adjustments could save yourself the time and hassle that would be spent solving real problems as prevention is a far better strategy than the costly cure.
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