I’m a member of Generation X. While we’re not as stoic as The Greatest Generation, we X-ers certainly remember the Great Depression stories our grandparents told us. So, yeah, if we had to eat worms to survive, we probably could — and give all the glory to Grandma.
But most of us are not hard liners. We were raised by Boomers, after all, so we understand Flower Power, too. At least, we’re not afraid to knock off early on Fridays sometimes.
As business owners, this ability to see both extremes makes us versatile. But it also presents us a difficult question: “How hard should we be on our employees?” Conventional wisdom these days argues that labor is tight, so we’d better treat everyone really, really well. We should make sure that our pay, benefits, and company culture are so much better than the competition. And, we better not upset anyone, or the next thing you know there’s going to be a walk-out. Right?
Wrong. I think this is a slippery slope that really doesn’t even come close to working.
Productivity is not directly proportional to praise and party favors. If only it were that easy!
Plus, you cannot compete with all the organizations out there that are poaching employees. It’s like malware — the bad guys are always going to be one step ahead. (Or, if you prefer, a dating example: There’s always going to be someone better looking than us.)
Besides, making all your employees happy would require figuring out the psychological profile of each employee to understand what each one likes. That sounds like a lot of work to me. It’s also impossible, as some employees will hate the very things that other employees love. For every employee that loves working at home, for example, there’s another that needs to be with everyone in the same room.
Setting Goals, Creating Conditions
Rather than chasing the imagined needs of a thousand individuals (many of whom might not even know what they want) you should instead ask yourself, “What are the conditions by which my company can achieve great things?”
Set really ambitious goals that people don’t know if they can hit. Then challenge your workers to tackle those audacious goals with enthusiasm. Give them the clarity and support they need to maximize the chances of success. But don’t bribe and coddle them. And don’t let them off the hook! Letting them water down or postpone the goals remove the chance for them to perform impressively.
I’ll tell you a story that illustrates what I mean.
Recently I was doing a site visit for a client. I was interviewing a number of the engineers who helped relocate a manufacturing division across three hours of driving distance. There was a strict time limit for the move, a number of difficult logistics. One particular engineer (who is very unexpressive for the most part) characterized the work as “incredibly difficult.”
Then he added (and I quote): “I loved every excruciating second of it!”
That is how champion employees respond to difficult tasks. It’s what the employees you need the most require the most: Hard tasks that allow them to prove themselves.
But That Won't Work for Me...
“But, Eric, I’ve tried to challenge my employees in the past, and it always falls flat.” I hear you. If your challenges are failing to be met with energy and enthusiasm, it’s possible you didn’t hire very well. But it could also be for any of the following fixable reasons:
- The goal might not be as clear as you think. “Let’s become the best MSP in the land!” is not a very clear goal. Define very specifically what success will look like. Is it a particular revenue or profit target? Is it a particular customer service rating? Make the definition of success objectively measurable so that everyone will know exactly how they are doing.
- The timeframe might be too tight, too long, or too vague. Once your staff has a clear outcome to aim for, they need to understand how quickly they need to sprint to achieve it. Make sure the deadline is not completely impossible or way too easy.
- There is no one galvanizing them. Here is where managers, directors, and executives come into play. If the leaders aren’t fired up and committed, how can anyone expect the line staff to be? Just make sure everyone is perfectly aligned on the goals, the plan, and how success will be measured.
- They don’t have any autonomy. Most teams want to have some creative control as to how they meet a goal. Instead of giving them a paint-by-numbers plan, involve them in the strategy before you step in and offer suggestions. As their leader, make yourself easily available for consultation, but only assert yourself when it’s clear they are likely to miss their target.
Here's the thing I love about this more old-school approach to work: When your staff is succeeding at really hard things, your company will prosper, allowing you to reward your staff with bonuses, raises, and more. The reward comes after the achievement, not before.
My guess is your grandparents would approve.
Eric Larson is the founder, CEO, and Lead Detective at The Organizational Detectives LLC, a management consultancy for businesses and nonprofits based in Raleigh, NC. A former executive at CompTIA Spark, he was part of the team that branded and launched CompTIA's IT-Ready training program for entry-level tech workers. In his regular blog for ChannelE2E, he’ll share best practices of leadership to help your MSP thrive. Learn how an organizational detective can assist in solving your company's mysteries at http://www.TheORGDetectives.com. Contact him at ELarson@TheORGDetectives.com.