People are Basically Good

Jun 06, 2005

A recent article in Fast Company magazine focused on Despair, Inc., the makers of calendars and posters that poke fun at those motivational posters from companies like Successories and others. The fact that Despair, Inc. is a success based on lampooning the all-too-often overly cheesy and corny, and sometimes condescending, offerings from other companies is OK with me. What I do have a problem with is the founders of Despair claiming that workers are inherently unhappy and lazy. I totally disagree with this notion and fully believe that any business owner who thinks this way will get exactly what he or she expects— workers with attitudes equally bad to their own. I have to believe that design and environmental firms— and other businesses that aren’t so blessed with the educated and intelligent employees we tend to have working for us—will be more likely to succeed when they expect good things from their workers. Not to say that “bad workers” can’t get into a good firm. They can. They need to be identified, confronted, and reformed or moved out much more quickly than A/E firms tend to handle them. It’s important to the morale of your good people to deal with these problems decisively. But that leaves the 90%+ of our staffs who are trying hard, who are conscientious, and who want to do what’s best for the clients and the company. They need to be treated with respect. This is why I have always been so committed to the idea of open-book management, i.e., sharing ALL the numbers with everyone. It simply breeds trust. Ü I also believe that sharing a certain percentage of the profits firm-wide is a cornerstone of building a relationship with your people of all for one and one for all. This is contrasted with “silo-style” management that pits one group against the other. Quality work is encouraged by those at a higher level demonstrating daily that they personally make the choice of doing things right vs. doing what’s fastest, cheapest, or easiest— but not best. Workers— even low-level field techs or survey rodmen— want to take pride in a job well-done. The way to see that is to demonstrate it means more than just words on a proposal or slogans cooked up at the once-every-three-years, business-planning retreat. As leaders, it’s so important that we show a personal interest in the people who work with us. They need to see that you will take the time to ask them about their families and how they are doing and are not only interested in telling them about yourself or beating on them for higher productivity. Saying, “Nice job,” “I love the way you work,” and “Thanks” will also help out when it comes to bringing out the best in people. Even someone who is 60 years old and has been on the job for 40 years needs a little reinforcement sometimes. When the compliment is sincere, I find that this pays huge dividends in terms of better attitudes toward the company as a whole. All of these things get harder to do as a company grows— harder, but not impossible. It’s really important that each leader makes sure their second lieutenants understand how critical it is to start each day with the belief that people are basically good and then act in such a way that shows you really believe it. Originally published 6/06/2005

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