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Employees: The Approved List

Feb 24th, 2012 | By | Category: Nick Kemper's Blog

Recently I read Patrick Lencioni’s The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. I highly recommend it, especially for owners, managers and team leaders. It reads like a good action novel. I read 170 pages in one night and I had to put it down (before I wanted to) to get some sleep. I think one reason it’s a good read is because it uses a fictional story to illustrate business theories, and the story is centered on conflict. We all love conflict. Really, why else do we watch movies or read books? A story needs some kind of conflict. Also, the author repeatedly foreshadows some impending event of doom and carnage, which usually turns out to be a lot less severe than you would guess, but it’s effective nonetheless.

Although the book explores why teams don’t work well together, the overarching intent is to fix those teams, so techniques are given to overcome the five dysfunctions. It’s not just focused on the negative things we all do wrong.

It reminded me of an incident that I instigated when I was managing a towing company. At the time I was in charge of approximately 20 drivers, eight dispatchers and one lien specialist. The office manager had recently been promoted from dispatcher, so I was helping her a lot with her new position, and our lead salesman was basically working under my guidance. Translation: I had way too many people reporting to me, and I was allowing it to get to me.

One thing that has always interested me is how some people come to work, do their job, work with the resources at hand, enjoy success and never seem to need much help from their supervisor. When I was a driver, this is how I operated. I avoided contact with my supervisor. It just slowed me down. I kept my nose clean, was productive, and tried to stay out of the limelight.

I had employees like that who worked for me, and as I struggled with this large staff, it struck me how I dedicated almost all of my time to the employees who constantly needed help, were engaged in drama, whined about their coworkers or their jobs or their work environment, couldn’t make a decision to save their life, or sat in my office to chat for hours on end while I tried to work. In a way, I was rewarding and reinforcing their behavior by giving them all of my attention. Meanwhile, these few employees I had who were self-sufficient (about 25 percent of the staff), I basically ignored, and they might have been okay with that, but still I should have at least made a point of thanking them for it.

One day I let it get to me a little too much, and the next morning when I got to the office, I posted a notice on the outside of my office door. It explained that for the next 24 hours, I was going to interact only with these 25 percent of the employees who never needed anything from me. I instructed everyone else to either figure things out on their own, or to enlist help from each other or one of the 25 percent on the good list. Then I went one step further and listed everyone who couldn’t communicate with me, by name, and everyone who could, by name. I included other managers and employees in departments I didn’t manage. The only name I left off completely was the owner.

There were windows in my office door and beside it, so I got to see reactions from employees who either tried to call me on the phone (I only answered outside calls) or who grabbed the locked doorknob and tried it, and then read the note. There were some smiles, some confusion. Of course, I was getting a lot of work done. Then the office manager read it, stormed off to her office and returned a few minutes later to remove it. She was technically also the HR manager, so I suspect she felt it fell into her area.

I let it go. Everyone who had read the note respected my request, even after the note had been removed. Later, the owner arrived and reprimanded me for my actions. In retrospect, it wasn’t a very healthy management technique, and I suppose it upset a few people and maybe even hurt some feelings. I do think, however, that it created a better awareness of employee expectations. I also believe that it was a positive morale boost to the 25 percent who were on the approved list. None of those people came to see me during those 24 hours, of course, but a few of them asked me about it later when we happened to cross paths in the course of our work.

It’s ironic and really kind of sad, but in business we often end up catering to the least valuable members of a team because they are so intent on getting our attention. We try to not offend them or single them out, when we should probably just get rid of them and start over with someone new. The “anyone who will fog a mirror” personnel policy has been proven time and time again to damage organizations.

So I admit now that I never should have posted the note. There should have only been one list: the Approved Employees. Anyone who qualified for the other list shouldn’t have been working for me any longer.

Have a safe and profitable week.

Nick Kemper