Three common mistakes: What’s it like to be your employee?

Mississauga Board of Trade
Mississauga Board of Trade


September 8, 2016


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janheadshotwebBy Jan van der Hoop

We spend a lot of time answering questions from business leaders about how to hire the very best people for their business. Everybody wants the very best talent money can buy (in a perfect world they would be both talented and low-maintenance), and most understand intuitively that ‘people’ are the only really sustainable competitive advantage. Your competitors can out-invent you, come up with a better product or a more efficient process… but nothing will trump a team of focused, talented and determined people aligned behind the same objectives.

And, in my experience, when an organization is misfiring or performing sub-optimally, it’s rarely because they have hired stupid people. Still today, most of the time in most organizations, ‘what a person knows’ (skills, education, credentials, work history) is used as the primary factor in deciding who to interview and who to ignore.

All too often the gap isn’t in the head. It’s in the heart. There’s an awful lot of knowledge and talent lying fallow because managers have not figured out how to extract the resource. Worse still, many inadvertently drive wedges that actually cause people to take their heart out of the relationship and just give the minimum to get by.

Here are the three most common ways companies shoot themselves in the foot (and a good self-check for any business owner):

  1. Know your place in their heart and act accordingly: are you an Employer of choice, of convenience, or of last resort?

This may sound a little harsh but frankly, some employers are employers of last resort, and some jobs are jobs of last resort. People would not be there if they had a viable alternative. And smart employers in that space will understand that fact, honor it, and do everything they can to dignify the environment and show respect and appreciation for those doing the work.

The same thing plays out on an individual level as well. We have all gone through stages in our life where we have taken a ‘last resort’ job, or one of convenience where we needed extra money and had to fit work around other things in our life (school, children, etc). In those situations, work is a means to an end, and while I will bring my own personal standards to work with me, it’s still a transactional exchange. I’m not there to change the world.

Problems happen, though, when there’s a disconnect between what you tell yourself as an employer and what they are experiencing. And, as my wife frequently reminds me, what you tell yourself about how they should feel is immaterial. Reality occurs in your employees’ heads and hearts. Expecting people to engage and give fully of themselves when they are there for a transaction (or their experience of working there is that you are transactional) is an exercise in futility. A really irritating one, for all concerned.

  1. Are your managers talent magnets, or talent-repellent?

Researchers have consistently been reporting the same thing for over a decade: people join organizations and they leave people. More than half the time, they leave because of their manager.

Here’s the deal: there’s a widening gap between what we ask our managers to do and where their real value lies. We too often fill their day with tasks and deadlines, and starve them of their ability to actually manage the most important (and expensive) asset we entrust to them.

The managers whose shifts, departments, divisions and organizations churn out consistently superior results share one important thing in common: they are managers of people, stewards of the human element first and do-ers of tasks second. They focus on optimising the fit and chemistry within the team and are obsessive about maintaining respectful, supportive relationships, both individually with each member of their team and among members of the team. There’s no room for misalignment, cross purposes or unhealthy conflict on a winning team.

Which means that the primary role of a manager must be that of master of relationship and fit.

Your managers are either talent magnets or talent repellent in the eyes of your employees. Tough, demanding, goal-focused is fine, but if you are serious about keeping your best people and engaging their heads and their hearts, one key imperative has to be to create and aggressively maintain an Asshole-Free Zone.

It’s not terribly PC, I agree – but when I talk about the concept of the AFZ with large groups, everyone understands and identifies immediately with the concept. We have all experienced working with a great manager and for an ‘A’ at different points in our career, and we can quickly identify how our energy, productivity and commitment to excellence was different in each situation.

Why is it then that when I ask for a show of hands from people whose organizations quietly tolerate assholes, virtually every hand flies up?

  1. You attract what you tolerate

You simply can’t have a high-performance organization without a cohesive, engaged workforce that shares a commitment to superior outcomes.

There’s a tough lesson in this for many: whether you’re intentional about it or not, the birds of a feather thing is either driving or limiting your business, determining your financial potential, and deciding how your brand is perceived by your customers.

In environments where mediocrity is tolerated, where poor-to-middling performance is ignored or excused for any reason, those characteristics quickly become entrenched. People whose standards and capabilities are higher than those of the lowest performer will do one of two things over time – relax their standards and settle for performing just better than the bottom of the pack or they will look elsewhere for people who share their standards.

Poor performers will recognise a safe harbor; good performers will become disillusioned and leave.

If you tolerate and excuse mediocrity, you’ll get more of it. If you accept ‘average’ as okay, you’ll get lots of it (and in so doing leave a lot of money on the table). And if you set the bar high and accept nothing but the best from your people, you will create a magnet for the best talent in the market.

You attract what you tolerate. If your business results aren’t what you’d like, or if things aren’t running as smoothly as they should… maybe it’s time to do a little research internally. Look closely at those employees with the personal standards and qualities you want for your organisation. Find out what challenges and energizes them, then push them. Hard. There are others on your team who will relish the competition and push themselves harder, and others who will start to feel the heat and leave for a more ‘accepting’ environment before they are asked.

Nothing will beat a strong, focused team of people whose heads and hearts are fully in the game. Following these simple rules can reduce the friction and remove some of the things that get in our way

Jan van der Hoop is President of Fit First Technologies and can be reached via e-mail at

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Mississauga Board of Trade
Mississauga Board of Trade
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