How to manage people – not numbers

How to manage people – not numbers

Years ago, I worked for a company that had created a committee to improve working conditions for its employees.  We sat in a conference room once a month and talked about programs like the Employee of the Month program, and celebrations like birthdays and promotions.  We also came up with ideas to shine some light on the little day-to-day things that people did right.  It was a wonderful idea, and it worked.  The only thing I didn’t like about the program is that it was necessary in the first place.

Many managers didn’t like our little committee. They protested about what they considered “lost time”, and resisted most of the ideas.  Thankfully, the company supported the program fully, and insisted that management comply.  In other words, managers were forced, against their will in many cases, to treat their employees like people.

In my thirty-plus years of training both employees and managers, I’ve learned quite a lot about people.  And after working closely with hundreds of managers and hourly workers, I have come to the conclusion that there are two things that are always true: One – with all of our differences: race, upbringing, social status, sexual orientation, whatever – we are very much alike when it comes to being recognized and rewarded.  Two – everyone – without exception – is more productive, more trustworthy and much happier when they feel like their leaders know them and care about them.

My friend and mentor, Rex Gamble, wrote a book called Believe In Yourself.  In it, he laid out the following truth:

Of the top five things that people work for, money is last.

The number one reason people go to work every day is recognition  We need to be noticed, by our bosses, our co-workers, our customers, and – most importantly – our families.  Without some recognition at work, we’re spinning our wheels, and eventually we’ll walk away, no matter how much money we make. A raise is a fantastic incentive, but if it’s not accompanied by a public explanation, it’s only a number by which we are judged, and by which we judge ourselves.

The number two reason we go to work is a need to belong.  We all want to be part of a team, part of something bigger than us.  We need to know that we’re making progress, individually and collectively, and we need to know what the goals are.  We’re all good at some things, and not so good at others.  A great boss recognizes our strengths and weaknesses and puts us in a position to be successful and to help our team accomplish its goals.

The third reason that we go to work is security.  It’s easy to confuse this with money, to think that money and security are the same thing – they’re not.  I need to know where I stand.  I need to know that if I pull my weight, I’ll be successful in my job.  I need to know what it will take for me to get a raise, promotion, etc.  If we feel like the boss is lurking around the corner just waiting for us to make a mistake, we’re not going to last.

Number four is freedom.  It’s much like the hierarchy of needs – if you spend every minute of your workday wondering if you’ll have a job tomorrow, you’re not capable of free thought.  On the other hand, if you’re being recognized for your hard work, if you’re being trained properly, if you know where you stand and what you need to do to get better, you are free to think outside the box.  You’re free to ask questions and try things.  You’re free to make mistakes and learn from them.  You’re free to be the best you can be at your job.

The fifth and last of the top five reasons people work is money.  Obviously, we need money to live.  The daily functioning of our lives depends on it, so it can be a positive thing, as long as it is kept in perspective.  Like Rex used to say, “Rich or poor, it’s better to have money.”  For managers, the the bottom line is critical.  In many cases, keeping your job or getting that promotion depends on that number.  But think about this:  If every member of your team is getting the recognition they need, and if they feel like they’re a part of something great, with clear goals and clear direction, and if they aren’t afraid to make mistakes and they can think freely about solutions, that number will take care of itself.  Your people will make sure of it.

So, as a leader, at any level, how do you change the way you do things?

  1. Get to know your people. Do it often. I know that time is short and deadlines have to be met, and almighty numbers must be crunched, but take time with each person.  You’ll be amazed what you learn when you ask simple questions like: “Are you from here?”  or “Have you done this kind of work before?”  Not only will she know that you’re interested in her as a person, you’ll learn a little bit about her motivations and personal goals.
  2. Catch them doing something right, and tell them about it. Too often, as managers, we think that keeping people in line, on task, and afraid, is the best way to make people get things done. Some of us are great at catching mistakes and pointing them out, usually in front of a crowd, and at high volume.  We believe people will do what they’re supposed to do, and they’ll do it faster if they know they’ll get in trouble if they don’t.  But what if, every once in awhile, we praised our people when we saw them doing a good job?  For many leaders, this will take a complete shift in philosophy, but it’s worth it.  If you point out, in front of his peers and his customers, something that he did right (and be specific!), I can guarantee you that, from now on, 100% of the time, he will do that thing right, and he’ll continue to get better at it.  And, he’ll bust his butt to do other things right, because he’ll know that you see it and appreciate it. Catching people doing something right and telling them about it takes less than a minute and it improves performance and productivity exponentially.
  3. Communicate expectations and goals. Have a huddle or a quick meeting at the beginning of a shift or a project. Tell the team exactly what the goals are for that day or that project. Make the goals understandable and communicate how their success in achieving these goals will affect the big picture. Here’s an example: “Good morning everyone.  I hope you’re all awake and ready, because we need to get sections 9 and 10 inventoried, packed, tagged and ready to ship by the end of the day.  Right now, we’re at seventy-two percent compliance.  If we can get this done, we’ll be at eighty.  By the end of the week, if we keep it going, we’ll be at one hundred percent.  There are only two stores in the entire country that are ahead of us.  If we work hard and work together, we can be number one by the end of the quarter.”  Engage your people.  Let them know that they are an important part of the overall success of the company.  They will deliver.  And, when they achieve the goals, celebrate it!  Point it out, brag about your people to other managers and teams. Create competition. Have fun. Your people will love coming to work every day.
  4. Always be training your replacement. Don’t be afraid to delegate responsibility. If you’re the hardest working person on the team, you’re doing it wrong. I know that sounds crazy, because many of us have been taught to work harder than the guy next to you.  But as a leader, your most important job is developing your people.  When you have successfully learned about the members of your team, when you have caught them all doing something right, when you have observed how they work together, you will find people you want to develop. Develop them, and do it early and often.  And do it with as many people as you can.  You must lose the fear that, if you tell them too much, they’ll take your job.  The reality is that if you are successful at building your people, your next move won’t be out, it will be up.
  5. Stop managing stuff and start managing people. Sometimes, lists and charts are necessary. But take a break. Stop watching the numbers on your computer screen. Stop being anxious about what will or won’t happen.  Get out there and engage.  Offer solutions and ask questions. Tell jokes. Be accessible. Be approachable. You don’t have to be the friendliest or funniest person in the world to pull this off. All you have to do is let your people know that you’re paying attention. Praise in public.  Correct mistakes on the spot – right then – and do it quietly. The hardest part about this step will be to accept the fact that it’s not about you.  It’s about your people.
  6. Be the leader. For better or worse, what your people accomplish or don’t accomplish is on you. You’re responsible.  Too many people in a position of leadership will throw their people under the bus.  This method of management only serves to destroy your credibility with your team, and with your superiors. If one of your people makes a mistake, the right way to handle it is to correct that person, in private, and to train them as to what to do instead. In the meantime, you must be the one to answer to your superiors. That’s what a leader does. If you have your peoples’ back, they will have yours.
  7. Focus on the most productive. We’ve all heard the term “chasing your tail”, right? And what about the idea of “looking busy?” If you find yourself in a position where you’re not sure what to do next, simply go engage with your people. Ask them if they need help. Teach them something they don’t know. Quiz them. Tell them a funny story. Remember that most people can talk and use their hands at the same time. Working with your people is, and always will be, a productive use of your time. When in doubt, that’s where you should go.  You will see the results in the bottom line.

While the world is changing rapidly and dramatically, and the way we do business is changing with it, it’s easy to think that people don’t matter as much anymore. Machines are doing much of the work. While this may be true to some degree, we humans still have a place in all of it.  And, as long as that remains the case, great managers will be the key to the success of every business.  Likewise, the key to any manager’s success will always be his or her people. So, stop managing the numbers and start managing your people.  You’ll be amazed at the results.

“If you don’t think people are important in business, try doing business without them.” – Rex Gamble


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