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Being nice can give companies an edge

Being nice can give companies an edge
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First Published: Mon, Jun 15 2009. 12 55 AM IST

Updated: Mon, Jun 15 2009. 12 55 AM IST
Every so often, we receive a few questions which remind us that some things never change, even during tumultuous times. Or, at least, should never change.
Take these three questions, for instance, which readers sent to us last week:
From Colombo, Sri Lanka: “Do employees have a right to know about critical decisions taken by management, such as promotions, transfers and demotions, especially if such events do not favour them?”
From New York: “How do you keep talented people engaged in relatively boring work that you wouldn’t want to do yourself?”
And from Surat, India: “What advice do you have for employees who are working for a leader whose job is no longer secure?”
Forget specifics for a moment. The answer to all of the above is found in a fundamental business principle: Whether you are a long-time leader or an employee just starting out, be sure that in everything you do, you value human dignity.
OK, maybe that advice sounds a little vague, but surely you get our drift. Businesspeople have to confront dilemmas and make tough calls every day. You can try to solve them by going with your gut instinct. You can do nothing and hope for the best. You can protect yourself by playing politics. Or you can make choices based on the indisputable principle that all employees deserve to have their voices heard and to be treated with respect.
No, we haven’t gone soft. This is a case we have made before. And it is not just the right thing to do from a moral perspective; it invariably makes a company more competitive—a win-win situation.
Let us consider the query from Sri Lanka about whether managers should explain key employees’ comings and goings. Well, of course they should. While managers should be very careful not to demonize anyone, providing explanations about why Joe was asked to move on or why Mary was transferred to the Hong Kong office can make for some great teaching moments. “Joe was a nice guy and we wish him well, but he didn’t demonstrate the company’s key value of sharing ideas across business units,” you could say, or “Mary was transferred because she is one of our best, but to move forward in this organization, you need global experience.”
Ultimately, such candour gives employees the tools with which they can control their own destinies. They know which kinds of behaviour are rewarded by the company and which are not, instead of having to guess. That knowledge allows them to make adjustments, if needed, and plan the years ahead accordingly. It gives them agency.
As for the New Yorker’s dilemma about managing employees who are doing boring work: Again, if you start from the perspective of treating people with dignity, the solution becomes clear. As a leader, it is imperative that you find ways to infuse the work with excitement and meaning, no matter how mundane it is. So celebrate small victories and milestones, and reward employees who outperform the norm. And here is an opportunity to give people a chance to be heard: Hold brainstorming sessions regularly, and when individuals come up with process improvements, honour them as heroes.
Sounds daunting? It is. But being a manager requires that you energize and engage your team, encouraging each person to take pride in what they do.
And then, as per the letter from India, there is the matter of the Dead Man Walking boss—an all-too-common scenario in recessionary times such as these, as companies continually look for ways to cut costs. Sometimes purges are necessary to remove incompetent managers, but just as often, they usher out good people who haven’t performed quite well enough.
In such cases, it is only human to want to keep your distance from the person whose job is no longer secure. People don’t want to be associated with a goner, or they simply don’t know what to say. It’s just so awkward. And so they hunker down in their offices or quietly start to ingratiate themselves with the boss’ boss, just in case.
Try something else. Start a conversation with the outgoing boss, make eye contact and resist the temptation to avoid the issue in every email. Your compassion will help to keep your team on track, and for years to come, your decency will be remembered, testament to your character.
Look, our goal here is not to just remind everyone to play nice, and some might be wondering whether we are going to discuss helping companies to win. But giving employees opportunities to voice their opinions and treating them with respect, very fortunately, does just that.
When you have got a question about your people, no matter what it is, these two principles are a big part of the answer.
Write to Jack & Suzy
Jack and Suzy are eager to hear about your career dilemmas and challenges at work, and look forward to answering some of your questions in future columns. Jack and Suzy Welch are the authors of the international best-seller, Winning. Their latest book is Winning: The Answers: Confronting 74 of the Toughest Questions in Business Today. Mint readers can email them questions at winning@livemint.com Please include your name, occupation and city. Only select questions will be answered.
©2009/By NYT Syndicate
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First Published: Mon, Jun 15 2009. 12 55 AM IST