4 Tips to Creating an Environment That Enables People to Perform Their Best

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At the recommendation of a friend, a couple of years ago I read Matthew Crawford’s book, Shop Class as Soul Craft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work. Crawford left the life of an academic to repair motorcycles—which endeared his point of view to me right from the start. His treatise on the value of work calls into question whether or not what we call white collar work is of more value than what we call blue collar work. However that’s not why I bring it up today.

…but I wonder if it helped establish the notion that workers were nothing more than replaceable cogs in a much bigger machine…

Like others who’ve broached the subject over the years, he describes the evolution of our economy from an agrarian to an industrial economy and some of the struggles associated with the early years of the industrial age. What I found particularly interesting was how he identifies the similarities between current events and attitudes regarding today’s knowledge workers and their factory worker counterparts over 100 years ago.

Henry Ford’s assembly line may have made the manufacturing of inexpensive automobiles possible, but I wonder if it helped establish the notion that workers were nothing more than replaceable cogs in a much bigger machine. This is a notion with long-term detrimental effects on small business success and economic growth.

There are a lot of things about the workplace that I think are much better than they were 30 or so years ago when I entered the workforce. Unfortunately, there are other things that aren’t. Although we try to hire people based upon their smarts and expertise, far too many business leaders insist on a rigid adherence to the time for dollars contract. Not realizing that technology keeps people in an “always on” state, many employers expect instant access every time they send a text, write an email, or make a phone call. Believe it or not, there was a day when my employer didn’t have instant access to me after hours and on the weekend.

What’s more, the immediacy of the medium has negatively impacted the tone of our conversations. Sometimes in the heat of the moment, a terse email or text message can easily be misinterpreted—and have negative consequences.

I’m also concerned that the pace of life generally, combined with what appears to be an aversion of many small business owners (particularly in the tech world) to invest in anything more than a three to five year plan, has created an unhealthy environment where civility is thrown out the window because the need to show meteoric growth is more important than anything else.

In a competitive environment where hopefully the best (not just the best funded) products and services rise to the top, we need to focus on creating environments where we encourage collaboration, facilitate an atmosphere of innovation, and enable people to perform at their best.

A command-and-control leadership style does not do this—it handicaps it.

Of course there were rude and impatient bosses in the early part of my career. Employees just weren’t connected to them 24/7 with technology. Because we work in an age of instant messaging, email, and other almost instantaneous communication, we should take the time to make sure how we interact with our colleagues and employees reflects an attitude of common (maybe not so common now) courtesy. Here are a few suggestions to help do that:

  1. Take time to make communication clear, concise, and cordial: When timelines are truncated and employees are asked to do more and more, take an extra few seconds when writing an email or other communiqué to consider that your communication is going to a person. I like to begin every email with a salutation, which reminds me that I am writing to someone. The extra two or three seconds it takes me to address the person I’m writing to doesn’t negatively impact my productivity, but it does help me foster a productive and cordial working relationship.
  2. Take time to be polite: Within an imperfect world, sometimes-difficult decisions take place. That doesn’t mean we can throw civility out the window. There is nothing wrong with considering the feelings of someone needing correcting, regardless of how stupid you think they are or how big a mistake you think they’ve made. Being polite and considerate of each other is the very least we should be able to expect from our “professional” colleagues. Anything less is unproductive and immature.
  3. Remove the criticism from “constructive” criticism: I was taught early in my career, by friends and colleagues much wiser than myself, that “criticism” is never “constructive.” Fostering a creative environment where team members are creatively solving problems and pushing for excellence requires collaboration, not criticism. Where disagreements arise or a course correction is required, “I don’t like this,” should be followed by, “Here’s why, and here’s a suggestion as to how you might proceed.
  4. Remember that critique is always easier than execution: Theodore Roosevelt said, “It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause who, at the best knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.”

A few years back I worked with a boss who is a brilliant, but disrespectful, man. Despite his many talents, he did not work or play well with others. His confrontational leadership style basically stifled creativity and destroyed what had previously been a positive and engaging work environment. What’s worse, he and the rest of the executive team knew this was the case as 14 members of his 16-member team left the organization during his first six months. Not only was it difficult for a number of individual employees, the experiential knowledge lost in that mass migration likely hurt the organization.

American author Jean Kerr said, “Man is the only animal that learns by being hypocritical. He pretends to be polite and then, eventually, he becomes polite.”

What are you doing to encourage a courteous environment at work?

Small business evangelist and veteran of over 30 years in the trenches of Main Street business, Ty makes small business best practices, tips and advice accessible by weaving personal experiences, historical references and other anecdotes into relevant discussions about leading people, managing a business and what it takes to be successful. Ty writes about small business for Lendio.

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Ty Kiisel is a contributing author focusing on small business financing at OnDeck, a technology company solving small business’s biggest challenge: access to capital. With over 25 years of experience in the trenches of small business, Ty shares personal experiences and valuable tips to help small business owners become more financially responsible. OnDeck can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.