AIN Blog: Six Ways To Build a Workplace that Works

 - July 13, 2015, 11:28 AM
Illustration: John T. Lewis
Illustration: John T. Lewis

My late father, Chester Burger, published the first of his books about management, Survival in the Executive Jungle, in 1964. At the time, I was more interested in surviving high school, so I paid attention to the book mostly just because my dad had written it. I also liked that he’d slipped in my first and middle names as a pseudonym for one of the incompetent executives he described in its pages.

When I grew a little older and read the book more carefully, I was amazed at just how many such executives he discussed. Could there really be that many of them in positions of authority? Then I grew older still and experience gave me the answer: yup.

What does it take to be a good manager? My father and his books provided some ideas, but I began to develop a few of my own after I started editing magazines and managing people myself. Here are half a dozen principles that have served me well. You’ve undoubtedly already heard variations of most of them but judging by what I’ve seen over the years, they all bear repeating:

1. Hire carefully. Firing can be so tough that many companies keep employees around long after it becomes obvious they’re not working out. That’s why it’s crucial to avoid problems up front by hiring prudently. Consider using multiple interviewers as well as giving trial assignments. In my view, there’s nothing you can do to ensure the success of an enterprise that’s more important than assembling the right team.

2. Invite everyone’s ideas. Maybe a junior sales executive has a suggestion for the manufacturing department, or someone on the design team has a plan to boost sales. Make it easy for people to be heard regardless of their level or area of responsibility. They’ll be grateful for the opportunity to contribute. And you need all the good ideas you can get. So make it clear that all suggestions are welcome—even the ones that might initially seem a little wild. Some of the best ideas are the “crazy” ones, and the riskiest route is to focus on playing it safe.

3. Deemphasize the time clock. Unless your business requires a physical presence during certain hours, pay less attention to when your salaried employees come and go than to what they accomplish. In many companies, “office hours” should mean when your building is open, not necessarily when your staff should be on the premises. If they’re delivering first-rate work and meeting deadlines, give them the flexibility to arrive late or leave early when necessary, or to do the job from home. They’ll appreciate the freedom and your trust and will likely work harder as a result. If not, they probably shouldn’t be in your employ in the first place.

4. Let people do their jobs. I’d hesitate to restate the old advice about not micromanaging if there weren’t so many executives who still aren’t heeding it. By not micromanaging, you’ll not only save yourself time; you’ll save yourself from an unhappy workforce. People who feel they have no authority and no stake in the enterprise won’t care much about its success or enjoy contributing to it. You’re paying people to do a job; get your money’s worth by letting them do it. And don’t overrule someone just because you like your own approach slightly better. Having it your way is often not worth the impact on morale; besides, the staffer’s plan may turn out to be better than yours.

5. Seek solutions, not culprits. If one employee screws up repeatedly, you know what you have to do. But we all make mistakes from time to time and if errors typically result in pointed fingers, you’ll do little but destroy morale. When a mistake happens, don’t ask, “Who messed up?” Instead say, “What can we all do to prevent this from happening again?”  

6. Focus on helping others. People appreciate praise and rarely receive enough of it. Spend your time thanking staffers for their good work rather than promoting yourself and you’ll win friends while boosting employee morale. It may seem counterintuitive, but if you concentrate on valuing the people you manage and finding ways to advance their careers rather than your own, your future will take care of itself. As a bonus, you’ll likely find work less stressful and more satisfying.

I’ve heard all sorts of schemes for managing employees and increasing their productivity: put everyone in cubicles, try a new-fangled review process, schedule staff retreats for “bonding”—the list goes on. Forget the fads and quick fixes, most of which do more to sell books and consulting services than to foster a successful work environment. Instead, simply hire smart, motivated, creative people; give them the power to make a difference; and let them know you appreciate their efforts. It’s amazing how much you can accomplish in a workplace like that. It’s also amazing how many workplaces aren’t like that.