The Appleton Column: Employee relations

By Helen Wright and Kevin Appleton02 November 2015

Kevin Appleton, IRN columnist and former CEO of Lavendon Group.

Kevin Appleton, IRN columnist and former CEO of Lavendon Group.

We work in a highly capital intensive industry, which means that a substantial slice of our total costs - usually between 15% and 30% - is accounted for by depreciation.

Invariably the next most significant cost in our profit and loss accounts is people. So, at least from an accounting perspective, people are often not our greatest asset!

Few would argue, though, that people are absolutely critical to making the difference between a highly successful rental business and one that just bumbles along. Let’s consider how we can influence the way our people think and behave.

The first thing is to recognise that business cultures - the aggregate of the normative behaviours of people in a company - take a long time to build but a much shorter time to break.

It is important, therefore, to recognise that if you are in a leadership position you are unlikely to see profound shifts in culture overnight. In my experience, 18 months might see the emergence of some noticeable, positive new cultural behaviours, but it is probably five years before these are cemented into an organisation.

Human beings are better at getting worse, however. If a strong, positive culture is attacked and undermined, or just ignored, the resulting moral chaos allows room for our worst characteristics to come to the fore. “Good” companies can become solidly “bad” companies in two to three years.

Culture might seem an odd place to start when thinking about getting the most from our people, but I think it’s crucial. Tony Robbins, a motivational speaker, identifies six emotional needs that all humans, at least in western societies, look to for fulfilment.

I suspect Mr Robbins and I would disagree on many things, but I find this a compelling list. If you have a business culture that puts these things in place, the motivation and engagement levels of your team will probably be superior to the market average.

Certainty - there must be sufficient “givens” and predictability in the way a business is run that people are not continually bewildered. This could be the way in which salaries are paid, disciplinary issues are dealt with, or pricing strategy is executed, but some degree of stability is a necessary base.

Variety - while people crave some stability, we also like to explore. The opportunity for project assignments, to join in new initiatives and to welcome new colleagues is also an important part of feeling alive in a role.

Significance - treat people as if they matter. It still amazes me that senior managers can walk through a workshop, warehouse or office and not acknowledge the existence of people working there. Our humanity gives us many things more in common than our job titles do to separate us.

Connection - we want to be part of a family. If we feel cared for and, in turn, care about those around us, we will commit more of our discretionary effort to things.

Growth - giving people the opportunity to be the best that they can, making learning an essential part of what we do is critical. I’m talking learning in the broad sense, not just, or maybe even, training courses. Not everyone wants to be the CEO, but we can help them be a fantastic hire operator if that’s where they are happiest.

Contribution - we don’t want to think we are just working pointlessly until we retire and die. If we explain to a service engineer that their role is to ensure other workers can get through their day safely and efficiently, whilst also ensuring our company has a great reputation for quality of work, it is much more motivational than to say “your job is to fix these machines”.

It’s still the same job, but its significance is transformed by how we speak about it. Focus on emphasising the purpose of what we do, not the tasks we perform.

In businesses that get these things right, relations with staff, including through bodies like works councils or unions, become much more straightforward. Successful businesses try their best to relate to people as people, not “staff” or “the workforce” or, even worse, “the union” or “the works council”.

An old boss of mine once said “over time, managers get the employees they deserve”.

How true that still seems.

This is a column from the September/October issue of IRN. To read the full article, with extra images and information, subscribe to the magazine:

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