Small Business Owners: Don’t Be a Jerk.

Steve Strauss’ Ask an Expert column in today’s USAToday gives an interesting, but debatable, piece of advice to small business owners: sometimes you just “gotta be a jerk.”  I whole-heartedly disagree with the concept.  Read on to find out why “the tough guy” makes a terrible leader.

A small business owner and reader of Mr. Strauss’ column asks a very salient question: What does a small business owner do with an employee who performs well, but who also exhibits signs of a lax work ethic (e.g. coming in late, calling in sick too much, spending too much time on non work-related activities)?  Should the owner allow the employee to get away with undesirable behaviors in favor of retaining her top producer?

Mr. Strauss offers the following answer:

You are not in business to make friends with your staff. You are in business to make a profit, and the fact is, making a profit is easier when everyone is on the same page. So that begs the question: How do you get them on the same page?

By being the boss, that’s how.

Sometimes you get people on the same page by coaxing them along. Sometimes it is by offering incentives. Often it is by being a mensch. But sometimes, it is by being the tough guy.

The employee who is taking advantage of your kindness is akin to the unruly child whose parents do not know how to set limits. And it is only by setting limits that that child learns a) what is expected, and b) who is really in charge.

Mr. Strauss’ authoritarian view of small business relationships is old-school, at best, and disastrous, at worst.  By following this advice, a small business owner would likely drive her top producer away, rather than motivate the employee to stay.  Mr. Strauss fails to realize that small businesses survive because of good leaders, and that good leaders do not act the way he is suggesting.

Here are a few things for small business owners to keep in mind when deciding how to treat their employees.

1. Good leaders know that there is no “I” in Small Business.

You might be in business to make a profit, but you wouldn’t be making a profit if not for the work of your dedicated employees.  Teamwork is key for any small business.  If one employee’s behavior is causing the rest of the group to be jealous, unmotivated or resentful, then you need to fix the problem. You can either allow everyone to be late or call in sick all the time (which you probably don’t want to do), or you can incentivize to reward employees for the work they put in.  You can involve your employees in setting up goals and choosing corresponding rewards.  Make employees be accountable to themselves, as well as to you.  They’ll be happier than if you simply told them what to do.

2. Good leaders don’t say “Because I said so.”

You could boss employees around like a jerk, but that would just create more work for you in the long run.  You don’t want to micro-manage—that eats up a lot of your time and energy.  The best way to get employees to think and act the way you want them to is to lead by example.  If you’re taking two-hour lunches every day, don’t demand that your employees clock in/out on their lunch hour.  Nobody wants to work for a hypocrite, so don’t be one.

3. Good leaders pick their battles wisely.

Sure, you could berate an employee every time he’s late, but what would be the point?  Think about the larger aim of getting your employee to be more productive.  Being late means less time spent working and less productivity overall.  With an incentive program in place, you could remind your employee that more productivity equals greater rewards (positive reinforcement).  Also, show a bit of empathy and understanding.  If an employee is calling in sick a lot, he may actually be sick.  Or depressed. Or any of a number of physical or emotional things.  Be lenient, but also reiterate what you expect of the employee.  In a small business, chances are that one person’s work (or lack thereof) will significantly impact everyone else’s.

4. Good leaders focus on character traits more than rules.

Sure, you could create a bunch of rules, but you’re a small business owner (damn it)—not a legislator.  If you have to create a book of rules in order to make sure that your employees act a certain way, then you’re essentially treating your employees like children (which is what Mr. Strauss advocates).  You want to hire people who have good character traits (i.e. honest, hardworking, and reliable) because they will make better employees than others who need their hands held.  In general, if an employee is behaving inappropriately or has a poor work ethic, you should probably just fire him/her and find someone with a better attitude.  It’ll save you time, money and a giant headache.

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