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Your apathetic employees can bring your business to its knees

Feb 02, 2014 Management, Sunday Nation

During the recent holiday season, I took a taxi from the hotel where I was staying, to go and visit a nearby shopping mall.

The driver was courteous and polite. He maintained a very clean and pleasing vehicle. He was solicitous and considerate, and did everything possible for his customer’s convenience, such as driving carefully, maintaining a good air-conditioning system, and keeping some newspapers and sight-seeing brochures in his car as reading material.

I then arrived at a certain shop specializing in high-end clothing at the mall. Two shop assistants were seated at the desk. Both were busy chatting loudly and animatedly about what what was evidently an intensely personal matter. Neither looked up, even to make eye contact. I looked around the shop; it had some good brands and decent merchandise. I wondered about sizes; but neither ‘assistant’ interrupted the flow of chatter to come over to offer ‘assistance.’ I decided not to support this particular venture, and left. The shop was, in any case, empty of customers. And for good reason.

The taxi driver was alert, and signalled when he saw me. He had parked the car under a tree and kept all the windows open, to keep it cool. After arriving back at the hotel, he offered me a business card, which I made sure I kept safe for the future. The shop, on the other hand, is not one I will visit again.

So what’s the difference between the taxi driver and the shop assistants? First, the obvious one: the taxi driver runs his own business; the shop assistants don’t. The taxi driver has ‘skin in the game:’ he earns or burns on the decisions he makes. If he conducts a good business and puts in the hard work and maintains high standards, his children get to eat well and go to school. A few days’ lost business, on the other hand, can be catastrophic.

The shop assistants, meanwhile, are reluctant recruits in someone else’s business dream. They don’t feel any immediate pain or gain from what they do on a given day. It takes a while for their behaviour to translate into personal consequences – if at all.

So is the lesson of my little outing that people who own businesses are more motivated than those who don’t? Well, sort of. Human life is ruled by incentives, after all. But that alone is too simple an argument. We have all sat in taxis that are decrepit and dirty, and are driven by lifelong sourpusses. Equally, we all have encountered shop assistants who are perky, helpful and cheerful at all times.

I would venture even further to say that the taxi driver I encountered on that day would do a good job even if he took the place of those shop assistants. And that those two employees would make a thorough hash of any business, if they ever found the gumption to open one.

How we react to the world and situation around us is very much a personal deal. If we have high standards, we tend to have them in whatever we put our mind to doing. If we are lazy and whiny about life, we tend to bring that behaviour to everything.

This is something that thoughtful business owners need to consider very carefully. Those uninterested folks you leave to run your businesses on their own? They can bring it to its knees, simply by not giving a damn. You have to select your people very carefully, and introduce some serious incentives to perform – not just pecuniary rewards, but the harder stuff: a sense of belonging, and a feeling of participation in a bigger deal than mere employment.

Now that stuff is tough. Which is why so many of our establishments remain populated with couldn’t-care-less employees. Is yours? If so, a leader has failed somewhere.

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