People – the cost of treating them as costs

20130129-154842.jpg A headline in the business section of a national newspaper recently caught my attention. It read: “Company reports rise in profits despite employee numbers increasing”. The inference seemed to be that the company employees had no role to play in the company’s success; in fact it appeared to suggest that company profits might have been even higher were it not for the increase in the number of employees. While one might be tempted to blame sloppy editing I think there is a lot to be considered in the thinking behind this type of narrative. Is the underlying motto “Maximise profits and minimise employees”? Think about this before answering. Some commentators might like to soften the language by replacing “minimise” with “optimise” but the tenet is basically the same.

I detect a worrying shift in business language since the onset of the recession. There has been a tendency to revert to a Command and Control view of management where employees are expected to be motivated by the fact that “at least they have a job”. This is hardly sustainable in the long run. Of course, companies need clear direction and tighter cost control in these circumstances but does this mean that employees should now be seen purely as costs? Does it have to be like this is a recession? I would argue that of course it doesn’t. In fact, during a recession, you need employees to be even more empowered, more committed and more engaged. In addition, you won’t want to lose them when things start to pick up and you really need them to grow the business. Your competitors, who will also be growing, will very happily take these experienced employees away from you (probably without even offering extra money, just a better place to work).

I believe that managers may be tempted to avoid the people management aspects of their jobs in favour of task management. In other words, a return to the comfort zone. But, here’s the point, it’s during the tough times that the real leaders emerge; leaders who can deliver the bad news but still bring their staff with them, provide clear vision and actually increase loyalty. Unfortunately we may have to wait for the recession to be over before we will be able to see the fruits of their labours.

In a nutshell, you should grasp the opportunity to be the leader that your employees deserve. They will stand by you in the good times if you stand by them in the bad times. Tough decisions have to be made but that doesn’t mean you have to be tough on people. Treat them as assets, not costs.

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