500 Words: Leading a Team

Be careful not to deny the humanity of your crew/staff/team.  A leader’s insatiable desire for efficiency or excellence will always be at tension with the fact that the folks being led are HUMAN.    This is why the Chinese factories whose employees work 18hr shifts with no bathroom breaks are in the news.  This is also why teams on the shop floors call accountants “bean counters” (to deny the humanity of those who see the business as numbers rather than people)

Human imperfection is a reality. It’s even in the Bible.  The best solution for human imperfection we have is teamwork. And when the team is comprised of professionals, that teamwork requires trust; which always requires a relationship. That relationship is antagonized when leadership (or management) dehumanizes the team through policy, tone of voice, or hierarchy.

In case you think I’m speculating, I’m not.   The more tightly you control your team, the more you deny their humanity.  Humans have opinions, humans have feelings, and humans have prior experience which may benefit you; if you let it.  The shop foreman who has a policy about how to place pens on work benches probably thinks that the uniformity of the workspace is valuable; but if the workspace is a manufacturing plant; the primary value is in what is being manufactured.  If those are skilled laborers, performing tasks that are integral to the success of the product,  the manager needs the workers more than the workers need the manager.  In that case, antagonizing the relationship is bad for business, because the product’s success depends on its quality- quality that needs scores of eyes that care about it being quality in order to ensure the quality standards are met/exceeded.  In essence, unless the foreman is going to personally inspect every weld on every piece in every shipment, he needs the team to take ownership of those pieces, if he needs their ‘buy-in’ he best stay out of the way when it comes to where they place their pens.


BUT, you say, my product relies on efficiency!  We have to be fast and cheap,  because that’s what our market dictates!  In that case, I think your job as a leader is to find ways to treat your workers more humanely, building a workplace where people want to be.  Look for ways to soften the system in place: things like start times, flex-time, productivity rewards, or efficiency bonuses.

As the leader, find markets that will enable you to treat your team as human beings.  If you can’t afford to treat your employees like humans, you need a new plan!  You stepped over a dead canary when you went to work this morning. Find some sweet spots where your team’s expertise is a competitive advantage.  Anybody trying for Fast & Cheap is going to wind up moving their factory to China or buying robots. (the ultimate dehumanization: treat your employees like machines until you make enough profit to replace them with a machine).

The End.