Managing Your Most Important Employee

Before you try to manage your employees, learn to manage yourself.
4 min read
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Q: As a small-business owner I sometimes feel pulled in a thousand directions. Running a business means I have to meet dozens of different demands on a daily basis. What can I do to polish my personal management skills?

A: One of the most difficult aspects of running a small business is getting yourself to do what you know you need to do. You can read dozens of management books and attend dozens of leadership seminars to expand your knowledge, but unless you know how to motivate yourself to put that information into action, all your efforts will be wasted.

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Self-management is a skill. While it has always been important, it's particularly important today with the many demands of an ever-changing workplace. Multitasking, a concept unknown 10 years ago, is a requirement for anyone who wants to be successful in business today. When you have many tasks to do, the tendency is to prioritize them and start with what you consider to be the number-one priority. While common sense would tell you this is the most efficient and effective way to organize your responsibilities, the science of behavior analysis tells us that it isn't necessarily so.

Behavioral psychologist Dr. David Premack discovered 40 years ago that performing desirable behavior can be used as a positive reinforcement for performing less desirable behavior. In other words, eating an ice cream cone can be a positive reinforcement for weeding the garden. By telling yourself you must finish weeding before you can eat ice cream, you can motivate yourself to finish a task you're struggling to complete.

In the business world, you may enjoy tackling an exciting new project for a good client, but you probably dislike giving your employees performance appraisals. By telling yourself, "Before I let myself begin that project for Client X, I've got to handle Jim's performance appraisal," you'll be managing your behavior in a way that enables you to perform an important responsibility you've been putting off-probably for months.

This system of self-management is known as the Premack Principle and is the result of Dr. Premack's research in the science of behavior analysis. Here's how you can put this principle into action: Each day make a list of the tasks you have to accomplish for the day. Put each on a 3-by-5-inch index card. Include meetings, calls, e-mail and all the other responsibilities you regularly handle. Sort them beginning with the task you most want to do to the one you least want to do.

Begin your day with the one on the bottom. Notice what happens as you complete each task. Each task that follows is more desirable than the one before it. Most people start at the top of their list with the activity they enjoy the most. Notice what happens when you do that. Each task becomes less desirable. By starting at the top, you're inadvertently setting up a punishment system and you end up procrastinating. By starting at the bottom, you create a positive reinforcement system. Each time you complete a task, you're motivated to move on to a more desirable task through positive reinforcement. The more you do, the better you feel. I promise that if you start practicing the Premack Principle today, you'll find that you'll at least double your efficiency.

Try Reading
First Things First by Stephen R. Covey, A. Roger Merill and Rebecca R. Merrill
Home-Based Business Mom: A Basic Guide to Time Management and Organization for the Working Woman by Julie Shulem

Aubrey C. Daniels, Ph.D., founder and CEO of management consulting firm Aubrey Daniels & Associates (ADA), is an internationally recognized author, speaker and expert on management and human performance issues. For more about ADA's seminars and consulting services or to order Aubrey's bookBringing Out the Best in People: How To Apply The Astonishing Power of Positive Reinforcement, visit, or contact Laura Lee Glass at (800) 223-6191 or

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author, not of All answers are intended to be general in nature, without regard to specific geographical areas or circumstances, and should only be relied upon after consulting an appropriate expert, such as an attorney or accountant.

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