Be a Manager, Not a Police Officer

If you only jump in when employees have done something wrong, then it's time to take a closer look at your management style.

By Alex Hiam • Oct 10, 2007 Originally published May 5, 2002

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Q: My employees mess up whenever I turn my back. They can't even take a customer phone call properly unless I'm watching. What can I do?

A: You're a lot more motivated than your employees are, and it's your desire to do good work that gets the job done. What you need to do is share this desire with your employees.

To start with, communicate more information about what needs to be done--especially why it should be done that way. Most employees will say their job is, oh, for example, "to answer the phone," but most business owners will say the job is really something quite different, since you don't get rich by answering a phone. Perhaps the real job is to make sure customers are happy and eager to do business again.

Perhaps this scenario sounds familiar: "But you said I was just supposed to answer the phone," the employee says. "You never said anything about making sales. Besides, this customer wasn't looking to place an order, she was just complaining about something stupid."

"Like what?" you ask with a sinking feeling, knowing full well no customer complaint is stupid if you want to win more business in the future.

"Well," the employee goes on, "it was just something about a late shipment, but I told them it's not my responsibility if UPS sometimes loses stuff. Besides, those things usually show up a day or two later, so I figured if we didn't hear back, it must be OK."

If this has ever happened at your business, you know that at this point you'd be steaming, and somebody would be getting a good dressing-down. But unfortunately, that doesn't do a bit of good. It might even hurt. That's because when things go this way--as they so often do--the manager only gets involved after there's been a lapse. That throws him into the role of policing behavior, which pushes employees into the role of avoiding the police. If you think this approach will work, stop and ask yourself how many parking tickets the police write each day in the United States, and how many more they would have to write before they changed people's parking behaviors.

Let's go back to the strategy that turns employee motivation on. Take a deep breath, kick the wastepaper basket if need be, and then explain, clearly and politely, what you think about when you take a customer call.

Tell some stories about where good customers came from--how a happy customer referred someone to you, or how a two-bit irritating customer you almost (but not quite) blew off later placed the biggest order you'd ever seen. Keep talking until you've clearly conveyed your big-picture understanding of the lowly customer call.

And then tell the employee how you track your own success. Because you do, at least informally. For instance, in the example of a customer call, you probably have some criteria like:

  • Have I answered her question or objection to her satisfaction?
  • Did it sound like she was smiling by the time she hung up the phone?
  • Did I thank her for her business and ask if she wanted anything else?

When you can answer yes to these questions, then you know you're moving toward your goal of a happy customer who will help build your business. And when you communicate this richer understanding of this task, your employees are more likely to enjoy the pursuit of that big-picture success, too. (Why not post those questions above the phone?)

Nobody is going to be excited about answering a phone. Your job as a leader is to transform that lowly activity into the exciting challenge you see in it. When your employees see that challenge through your eyes, they will want to do it well, too.

Alex Hiam runs a consulting/training firm that focuses on increasing human performance in businesses. He is also the author of numerous books on management, motivation and marketing, includingMaking Horses Drink: How to Lead and Succeed in Business.

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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