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Employees vs Machines

 A CEO client was lamenting the challenges he was facing with his work force, and in frustration he said to me, "I wish my employees were robots so I could program them to do what they're supposed to do and turn them off when I don't need them."

 He was kidding, of course. But some companies do treat employees like machines. Wise executives know that managing people is much more complex than maintaining machinery, but it is also more rewarding. 

There might be some advantages to having robotic employees with on/off switches and other machine-like qualities. For example:
  • They would perform at the same rate of speed and the same level of quality for as long as required.
  • If they broke down, we could call in a repair person to correct any problems.
  • We wouldn't have to worry about hurting their feelings or offending their egos.
  • We wouldn't have to be concerned with overworking them.
  • We wouldn't have to invest energy in getting to know them.
 But let's also consider the disadvantages:
  • Machines can't be dedicated to a mission.
  • Machines can't give us feedback and tell us what works and what doesn't.
  • Machines can't take the initiative; they only do what we program them to do.
  • Machines can't exchange ideas among themselves for improved performance.
Because machines can't think, they need to be programmed. Because employees can think, they need to be educated.

If we're training our employees to perform repetitive tasks instead of educating them to think and act innovatively, then we're treating them like machines and depriving ourselves of the powerful contributions of the human mind.

But having an educated work force doesn't, by itself, guarantee high-level productivity and quality. How we lead and manage that work force determines whether we get the best from it.

As I work with executives on the development of peak-performance teams, I often share with them these seven tips for getting the most from their employees.


The machinery tends to function smoothly when the people who run it function smoothly. Dealing with production problems without dealing with the human element is like dealing with a flat tire without dealing with air. The finest steel-belted radial is worthless without the air that holds it up. The finest physical plant and equipment are worthless without the people who keep them operating.

In an interview with Harvard Business Review, Robert Haas, former Chairman of Levi Strauss, called production management " the hard stuff" and people management "the soft stuff."

Under the old philosophy at Levi Strauss, he said, "The soft stuff was the company's commitment to our work force. And the hard stuff was what really mattered: getting pants out the door. What we've learned is that the soft stuff and the hard stuff are becoming increasingly intertwined."


Abraham Maslow taught us that humans, after they have satisfied their basic needs, exert themselves toward higher aspirations. They seek "self actualization" -- becoming the best that they can be. We can inspire people by showing them how to be their very best.

Executives can inspire employees by giving them a cause to rally behind: an inspiring corporate vision and mission based on values the employees can identify with.



You don't gain respect by sitting in an ivory tower and looking down on the work floor. Be accessible to employees and let them see your human side.

Employees are turned off by executives who pretend to be infallible. Observe high standards of personal conduct, but let your employees know that you're human. Talk to them about your bad decisions as well as your good ones. When you blow it, grin and admit it. Your employees will respect you for it.


Once, on a televised tour of a plant, Remington CEO Victor Kiam stepped off-camera to ask a woman employee about her ailing husband. He told her not to try to carry the burden alone. The company was there to help. Later, the woman told an observer that she would do anything for Kiam.

That kind of loyalty isn't earned by prickly, aloof executives. Kiam obviously had taken the time to mingle with employees and talk to them about their problems.


Robert W. Reasoner, a California school superintendent, who headed a statewide task force on self-esteem, identified five basic attitudes that foster self-esteem. They are a sense of security, a sense of identity, a sense of belonging, a sense of purpose, and a sense of personal competence.

Secure people are comfortable with who they are and with what others think about them. They know their roles in the organization and are confident that they can fill them.

People with a sense of identity know how they fit into the work place and how the work place fits into their lives. To them, work takes its place among family, friends and community as an important and fulfilling component of their lives.

When our employees have a sense of belonging, they identify with the company's vision and goals, because these things have personal meaning for them. They personally share in the success and the prestige of the company.

Employees obtain a sense of purpose from knowing the company's goals and knowing how their efforts contribute toward those goals. We need to take employees into our confidence and give them a role in planning and goal-setting.

We can give our employees a sense of personal competence by educating them for their jobs and giving them the freedom to succeed or fail on their own.


Medtronic, Inc., of Minneapolis has a heartwarming way of dramatizing the importance of what its employees do. Each year at Christmas time, the company holds a party for employees, and guests of honor are people whose lives have been prolonged by Medtronic cardio-pulmonary devices.

Stew Leonard, the grocery-store wizard from Connecticut, told me he refuses to use job titles that he perceives as demeaning. Once he noticed a job listed as "popcorn maker." He immediately ordered a more dignified title. How would you feel if someone asked you what you did for a living and you had to answer, "I'm a popcorn maker"?


Executives should be accessible to their leadership teams. Let your staff and associates know they can come to you with problems, concerns, ideas, suggestions or complaints. If they bring you usable ideas, adopt the ideas and give the employees credit.

Welcome bad news as well as the good. What you don't know can hurt you. Don't ignore complaints. Listen to them. Find out what you can do to rectify matters, let the employees know what you plan to do -- and do it.

That's good people management. Machines don't need that kind of attention. But machines don't innovate, design, solve problems or sell and market products, either.

copyright Nido R Qubein

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