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Managing people, making a difference

Tug of war

Managing people within the South African labour-legislation framework can become a nightmare of us versus them, management against the unions, the boss cajoling employees. It may be any or all of these, but that is not where it starts or where it has to end.

People management is key to running your business or organisation and achieving the goals you have set (including making a profit). Understanding the all-important employment relationship is critical to your success.

Employment is a contract
First of all, an employment relationship is a contractual relationship. But it is complicated because it is constantly evolving. 

It may have started life as a written letter of appointment, but it quickly evolves into whatever you and your employees have allowed it to become, and what the changing environment requires. As changes happen, as new technology takes effect, as rules are relaxed or ignored, the expectations on both sides may be different from what was originally written. 

Employment is a relationship
Second, the relationship is just that — a relationship. 
It is much more complicated than a simple, ‘We’re paying you to do as you’re told.’ 

Some managers think that paying the agreed salary is all the company has to do; the rest is up to the employee. But money is not what it’s about, although it may have started out like that. 

I have previously written about a Facebook update that read, ‘Sam needs a job, asap. Any openings?’ (see Employment: passion, experience or any old job?Even if Sam found a job that paid him what he needed, reality would soon set in. An extended daily commute, for example, always sounds like a piece of cake during the interview, especially if the job comes with a high enough salary. But many is the new employee who started looking elsewhere when the kilometres started to add up, and the hours spent in the car began to grind away.

Reducing the relationship to money alone ignores the power an employee has to make a difference. Employees can do as they are told, or go the extra mile. They can commit heart and soul, or just do the necessary while looking around for something better. Your job as manager is to ensure that the ‘something better’ is here, in your company, doing more and better than either of you thought possible.

Employment is about making a difference
Third, however much we would like employees to commit 110 per cent to the job without being asked, it is unlikely to happen. For a host of reasons the majority of employees wait to be told and don’t take the initiative. 

For one, why should they? If you think that merely paying their salary fulfils your side of the contract, why should the employee do more than the contract requires?  Why should the employee pull out all the stops to do excellent work when you haven’t done any more than fulfil your minimum obligations?

There is another important reason why employees do not go the extra mile and do more than you specifically direct them to do. It is simply that they don’t know how. Excellent work is always a balance of quantity and quality. What is the balance? 

For example, one employee is meticulous and will spend hours on a report, never making a mistake but failing to meet deadlines. Another will race through dozens of reports leaving much editing and rewriting to be done. Both are working hard, perhaps long hours, doing what they know and trying to please. Neither knows what the right balance is or how to adjust, how to adapt their nature. That is your job. 

Work with your employees. Help them see the business from your perspective. Help them make the difference they can and want to make.

(Image courtesy of Stuart Miles /

Ian Webster

From Methodist minister to Customer Relations manager in a computer bureau to HR Manager in a newspaper printing and publishing company. Now focussing on training and developing people, people-management consulting and writing and editing.

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