If you keep a goldfish in a dark room, it will eventually turn white

On his fifth day of work it became clear that he was going to catch up on his reading. During each of his 5 short days of work, he had read the entire newspaper every morning, along with all of the dusty business magazines lying around. He also found a book left behind by a former employee about Learning Organizations and had memorized, up to page 26, the finer points of "Team Development," such as, "Simple clarity and assimilation of company standards and goals leads to motivated people, right?" - Just ask him.

He was hired to replace an employee who quit to go work for some unidentified reasons. Turnover at this particular company is high. In just three short months he is enjoying status as a veteran employee, a standing that seems to include two-hour lunches and a state of invisibility at precisely 10 minutes before quitting time everyday. New staff members can't help but notice his reading and lunch-break habits.

One Friday evening the newest employee, hired only a week earlier, suddenly finds herself as the only person left at work when it comes time to lock the doors for the night. She forgoes the standard half-hour closedown procedure, which includes backing up servers and switching the phone system to an after hours answering machine. Since she doesn't really know the process anyway, she simply locks the doors behind her as she leaves for her yoga class. She decides then and there never again to be caught as the last person in the office. The example had been set, and she is going to follow it.

The following Friday, at 5:01 p.m., one minute after closing time, the phone rings. The person calling is a new client who is checking on the status of an already late order. The phone keeps ringing until the frustrated customer hangs up, deciding to take his business elsewhere. No one is there to answer the phone and the after hours answering message has not been turned on.

What's wrong with this picture?

In most any team environment, prevailing attitudes perpetuate, habits develop, standards are set, and the team evolves as a unit. This chain of circumstances has been going on for thousands of years on millions of teams. If prevailing attitudes take a positive path, you end up with a great team that gets the job done effectively and efficiently. Such a scenario usually includes a skilled coach at the helm. If negativity swallows the team's work ethic, you end up with a group similar to the one discussed at the beginning of this story. What causes this kind of staff development (or lack thereof)? Or better yet, how do you, as the project manager, establish good work habits?

These days it's tough to staff a business with exemplary employees. While it would be great to hire staff and immediately turn them loose to tackle their job so you can get back to pressing projects, it's quite normal to practice a little micro-management. This includes following up on people, watching what they do, and steering them in the right direction. But, of course, if you steer too much, making it obvious that you're watching too closely, you'll do a good job of further empowering rebellious attitudes.

When this happens, the moment you turn your back the slacking begins, magazines are picked up and thumbed through, giggling conversations ensue, work is ignored. How do you keep this from festering into a gaping wound that devours your business’s reputation and eats your profits? How can you step back from micro managing?

As a project manager, what's your incentive to be a good employee? I won't be presumptuous enough to answer that for you. The point is, something motivates you, or you wouldn't be doing what you're doing; you wouldn't be trying to build a better business.

Then there's peer pressure... how do you use peer pressure to your advantage? How do you keep peer pressure from manifesting itself negatively, as it has in his workplace? Peer pressure, of course, happens in a group. The stereotypical example goes something like this: some of the people in the group are having fun, the "fun" is witnessed by others in the group and these others want to join in so they can therefore fit in. No mystery there, and I'm certainly not dispensing brilliant psychology. But let's take a look at some ways to encourage your staff to motivate each other.

Get your staff out doing something in a group. Go to a movie, go hiking, drinking at the bar, or even golfing; almost any activity works as long as the group goes together.

After the outing, gather the crew at the next staff meeting and talk about what you all did. Did anyone have fun? See if others have ideas for similar outings in the future. Establish some regular staff recreation. Perhaps enact an informal rule that the outing must be something different each time, at least for awhile.

When you bring your staff together as a team out side of work, that team spirit automatically transfers to the work environment. Friendly competition that develops in the recreation atmosphere, such as bowling, will carry over to your business.

When you see this trend growing, try to establish incentive programs based on performance at the workplace. But it's got to be driven by fun, not necessarily by money. What about lunch for every staff member if sales hits a certain mark? Of course there will be those who don't pull their weight to achieve the group incentive. Talk to them about it one on one. Give them a chance to tell their side of the story. Maybe they need help or tutoring from staff members who do excel.

You can't force friendships, but if your employees are at least pleasant acquaintances, competing for work-related incentives will become that much more pleasant. Peer pressure will drive them to do their best. Maybe your new program will include an incentive for the most improved employee, or perhaps reward the employee most helpful to other staff members.

Soon you can put the time that used to be consumed by micro-managing into creating incentives, establishing clear employee guidelines, and inventing simple rewards. What will you do for your team members if they get the business where it needs to be in the long run? Don't answer that yet.

Start small with incentives, go slowly, and let the incentive plan develop on its own with the help of the employees' input. Go ahead, gather the team, go do something fun, and see what happens from there. Your staff is your greatest asset, but their motivation does require some cultivating. That cultivation won't happen on its own. Step up to the plate and get the incentive plan rolling.

Say, nobody ever washes a rental car



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