What Are We Doing To Our People?

The sixth President of the United States of America – John Quincy Adams – once famously said, “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.” Contemporary retail leadership teams talk a good game around these kinds of sentiments. But some of my recent encounters with big and small retailers make these claims sound increasingly hollow, resulting in three types of employee reactions.

Modern retail businesses are indisputably becoming over-burdened by a mixture of political correctness and intellectual blindness – often the outcome of theoretical processes created by people who have never run retail businesses nor had to deal with the pragmatism needed in the workplace to make it function, let alone become optimised.

With risk management, legal, governance, procurement and “human resources” departments making up the leading five major culprits, the employees that create the outputs trying to do the right thing by their business are left frustrated and stymied by disconnected roadblocks that in many cases seem to have no idea of the working realities, strategies nor goals of the very businesses they work for.

Often creating mini-fiefdoms and power plays, these ‘managers’ take decisions away from the very people corporations’ talk about ‘empowering’. Many of us are yet to see a risk evaluation process that entirely removes risk from a business; a legal process that eradicates legal threats; governance that eliminates issues like those we have seen in the Royal Commission into Financial Services; procurement processes that are fool-proof; and human resources departments that truly enable a productive, harmonious workforce from top to bottom.

Truth is, every employee working in a retail business is a manager of risk, legal, governance and compliance, procurement and the motivation and interaction with fellow human beings every single day of their working career. We have allowed a system to evolve that slows us down, adds complexity and cost and increases risk – supposedly the opposite of what we are targeting. And the reason we have allowed it to happen is grounded in fear.

As a result our employees have three reactions – they become Gamers, Survivors or Plodders. The Gamers play the politics for self-gain. The Survivors turn up each day and do the best they can. The Plodders keep a low profile and bank the cheque. None of them optimise the business or make it more productive because they are beaten into submission every day by the systems and processes they are forced to work within.

In todays retail environment fear must take a back seat and the business must become optimised and super productive or it will fail. That means taking the best from well-intentioned theories by adapting them in a pragmatic way that works for your business. It means truly ‘empowering’ your people and trusting them to make the business better. But most of all it means working hard to maintain a culture that gives and rewards your team for taking real, productive responsibility. It is true that not everybody is honest or has integrity. But 99% of your workforce does. Properly motivated and inspired you’ll be shocked at how productive they can be. The other 1% has no place in any business – let alone yours.

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