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We need a better approach to employment

Sep 22, 2013 Management, Sunday Nation

Last week we agreed: most employment is mostly awful. It requires you to park your humanity at the door and walk in as a human ‘resource,’ and exchange unwilling labour in return for monetary compensation.

Why is it like this? Because our attitudes towards management and work are rooted in a long-dead past: a past in which there were a few rich, educated, clever people and huge armies of poor, uneducated, ignorant people. The former naturally organized the latter as ‘resources’, in the same way they organized equipment and machinery.

That era, thankfully, is fading away. Human beings are way more educated, way more knowledgeable, way more exposed and way more connected than they were in that time of mass ignorance. In most organizations today, we can’t expect employees to be cheap, plentiful, undemanding and expendable.

And yet so many of us still run our corporations as though they were farms tilled by poor peasants or construction sites populated by beasts of burden masquerading as humans. If you still run your organization like that, its demise is not in question; only the time of death is.

In Africa we are supposed to be way behind the curve of development, and we are expected to accept timidly that we must still be backward in our view of employment. And so we find plenty of corporations with Big Men at the helm who take all the rewards and perks, and lots of employees who earn no more than their daily bread and who offer no more than the minimum effort.

If Africa wishes to compete, however, it will not do so on the basis of the low-cost advantage that such corporate dictatorships are organized to achieve. We will need to develop products that have winning features; customer experiences that are memorable; and brands that connect and resonate. And we are not going to deliver those things with armies of disgruntled, barely awake employees.

Once you appreciate that you employ a human being and not a human resource, you start to appreciate certain insights: that people do their best work when they feel involved and connected; that they bring their best side to work when they feel appreciated and rewarded; and that their primary motivators are intrinsic: a feeling of control; of personal growth; of involvement in a cause.

Contrary to the beliefs of some, these motivators need to act on every employee in the organization, from the cleaner upwards. They are not the preserve of the top cadre.

As more and more people leave the poverty line behind, we need to smarten up our views on management and leadership. Too many have viewed management as the exercising of power and control over the many by the few; too few have understood that it is more the development of a talented, engaged, purposeful collective force.

It may take time, but the organizations who grasp this difference early will win in the long run.

The rest? They will find that they lose customers because their employees couldn’t care less about serving them; that they can’t produce quality because no one cares about it; that even their star employees are mere mercenaries looking for the better pay package; and that half the workforce is moonlighting using company resources.

Lazy leaders will still reduce the employment contract to an obligation to exchange money for labour. The enlightened ones will do the harder work: of enrolling the hearts and minds of employees in a common mission; and of spending time coaching and mentoring people to succeed, rather than waiting for them to fail and be replaced.

It is time to understand the being behind the human, not just the resource standing in front of you. The best work happens when employees earn a life, not just a living.

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