I'm The Boss, That's Why

Managing workers is tough enough in theory. When human nature enters the picture, it's worse

For months, our plant managers had gently cajoled an evening shift foreman to work harder. But after four or five meetings, including one in which his co-workers reproached him for shirking his job, he hadn't budged. You could still walk into the factory at sunset and find him slumped in his chair, browsing through reports, while his assistants struggled to keep up. "I've done my time--twenty years," he once told me. "Let the younger guys work."

But the younger guys only got angrier watching him loaf. Two even threatened to quit. Realizing what a corrosive effect the foreman was having, I decided to confront him. One afternoon, we met in the conference room. I listened to him defend his work ethic. Then, without losing my temper, I pointedly informed him his sitting days were over. "We need your talent, your knowledge of these machines," I said. "But if you won't work, you'll have to go elsewhere."

I seem to have gotten through. Over the past month the foreman has stepped up his pace, and his colleagues praise him for his effort. But playing the heavy isn't exactly the role I imagined for myself when I joined Emerald Packaging Inc., our family bag-making business, last February. Nine years of reporting as a BUSINESS WEEK correspondent about the benefits of employee involvement had filled my head with dreams of creating high-performance work teams, in which employees resolve their conflicts amicably and motivation is high.

INFORMATION, PLEASE. Reality quickly intruded. I find I'm more impatient with those who aren't pulling their weight than I would have expected. I discovered some employees don't really want to work together. Some, like the foreman, don't want to work at all. And most employees actually want management to lead.

They work hard, and they want us to make sure others do, too. When I asked for employee input last summer on policies they would like to see in a new company handbook, dozens of workers told me they just wanted the rules enforced. Some even wanted them toughened. One top press operator suggested allowing fewer unexcused absences before someone is fired. Another wanted the time limit on tardiness cut from 15 minutes to 5.

I also learned that motivating the go-getters isn't hard. Simple things, like providing more information about our tough competitive environment, have inspired many employees to work better. One older line worker has started to pay greater attention to the new employees, passing along tips on how to get more production from our finicky bag-making machines. Another has pushed his co-workers to be less wasteful. "It all comes off the bottom line," I heard him say one night.

But there will always be some who just don't get the message. Last spring, shortly after we handed out raises, one printing-press operator cornered me in the parking lot, demanding a bigger increase. He insisted he was worth as much as operators with 15 years of experience (he had been on the job for nine months). I pointed out he already made over $13.50 an hour, top pay for an apprentice. If he continued to perform well, I said, he would get another increase soon. His reply: If he were paid more, he would surely perform better.

Most pay-for-performance plans give pay increases as workers become more productive. This guy was turning the idea on its head. Suddenly, I lost my cool. "I'll tell you what," I snapped. "Go out and find someone who will pay you $14.50 an hour and we'll see if we can match it." Two weeks later he quit, announcing he wouldn't stay even if we doubled his pay.

Maybe this employee would have left even if I hadn't lost my temper. But it troubled me that I may have driven him away. I certainly didn't want a reputation as a hothead employees couldn't talk to. At the same time, it frustrated me that he couldn't understand that if Emerald Packaging prospered, so would he. After all, we had just unveiled a profit-sharing plan. We're a healthy company. If he worked as part of the team, couldn't he see he would be better off in the long run? The run-in left me wondering what possessed me to become a manager.

Later, though, it dawned on me that my faith in employee involvement might not be so farfetched. For instance, I had found out about the underachieving foreman from his concerned co-workers. I just hadn't realized that building a team means the captain often has to crack the whip, and that satisfying the best workers requires management to come down hard on laggards. But then again, not too many of my preconceptions about running a family business are holding up against the real thing.

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