Don’t Let Human Nature Blow Down Your Small Business

In the past week, the East Coast has been rocked by an earthquake, a hurricane, and a few small tornados that collectively left an impressive path of destruction in their wake.  While sophisticated weather tracking devices gave local residents ample warning to prepare for Hurricane Irene’s pelting rain, high winds, and flash flooding, we were less prepared for the mini twisters and the arthquake. 

Or at least some of us were. 

Interestingly, the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. reported some agitated animal behavior immediately before and after the tremor, suggesting that the animals seemed to know it was coming.  Seismologists who study earthquakes say the behavior can be explained by the fast moving P wave – the first of two seismic waves created by earthquakes.  It is entirely possible that the animals sensed it, whereas humans only perceive the second, more powerful, but slower-moving S wave that causes the ground to shake.  

Recognizing the Small-Business “P Wave”

Businesses often experience upheavals when employee relations are mismanaged. Sniping and petty politics between colleagues, or between supervisors and subordinates, can wreak havoc within departments and erupt with destructive force during meetings, performance reviews, and other employee interactions.  Unfortunately, the person in charge is all too often blindsided by this behavior.  They either didn’t see it coming or chose to turn a blind eye. 

In the meantime, everyone around them felt the “P wave” long before the “S wave” hit the fan.

To avoid having the destructive consequences of the “S wave” turn into full-blown legal liabilities you need to fine-tune your ability to sense these disturbances.  You can do that by improving your Emotional IQ and adjusting for seismic shifts before they reach a tipping point. 

Here are a few suggestions:

Stay in close contact with your direct reports.  Staying in touch is about developing and maintaining rapport.  If you don’t know what they’re working on they’ll think you don’t care.  It also tells them that what they do doesn’t matter.  It’s not the foundation for a healthy workplace relationship.

Ask questions if a direct report is acting out of character.  The reason may have nothing to do with you.  Then again, the reason may have everything to do with you.  Either way, asking questions shows you care.  It brings the issues ashore where you have an opportunity to address misunderstandings instead of letting them pick up emotional steam and strength over unchecked open waters.

Don’t shoot the messenger.  Many managers pretend to have an open-door policy that encourages employees to share problems and concerns.  But if employees who have the courage to cross the threshold find themselves in the crosshairs of someone who doesn’t listen or berates them the word soon spreads — and trust gets compromised.

Put yourself in your employees’ shoes.  Anticipate how your decisions impact them and how they might react.  Anticipating the consequences lets you pursue a strategy with less collateral damage.  Foresight really is better than hindsight.

Set healthy boundaries.  Some employees will do anything to impress the boss, including second-guessing or poaching a co-worker’s project and taking credit for other people’s work.  Managers who enable and condone such behavior encourage territoriality, politicking, and silos.  Putting a stop to such behavior keeps the enmity from escalating.

Communicate, communicate, communicate.  The best part about effective communications is that it lets you clarify misinformation and make course corrections before employee relationships have deteriorated beyond repair and exploded into an ugly legal liability.

Dealing with human nature is an inevitable part of managing employees.  Improved people skills can sharpen your radar and help avoid unnecessary confrontations or terminations that everyone else saw coming a long time ago.

Hanna Hasl-Kelchner is a business legal strategist, author, speaker and trainer who teaches and coaches business people on how to avoid lawsuits.  She is the author of The Business Guide to Legal Literacy: What Every Manager Should Know About the Law and forthcoming How to Turn Your Business into a Litigator’s Chew Toy: Taking the Bite Out of Legal Liability.  Follow Hanna on Twitter @nononsenselawyr and her Chew Toy sidekick @acelitigatorwit.  Subscribe to this blog’s RSS feed to get the latest updates.