How do I make my employees to obey me?

Employees are a tricky lot.  They are the foundation of your business – they can build you up or they can ruin you.  For the sake of this post, I will be referring solely to knowledge workers – those special people who make the magic of your business happen and are not easily replaced.  In a start-up, you want a group of motivated, bright and enthusiastic knowledge workers to help create and implement your vision.  But what happens when the knowledge your employees possess exceed your own?  How do you get your employees to obey when you are no longer capable of doing their job(s)?

As immigrants, both of my parents did a stint in a restaurant kitchen.  Both of them told me that the chef was the one who wielded all the power in the restaurant; not the owners.  If the chef were displeased, he can walk out during a busy dinner service and ruin your restaurant.  That’s why it’s important for the owner to be able to cook the few key dishes that each restaurant is known for.  But chefs can be replaced and most restaurateurs started off as chefs anyway.  What if you own a software development firm?  How do you keep your programmers from walking out in the middle of a big project?

A brilliant programmer shared with me an article on how to lead clever people.  It summarizes nicely what to do with your knowledge workers.  Rather than regurgitate what the article says so eloquently, I’d like to focus on what you, as the business leader, really need to worry about.  If you employ knowledge workers, know that the most dangerous aspect of your business happens every day when those workers walk out the door.  There is a very real possibility that they will not come back, and replacing stellar knowledge workers is no easy task.  The question, then, is not how do you make your employees obey, but rather how do you gain the trust, respect, and loyalty of your partners (see related post below on leadership).  Yes, your employees are your partners.  They are the foundation of your businesses and some probably understand your business better than you do.  Do not attempt to control them as you would a short order cook or a cashier.  Allow them to flourish in their element and enjoy their work.  Give them the freedom to do what’s right.  Trust that the respect and loyalty you’ve shown them will be repaid ten-fold.  As the leader, this is a difficult concept, but if you could run the business by yourself, you would be doing so now.  You need your employees – more than they need you.

What happens to leaders who follow the Don’t list of the above-linked article?  They often find that their businesses/organizations are no longer competitive.  It is not an overnight process, but over time, they come to realize that their success metrics have hit the top of the bell curve and are now on a decline.  Foolish leaders will blame the economy, the President, the sun, the moon, but the real blame lies with those who were unable to retain their knowledge workers. 

The answer is simple.  Do not attempt to make your employees “obey” for true greatness in any organization is always a collaborative team effort.

Are you a good leader?

I recently read a Harvard Buisness Review article on group decision-making.  The basic premise was groups do not make decisions, leaders do.  That led me to ask, what makes a good leader?  There are many, many articles that answer that question, but it boils down to a few key criteria:

1) Do you see the big picture?

2) Do people respect you?

3) Will/Can you take responsibility when shit hits the fan?


The big picture:

Seeing the big picture means understanding your organization’s overall goals, how to achieve those goals and having a back-up plan in case of failure.  Many leaders may think they see the big picture, but often they have no idea how to actually achieve their goals and they certainly don’t have disaster recovery plans.  For large enterprises, the leaders (C-level folks) generally leave these “mundane” worries to middle managers.  For small business and most non-profits, that’s not possible.  If you run your own business, you must intimately understand your big picture and have a concrete plan for achieving your goals.  What’s often overlooked is the disaster recovery plan.  Small businesses might think they don’t have the time or resources to create a disaster recovery plan, but that’s where they are wrong.  Small businesses cannot afford a disaster.  Your customers are expensive to obtain and expensive to keep.  Should they choose to go elsewhere because of your failure to plan, you will be out of business.



As the boss, you may think your staff automatically respect you.  That is not always the case.  People respect you for your knowledge, your compassion and your ability to empathize.  Do not confuse fear with respect.  Just because your staff fear you and/or losing their job, doesn’t mean they respect you as a boss.

But why do you need their respect anyway?  Aren’t YOU the boss?  When your staff respect you, they believe you have their best interest at heart.  Thus, they are more likely to support your ideas, no matter how insane or seemingly impossible.  As a respected boss, you should have an open door policy so that your staff feel comfortable coming to you with problems before they become disasters (because, let’s face it, you don’t have a disaster recovery plan, see above).



It is a fair assumption that as the leader of your small business, you are ultimately responsible for everything that happens in/with your business, but is that ideal?  Can you take responsibility for the illegal acts of your employees?  Will you take responsibility when poor customer service is delivered and angry customers lash out online  (note: the internet is forever, never anger a customer who has the ability to complain to the internet)?  If you can’t or won’t take responsibility for issues that are outside of your control, then you need a plan to address those issues before they arise.  For example, if you have a medical practice, have a plan to regularly train your staff on the importance of patient privacy and the appropriate use of technology to disclose confidential PHI (protected health information).  If you hear rumblings of poor customer service, reach out to the customer directly and offer a remedy immediately (refund, discount, apologies, etc.).  Then, turn the situation into a teaching moment for your staff so that they won’t make the same mistake again.


Finally, what is the difference between a good leader and a good manager?  For small organizations, it’s often one and the same.  For larger organizations, please stay tuned for another edition of Grace Asks…. where this topic will be addresssed.