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What if nobody worked for you?

Managing Employees

3 min read

That's actually how it is. No matter how many employees you have, not one of them works for you - they work for themselves. They're simply not in it for your reasons, they're in it for their own. This is the best possible news and at the same time seems like a management paradox.

Simply put, it's hugely challenging to work for someone else and really "own" your job at the same time. Remember, it's part of the reason - maybe the main reason - you went into business for yourself.

As a business leader there are plenty of messages you get to the contrary. It looks like people work for you if you focus on org charts or position agreements or performance incentive programs. And it feels that way if you have to step in more often than not to make sure that things get done. It seems like you need to fix something to create more "ownership" on the part of your employees. What if you need to break something instead - a way of thinking about management that isn't serving you or your business anymore.

What if your employees work for themselves first and the business second? And the purpose of having a manager is not to fight that reality, but to support it?

It's true that the traditional (and in most businesses under-developed) tools serve a purpose - position agreements, etc. They help establish the structure to support your business model, tie each employee to specific results, and provide the ground rules and company-wide standards for performance. But the key is to hold them loosely - not as a rigid set of controls - but as a set of living guidelines that open up room for the thing you really want: self-responsibility.

As a manager, your job is to help other people get better at theirs. When you do this, you automatically serve the business objective. You do this not by making rules but by setting examples. And there is no more powerful way you can do that than by being transparent (in an appropriate way) with how something you didn't see about yourself is affecting the business in a negative way. There are no islands - nobody exempt from working "on it" - in a great business. And the "higher up" you are on the org chart, the higher the bar.

From your motivations to the words you use and every intention in between, it's about managing your business in alignment with the reality of what employees want: respect, some room to be creative, and an opportunity to advance (or at least advance their career after they've learned what they can from you). If you start to see your job this way, you'll start to realize that far more than them working for you, in some deep way you work for them. This is a beautiful thing.

It's the foundation for what we call a "culture of ownership". It's taking to the next level the longstanding EMyth idea about not having a "people dependent business". That idea is right; you have to systematize your operations so you can deliver a consistently great experience to your customers and not be dependent on a specific employee or a hard-to-find skill set. That's smart and critical to your success, and it starts here.

But as you do that, at every step in the process, there's another dimension you can add to the way you manage by also making it a "people-independent" business.

It starts by looking at your values, your goals and your policies differently. Asking the question, "how can we change them to evoke more self-responsibility from people?" Obviously, it's pointless (and ironic) to try and mandate self-responsibility, but you can absolutely create the conditions for it to emerge.

The first condition is, as always, to lead by example - by letting your employees see how you're evolving in these ways - by not hiding your humanity behind a title or jargon or an assumption that people will take advantage of any vulnerability you show. If you can't learn to trust people and trust yourself in this basic way, you'll find yourself increasingly out of touch with the next generation of employees for whom transparency in the workplace is simply not optional.

You could see all this as a burden. But it's truly an opportunity - to renew your commitment to making sure you are really working for you, to admit you're in pain and get help in changing that when you're ready.

No (acceptance of) pain, no gain.

And asking for help and opening up with your struggle - as hard as it can be and as much it goes against all our conditioning to keep pushing ahead - is the most self-responsible thing of all.

It all comes back to making sure you are working for you. That's the kind of person people really want to work with.

Jonathan Raymond

Written by Jonathan Raymond

Jonathan was a frequent contributor to the EMyth blog from 2011-2015. His articles focus on marketing, branding, and organizational culture.