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How to overcome employees' minimal efforts

Published:Sunday | December 7, 2014 | 12:00 AM
Francis Wade

Francis Wade, Sunday Business COLUMNIST

Left to their own devices, employees who become accustomed to giving a minimal effort forget what it's like to work hard.

How can you, as a Jamaican manager, turn their performance around before it's too late?

While the employee who leaves work every day at 4:59 p.m. on the dot may be doing so to make an appointment, it's more likely he has developed the habit of doing as little as possible.

Here's a tip: When staff members are only on time for one, single appointment each day - quitting time - you may have a problem.

It means that significant effort is being put towards doing the minimum. At this point, staff are doing just enough to keep their jobs, staying one half-step ahead of trouble.

It's probably not the mindset they came to the workplace with, but it's one that with the encouragement of others, they have developed.

The stampede out the door at the end of the day is sad. People who enjoy what they are doing don't try to escape from it as fast as they can.

How do you, as a manager, break the deadlock?

As you may have noticed, preaching, scolding, and cajoling won't work. In fact, they push workers into passive resistance. Here are some of the approaches that do work based in part on recent research.


The typical Jamaican manager is an amateur industrial psychologist. He or she can expound at length on the cultural, societal, and subconscious reasons why productivity is low. It's interesting, intriguing stuff that makes for good veranda-talk but hardly ever leads to positive action for a simple reason: A fixation on these invisible attributes fails to focus on observable behaviour, which is more reliable.

In my column on May 25, 2014, I focused on a similar problem. The reason people who live close to work are habitually late is not because of 'bad mind', it's because they don't know how to implement a routine that overcomes the friction of daily Jamaican life.

Developing such specific 'know how' requires an investment by you, the manager, to uncover the habits, practices, and rituals required to get challenging work done. You'll need a dose of introspection, rigour, and honesty to come up with more than pat answers.


Researchers report that we humans love playing games and that one effective approach to adult learning involves the use of the same gamification principles used in sports, video games, and social networking. Here in Jamaica, there's an additional twist: We love competition.

As the general manager of a company explained to me, one of the best things his human resource manager ever did was to split the workforce into houses - that is, teams - and set up structured competitions. We need to do more than build football, netball, and domino skills, however.

Competitions should also be set up to emphasise the knowledge and skills needed to do the job. One company, for example, set up a version of the Schools' Challenge Quiz that included questions about the company's product line. Another created a competition to generate ideas for new improvements.

Research shows that some behaviours such as coming to work on time are driven by the expectation of one's peers. This indicates that with some ingenuity, you can use games to place employees in a context where fruitful, desired behaviours are the result.

As a people, we are quite proud of our national achievements. This cultural impulse to stand out is strong. It sometimes carries over to employee loyalty, where many look for more than just a job, but also something to believe in.

Unfortunately, as you manage your staff, you may be sending unclear messages. For example, in a recent case, a local company making healthy profits claimed it could not afford to give employees a raise. In these confusing circumstances, it becomes impossible to ask employees for what is needed for growth by every company - extraordinary actions based on personal sacrifice.


The fact is loyalty is strengthened when people give deeply of themselves. Ask any war veteran who is moved to tears just by seeing their country's flag at full mast. By the same token, executives who ask little of their staff get the same in return. A measly pay cheque may generate attendance but not pride.

George Bernard Shaw said: "All progress depends on the unreasonable man." Unreasonable managers ask for high performance - the kind that depends on making oneself uncomfortable for long periods of time.

Those who don't ask get what you'd expect - a mediocrity that dampens the human spirit. They get exactly what they have 'purchased' and no more - a minimal effort.

Francis Wade is a management consultant and author of 'Perfect Time-Based Productivity'. To receive a Summary of Links to past columns, or give feedback, email: columns@fwconsulting.com