Small Business Management: How to Build Strong Employee Relationships

By Rodney Laws | Business

May 10

You may be familiar with the seeing-employees-as-investments approach to business, and for good reason. It leads to sensible decisions with long-term implications. The problem with that stance, though, is the sense of personal detachment that it cultivates. You can obsess over returned value from a lofty perspective, remaining indifferent in an effort to stay rational.

That approach, then, isn’t enough in its classic form. It requires expansion. You need to focus on the fundamental exchange of the working relationship, accepting that the best way to get people to work hard for you is to work hard for them in return. And that hard work has to take place in the trenches, so to speak. If you want loyalty (the key to small business growth, particularly in a fast-moving industry like ecommerce), you need to earn it through your personal involvement.

One often-overlooked key to getting things right is having candid and productive conversations with your employees. Communication is the lifeblood of business, but it’s often below par. In this post, we’re going to consider how you can prepare for discussions with your employees, how you should address them, and how your follow-up actions will shape your success. Let’s begin.

Preparation: what you first need to do and know

It isn’t a good idea to go into staff conversations cold, assuming that you can simply pick things up as you go. Would you accept one of your workers going into a client interview with no talking points and little awareness of the agenda? No, of course you wouldn’t — and your attitude when speaking to your team will set the tone for how they approach their work.

Research is a must here, then. Before you engage with someone, familiarize yourself with their company history: this should be easy in a small business, but if you’ve been distracted and don’t talk to them very often then you may have forgotten some key details. What are they like personally? What kind of track record do they have? Assuming you’ve previously held discussions and performance reviews, what came of them?

Remember that a core component of radical candor is caring personally: when you care about someone, you take the time to learn things about them and demonstrate that you see their importance. If you don’t arm yourself with relevant details, any effort to evince a personal connection will ring hollow and likely worsen your relationship rather than improve it.

You need to keep all of this in mind when you schedule your staff conversations. If you know that one of your employees is somewhat anxious, don’t let them know a week in advance that you want to have an in-depth discussion: no matter how you frame it, they’ll end up worrying that it’ll turn negative. Your feedback should concern performance, not personality. Instead, find time to engage in light ad-hoc conversation, then build up from there in a natural way that doesn’t put pressure on them.

Conversation: how to get your attitude right

When you get to the point of conversation, your focus (as noted in the title) should be on finding out what they need to be happier and more productive. Done right, this will benefit everyone. The important thing here is to be direct with your employees: you might instinctively feel the desire to talk around issues in the hope that you can avoid awkwardness, but that tactic will only add awkwardness by engendering misunderstandings and causing the conversation to drag on.

If you’ve noticed that a particular employee’s productivity has dropped massively in recent weeks, your job is to be both blunt and compassionate. Say something like this: “I can see that you’ve been struggling to work productively in recent weeks. It’s alright, I’m not angry, but we do need to fix it — so how can I help you get back up to speed?

The sooner you note the fundamental issue, the sooner you can get to resolving it, so the lack of buildup is a good thing. Fearing for their job could prevent them from thinking clearly, so reassuring them — and using “we” to share responsibility — will make a huge difference. There’s also a fundamental positivity in the question since it assumes that they can get back up to speed, and your focus is on how you can help make that happen.

On the other hand, you might see that an employee has been performing extremely well, in which case you could approach them from a totally different angle: “You’ve been doing a fantastic job recently, and I really appreciate your efforts, so I want to ensure that you’re not bored. Are you enjoying what you do? How could I mix things up to make your workday more interesting? If you have greater aspirations, I’d love to help with them.

You might want to simply leave them to their work and reap the benefits, but maybe they could do more for the business — and maybe they’ll look elsewhere if they’ve mastered their current role and see nowhere to go with it. Whether you’re addressing a negative or a positive, you should focus on coming away with a clear idea of how things can be better.

Reaction: how to follow up in a positive way

All the goodwill in the world can amount to nothing if it isn’t properly harnessed. Having a solid conversation with an employee is just the start: what really matters is that you actually deliver on the identified need (or needs) to whatever extent is practical. If a high-flying salesperson asks for their salary to be tripled, you probably can’t accommodate their request — but you can give them a raise of some kind, making it as generous as you can afford.

Very often, you’ll find that employee needs concern businesswide services and working conditions, so you should look for the recurring themes and use them to derive an order of priority. Pay close attention to the broad context of your industry, and decide how far you’re willing to go to improve things. If you can’t take action immediately, you can at least report to the relevant employees that you’re conducting useful research, and even get them involved in the process as a way to show them that they’re important to your business.

And with working conditions, you should strive to be as flexible as possible with a focus on productivity. If the remote-working revolution stemming from the COVID-19 outbreak has taught us anything, it’s that companies can survive massive operational changes if they trust their employees to get their work done in unusual circumstances. Don’t cling to ceremony for the sake of it. If people want to work in different conditions (as is heavily the case), let them.

Consider, though, that employees might not know exactly what they want. To some extent, this will be because they won’t fully know what options and avenues are available to them. If you suspect that an employee might benefit from a major change even though they’ve never requested done, pitch it to them, explaining as you do so how you can help them. Suggest a research trip, or a training course. If you’re willing to use an employer of record service, let them know that they can even move overseas and keep their job if they want a fresh start in other aspects of their life. If you end up changing someone’s life, they’ll forever be grateful to you.

Lastly, when you’ve implemented changes, keep asking questions. Attitudes and requirements change over time. Even your best employee might suddenly think of something else that could help them work effectively, and continued engagement is the best way to show them that your mind is always open. You should be so communicative that your staff members start to reach out to you directly instead of waiting for you to ask. That is the endgame.