Good Business

A great staff makes a great business. Learn how to build a strong, cohesive team with the four “R’s” of effective management.
by : 

Cynthia Wall

May 1, 2011

Every owner wants a store where employees are cooperative and feel appreciated, where their workers thrive and customers love the resulting positive atmosphere. High staff morale is important—so important it will carry you through the difficult times that can overwhelm the joy of running your own business.

Whether yours has one or a handful of employees, every store has similar challenges in building and maintaining a great team. It falls to the owner to create an environment where everyone is encouraged to do his or her best.

Once you have passed the initial hurdle of hiring and training, the secret to building an effective team is to balance rewards for great performance with meaningful corrective action. Your shortest path to this goal is to be honest and fair while remembering that the long-term needs of your business must determine all decisions.

REWARD your staff, even in hard times

A good boss uses honest praise to encourage staff. Finding ways to help each employee feel appreciated is more about creativity than resources. If you listened to the majority of boss-to-worker communications, you would be startled by the focus on what hasn’t been done or the mistakes that must be corrected.

Getting caught doing something well is the best morale booster. Catch your employees when they are being especially responsible, creative, and loyal, and reward them. Be specific when you thank your employee: “You handled that toddler with sticky hands like a Kung Fu master.” Or, “I dreaded coming in to the mess after the reading last night. It was such a joy to find it cleaned up,” or “Keeping the sale table neat and inviting has boosted revenue.” When extra effort and attention are rewarded, they become contagious.

Though regular raises and generous bonuses are high on employees’ wish lists, most small business owners can’t offer these financial rewards predictably. If your business cannot afford scheduled salary increases or bonuses, let the candidates know this in your initial interviews. This saves hurt expectations and lessens your own anxiety and guilt when sales don’t allow a raise.

During an economic downturn, showing gratitude to loyal workers in cash is almost impossible. Choosing individual gifts or giving a generic gift card can be awkward, so what else can you offer? Talk with other businesses in your neighborhood and suggest reciprocal gift certificates for employees at your stores. You will be fostering friendly neighborhood exchange and assisting each other in encouraging your employees—all at wholesale prices!

RESPOND quickly and honestly to personal issues

Challenging poor work habits, such as being late or neglecting a duty, can make the strongest boss feel anxious. It takes even more courage to comment on more delicate issues, such as strong fragrances or body odor, distracting dress, or a poor communication style. When these are only a matter of personal style, you can be tolerant. But action is required if it is affecting performance by creating discomfort with co-workers or customers.

During the hiring process, ask the prospective employee, “If we need to talk about your personal habits, like dress, hygiene, or behavior, how would you prefer I handle it?” With or without such permission, the best rule is to be kind and discreet. It’s not wise to wait for the right moment because you’re likely to worry about it, and then blurt the wrong words at a bad time.

Don’t be tempted to offer feedback in an offhand manner, send an anonymous email, or make a general announcement at a staff meeting. These tactics create more shame and anxiety than a private and straightforward encounter.

RESOLVE staff conflicts

When valuable employees state they can’t stand being around another co-worker, an owner may feel pressured to fire one of them. This scenario is one of the most exhausting for managers and threatens the harmony of your business. Customers and co-workers will feel the tension and, in the worst cases, be asked to take sides. The task here is to intercede immediately and insist that both parties participate in resolution.

When a major personal betrayal is involved, one of the parties must leave, and you have to choose. However, if the problem is based in resentment or misunderstanding and both employees are valuable, it is worth the time and expense to resolve this conflict. The following process gives both people a chance to be heard and address their concerns in safety.

First, interview both parties separately and listen calmly to their opinions and concerns. Assess how professionally they behave. This gives you a clue about each person’s capacity to address the problem in a mature manner. If you want to retain both of them, ask each person if he or she is willing to work things out or whether they prefer to resign. Offer no other option.

If they agree to try, lead them through these steps toward resolution rather than letting them dwell on the conflict.

Ask them to write each other a letter describing the words and behavior that have created the conflict. It must be less than 1,000 words and in respectful language. An essential part is their response to two questions: “What do I need from the other person in order to work together?” And, “What am I willing to change in order to make our situation better?” Have them read their letters aloud to each other in your presence. Flip a coin to see who starts.

If this does not result in increased mutual respect, request they see a therapist/mediator for one session at the business’s expense.

Meet with them after the mediation. If there is no resolution and one must go, keep the employee who has been the most respectful and contributes the most to your team.

This may seem time consuming, even expensive, with rates up to $200 for a professional mediator, until you consider the expense of hiring and training a replacement.

RE-CREATE your team when adding a new employee

Replacing an employee or adding one into an existing team requires patience and sensitivity by all involved. This should be a welcome change—more help and new energy to enliven the workplace. But there is a natural, if unstated, resistance to any upset in the previous balance of personalities and division of labor.

To get the best results, involve your staff before advertising for the position. Ask for opinions about what skills or experience would enhance the team. When appropriate, have long-time workers meet candidates to explain the day-to-day requirements of the job. You may find new ways to support and direct staff by hearing how they describe the tasks and challenges of the store.

As the start date approaches, solicit ideas about how to best involve their new co-worker. Your concern for team morale will show, and they might offer terrific suggestions. When you announce the new hire, let the employees know why you have confidence in the individual, and where he or she may need their patience. Explain that you’ve instructed the new person to be open to hearing staff ideas and to seek their assistance.

As a leader in this process, your role is to orchestrate the blending of the new hire’s skills and interests into the mix. Acknowledge that any new employee is likely to make errors, forget procedures, and make suggestions that imply criticism of current systems. Be deliberate in showing your tolerance and patience during this transition from training to permanent position. Ask the current staff to gently redirect problems toward solution, rather than frustration and complaint.

Quick Tips

Tip 1: Even if you are unable to afford a raise or cash bonus, don’t let loyal employees go unrewarded. Something tangible reminds them they are appreciated. These ideas are nearly cost-free but take a little creativity and planning. Each shows you value their efforts and cooperation.

A handwritten note expressing gratitude for a job well done will touch even the most accomplished worker.

Create certificates on your computer to acknowledge positive efforts or attitude: “Being in a good mood while tackling inventory,” or “Figuring out the new software.”

Once a month, give a random drawing for small prizes, such as a chocolate bar or a gift certificate. Everyone loves to win something, and it makes the day more fun.

Budget a dessert party to celebrate your store’s anniversaries or staff birthdays. This gives the staff the opportunity to celebrate success and honor each other.

Tip 2: You’re the boss, and it is in everyone’s best interest for you to address a personal topic, such as dress or hygiene, within a day of learning about the problem. Request a private conversation in person, and consider how you would like to be told of a similar issue if you were in your employee’s shoes.

If a co-worker has brought this to your attention, simply state, “Thank you for telling me. I will handle it from here. Please don’t discuss this further with other staff.”

Never begin with, “Other people have told me…” Say, “I need to share a concern about a matter that is personal.” Take a breath and be direct: “I have recently noticed a strong smell of body odor. You are usually clean and careful about your appearance, so I know you want to take care of this.”

At the close, lighten the mood by sharing how you survived a similar experience, and how you were glad someone told you right away.

Tip 3: Employees who cannot resolve their conflicts create stress for you and every member of your staff. Dive straight into the issue without taking sides.

Ask each whether they want to be right or to resolve the conflict. Stop worrying about an employee’s well-being and their future if they are ignoring what is needed for your store.

Once you’ve offered resolution and neither engages or shifts in position, say, “I won’t give any more time to this. I will now decide who goes and who stays.”

Identify this process as your store’s conflict resolution policy. Staff disagreements are handled more quickly, and everyone knows they have the choice to work it out or quit.

Tip 4: When blending a new employee into an existing team, you’ll want to make the experience as seamless and painless as possible for all concerned. Doing the following can help greatly.

Ask each employee to train the new hire in a specific aspect of the job. Present this duty as validation of the employee’s good judgment and skills in that area. You’ll build the employee’s confidence, and you’ll get the best teacher for each task.

Once the probation period has been completed, host a small social event after work to celebrate the new team. Use this opportunity to acknowledge how each person aided the team’s expansion.

Cynthia Wall, LCSW, is a therapist and consultant and the author of The Courage to Trust: A Guide to Building Deep and Lasting Relationships (New Harbinger Publications, 2005) and a 90-minute MP3, Embracing True Prosperity: Guided Visualizations and Practical Tools to Realize Your Deepest Dreams, available on her website. In her consultations, she uses the success strategies of larger corporations to help small business owners supervise their employees with compassion and honesty. Visit her at