People are our greatest assets!” Really


“Our people are our greatest assets.”

This is almost a default mantra for leaders of organisations and institutions. How often is this true? How often is this untrue?

Actions speak louder than words.  If people are not treated as though they were the most important assets, the use of the mantra draws a cynical reaction.  It compromises the credibility of the executive or manager using it.

When people are punished for fraud, corruption, theft or dishonesty their colleagues might feel they got their just desert.  Often though, people are forced out, demoted or victimised as a result of personal, political or party political agendas.  Their colleagues who remain behind know there is no professional or ethical basis for the vendetta.  Even though they survive and carry on, they resent the person or persons responsible. This is not good for staff morale.

Sadly, this lack of respect, values and ethics often comes right from the top.  The boss sets the example – by commission or ommission – and, over time, it becomes the internal culture. 

A fellow consultant who specialises in organisational health claims that he can actually “smell” it when he works with a company that is without principles, ethics and leadership. There is wisdom in the observation that “a fish rots from the head”.

There are instances when an authority higher than the direct line manager decides to get rid of someone.  If the line manager is not prepared to fight for the subordinate, he or she should still do the decent thing and tell the affected employee the truth first-hand. There is a sense of betrayal if the person you have served well, does not feel obliged to tell you about your impending fate.

Options such as a ”soft landing”, an “exit strategy”, training a successor or even future consultation opportunities could be well received and help to ensure dignity, respect and closure for both parties. This will also determine how the one leaving announces his or her departure to colleagues.

When retrenchments, “down or right sizing” are needed, leaders and managers should be present and visible.  They should devote no more than 10% of the time to discuss the world and national economy, declining market share and competitor growth. 

90% of the discussion should be about those affected:

  • Why me?
  • What is the timeline?
  • What is the process?
  • What do I have to do?
  • What happens to my salary, pension fund and medical aid?
  • Do I receive a pay-out and how much?
  • What help can you offer me – another position, polish my CV, skills course?

Those handling the process should be fully briefed, informed and prepared.  A set of frequently asked questions (FAQs) with short, clear answers will help ensure all-important consistent communication.  While there should be a proper process in terms of labour law, a long drawn-out process (in my experience) is more painful than a swift one.

Remember that you are dealing with real people, with real families……….

Now is not the time for insensitive, callous remarks or jokes.  In one organisation I worked in, early management discussions about staff structures and numbers were referred to as a “chopping block!”

 Executives should remember that unhappy organisations with low staff morale where employees feel disempowered and just not heard, leak like sieves.  Damaging information become social media posts, comments and leaks or prominent, embarrassing news media stories.

It is pointless to launch a witch hunt for the guilty staff member(s).  The source is almost never found and the witch hunt is a clear signal to both staff and news media that a raw nerve has been touched.  This exacerbates the situation.

It is not a money thing: I have worked in organisations where the pay was not great, but people were happy and loved their work.  I have also worked in organisations where salaries were higher than comparable organisations and where people were unhappy and negative.

For communication to be effective, it must be credible.  For communication to be credible the communicators or leaders should be believable and should act with consistency and integrity over time.  Leaders need credibility and persuasive communication to lead their departments, divisions or companies through tough times, to adapt to new challenges or to pursue bold goals.

Respect and credibility do not come with positional power.  They have to be earned the right, ethical and consistent way – over time.

We look after our valuable worldly possessions with great care, insurance, maintenance and repairs.  When executives and leaders therefore claim that their staff are their greatest assets, it should be patently clear from their own actions and example that the statement is manifestly true.