by Mark Gindin

If you took some random business owners and managers to lunch and asked them about the problems they have with employees, the lunch could very well turn into dinner and drinks and go long into the night. The complaints are usually about how owners give and give, while all employees do is take a mile every time they’re given an inch. And no matter how many magazines and books you read, or how many conventions you attend, when the rubber meets the road, you just have to yell at people to get them motivated.

A view from the other side of the one-way mirror would show another reflection of the workplace. If you asked employees, you would find that they rarely make all the mistakes owners say they do. They give their best every day. In fact, they give and give with no rewards. All the boss does is yell about mistakes. They never get complimented. And they’re positive that the boss created the mistake in the first place.

Many excellent consultants have made good money talking about these problems and explaining how to solve them. Their books and seminars explain all about incentives, teamwork, threats, discipline, and how to attract good help.

The root problem is that most people just don’t think they do anything wrong. There’s always someone around to blame. Employees are legendary for their ineptness. From an owner’s point of view, employees are often simply a necessary evil. Meanwhile, managers and owners are legendary for their temper, their anger, their frustration, and their arbitrary rule making. Sometimes even the customer gets blamed.

From an employee’s point of view, there is no fix. You can’t argue and present your point of view because you’ll always lose. It‘s easy for the managers to sit in their weekly meeting and discuss how truck #5 has too much warranty work and not enough billable hours. “That tech just has to be pulled in and dressed down.” In fact, however, the assignment of time and the type of calls, originates in management. It flows downhill from the owner to the service manager to the dispatcher to the technician.

Lessons from Doggie School

My dog is pretty cool. He knows his job. He has to keep the backyard clear of cats and squirrels. He has to bark at strangers who walk by and look at the house like they’re going to break in or offer me a new mortgage rate. He has to be happy when I get home. He has to know to stay off the furniture, and to come when I call

I didn’t train him to do all of his jobs. He is a born cat chaser. He barks at pretty much anything, and he never liked to get up on the furniture. But I had to teach him to listen to me, come when called, and heel when I say so.

If you go to doggie school, they tell you that dogs only respond to positive instruction. If you want to teach them to fetch, you show them what to do over and over, then, a few hours later, when they actually do it, you reward them. Then you reward them every single time they do it right. Praise is plenty. You don’t have to give dogs treats, or extra food, they just like a pat on the head and an “Attaboy.”

The worst thing you can do is yell at dogs when they don’t do their job. Then they get confused. There are so many things to yell about, the yelling might never stop. The words “no” or “bad dog” don’t mean anything if they are used all the time and apply to many things. But when specific positive activities are rewarded, the dog learns to do them, and to love doing it, especially if they’re really good at it.

Work Like a Dog

If we treated each other like dogs, our workplace would work much better. If you want to encourage good behavior, only reward the good things. If the dispatcher is overly nice to a customer, give her some praise. If the service manager keeps the right stock on the truck, write him a thank-you note. If the technician avoids an extra trip to the supply store, buy him lunch now and then.

As an owner, it’s always fun to take the best performers, or even the entire company, to lunch. Or have a picnic, or distribute random presents. That’s when going to work is fun. You actually feel like a part of a family that’s working and helping each other to become better.

As an employee, there’s nothing nicer than a little pat on the head for doing something good. Even a pat on the head for just being part of the family. Two companies I worked for had a cake and everyone sang for everyone who had a birthday. Another had a cookout every quarter.

One of the best companies showed us the gross income and the gross profit for the department. They posted goals, both number of maintenance agreements and number of sales leads turned over to the sales department. For the best performers, or the best team players, there was recognition on the company bulletin board and a certificate for a pizza. Everyone tried just a little harder.

There are plenty of great companies that reward and encourage employees to become positive members of the group. But there are many thousands of others who don’t. We all know them. Sometimes, it feels like I’ve worked for most of them. But, by going to conventions like HVAC Comfortech and working with ACCA, it’s obvious that there are great companies out there who do it right.

Everyone knows what its like to work like a dog, or to be treated like a dog. But if we look at it a different way, treating people like a dog is a huge step up from treating them like idiots. We should want to go to work, and be a little sad when it’s time to go home. A Labrador Retriever has fun when he goes hunting with his boss; he likes chasing ducks through water and doesn’t want to go back to the kennel.

We spend most of our lives at work. Wouldn’t it be nice if it was fun, like a dog on a hunt. Often, just by changing work to fun, efficiency increases, and there’s less wasted time, less arguing, more ideas, and happier customers who stay with the company forever.

There are some systems that can help change a company’s environment. It takes a major adjustment, and it takes time. ACCA’s Quality College is probably the best example of a system to support HVAC company transformation.

There are Quality Management consultants in every phone book. There are books on employee empowerment and management by example. The new leadership models include making the workplace less structured. There is plenty of information out there about how to change your company for the better.

It takes ego-free management, and specifically owners, to take that first step. Organizational changes don’t happen from the worker level. Workers have ideas and improvements, but such changes cannot happen without owner and management support. With a little education, peer support, organizations like ACCA and meetings like Comfortech, each step can be a little bit easier.

Be open to the employees’ point of view, receptive to new ideas, and willing to change. Then we can all have a little fun at work, and not feel like going to the office is a trip to the doghouse.

Mark Gindin has been in the HVAC industry, as a technician, manager, and owner, for almost 20 years. He has served in various positions with ACCA, and is currently the executive director for the Austin, TX Chapter. For more
information on ACCA’s Quality College, you can reach Mark at mdgindin@mindspring.com.