Knowing your staff

  • Business
  • Thursday, 17 Jul 2003

Sun Tzu's Management Leadership. A weekly column by Dr Ong Hean Tatt.

THE hardest part of the work of a leader is to mix with, understand and motivate his staff. This can be tedious, which is one reason why many leaders remain aloof from their staff. Many in the modern business corporations like to be leaders without having to do the hard, tedious work of the leader. But, without knowing his men, how could such a leader motivate his men to lead the organisation? 

The computer is a marvellous piece of equipment. Previously, moulds for making machinery parts would have to be manually cut. If there was a change in the mould design, then a lot of time would have to be spent making the new mould. But with the modern computer, it is now a breeze to make new designs. The computer would then direct the cutting machine to make the new moulds. No sweat, one would say. 

Unfortunately, human beings are not so easy to control. The Chinese have this proverb, “Of all things, human nature is the most difficult to understand.” 

The leader is the head of a group of human beings. The leader should have adequate knowledge and experience with human relationships. But how common are these statements: 

lWhy can’t you follow simple instructions? (The instructions are not simple enough) 

lI thought you would attend to it! (Make sure the task is properly assigned) 

lWhere is the ? thing! (File it properly.) 

There was this new head of a major research and development (R&D) agricultural organisation giving his inaugural speech to his officers. He said that before he came, he had heard a lot about the organisation, mostly bad news. The organisation was in bad shape and he had been sent to rehabilitate it. 

He compared the situation to a computer. There he was at the keyboard. He pressed various buttons. But to his horror nothing worked. Obviously, there was something wrong with the wiring system. So, among the first things he proposed to do would be to check the wiring and undertake rewiring.  

This new head was formerly the head of another statutory body well known for efficiency and service. Alas, the R&D organisation continued to languish and failed to achieve its objective. He even brought in the man who helped him made his previous organisation so successful. The “computer” continued to malfunction and the wiring continued to be entangled. 

The problem had nothing to do with physical resources. Indeed, the government provided this R&D organisation funds. The problem lies in the human resources. Its first head was university chief. Its second head was the head of a major department. Then came this new head.  

These heads were all in the same field - agriculture. The organisation underwent endless restructuring, which was a reflection that these heads sensed something was wrong with the human resource aspects and tried to solve the problem through restructuring. But, the solution still eluded them. 

One unit head was asked by his men if he would fight for them. His reply was revealing: “How can I fight for you all, when I am fighting for my own survival?” There was a lot of politics within the organisation, which was divided into at least three cliques. 

The key to the problem was that members of the organisation spent too much time politicking. Thus, they were not focusing their energy and resource into the R&D objectives.  

The new head found himself having to deal with the squabbles rather than directing the right persons to undertake the research work. Consequently, he also found it difficult to push people up on merit as various unit heads tried to manoeuvre their men into positions. 

For a R&D organisation, the lack of emphasis on meritocracy is fatal. Eventually, the government, tired of spending so much with so little returns, moved to cut down its allocation.  

Trying to bring back a sense of meritocracy, the government directed the organisation to secure by itself major additional portions of funds through viable collaborative projects with the private sector. However, the leader must get to know his men, otherwise the cry about meritocracy will remain a lip service slogan. 

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