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Our Greatest Challenge

I think it was Stephen Covey who said, “next to life itself our right to choose is our greatest gift.” You could view the history of the last 100 years and more as a journey from little or no choice to great and sometimes even total choice. Most of us, in our part of the world, have a huge range of choices available to us. We can choose our religion, our sexual preferences, what we eat, what we believe, how we live, how we vote, who we buy our electricity from, where we live and how we earn an income, and indeed whether we choose to do so at all. In fact freedom to choose is so prevalent that we even have a name for where those of with that range of choice all live. We call it the free world. There is so much choice that we can be guilty of taking that gift for granted. There are laws to protect and preserve our freedom to choose and in the world of business monopolies are outlawed. So why is it then that the freedom to choose sometimes comes as such a surprise? When I explain to people that when we employ someone all we ever do is to buy eight hours of their time and whether they choose to bring their brains, their enthusiasm, their creativity, their goodwill and their spirit into the workplace with them, it is exactly that, it is their choice. They are often surprised. Surprised that they hadn’t realised it? Perhaps. Surprised that they couldn’t command their employees to care? Almost certainly. For many businesses, other than paying them, there are precious few reasons why any employee should do anything other than just turn up; clock on and clock off. There are precious few reasons why anyone should care about the performance of the business, what it does or how well it does it. In my career I have been blessed to work with some great teams; teams that cared about what the business did, how well it did and cared about each other, and consequently performed at a consistently high level. I say blessed because I have also been able to experience the opposite. I have worked with some teams that simply could care less about the business, the customer or each other. The difference was like the difference between night and day. They were polar opposites. The reason? Well you could say the culture, but the culture in any business is a function of many things, particularly the management. If the management does not respect, look after and care for the team, what makes anyone think that the team will respect, look after and care for the business, its customers or its property and yet so often I see leaders treating their people badly and expecting their people to treat their customers, partners and other stakeholders well. I recently heard of one care organisation that has banned its team from having teas and coffees whilst at work and I know of another that demanded employees clock off if they wanted to go to the car park to buy ice cream from the visiting ice cream van, and yet they expected those team members to care for their charges in a way that wasn’t being afforded to them. You see we can’t command that people care. We can’t order it. But what we can do is to encourage care and respect, by showing care and respect. We can notice it, comment on it, recognise it, praise it, encourage it and honour it. Surely in the free world, in the twenty-first century we must be able to teach people and show people how to lead in a way that honours all of the people in our charge. Our greatest challenge in a world where choice is abundant is how to encourage people to choose to do the right thing. That won’t come with force, or with laws. It will come from respect, discipline, example and from care. There is a Chinese proverb that says, “You can throw a stone across a river, but you can’t throw a bird”. Do you employ metaphorical stones or birds?