First Person: Enlightened Self-Interest and Small Business Management

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For decades, I have found myself intrigued with the concept of "enlightened self-interest." It applies so perfectly to small business owners and managers. After 30 years or so in sales and marketing and in small business management, six as a brick and mortar small business owner, I found this worked well for me. Since then, I have taught small businesses clients about this approach.

It's counter-intuitive, which means that as a human being, you're interests are in taking care of yourself and your family. It's a win-lose approach to life, or an 'I win, you can have what's left' view. Ironically, this selfish, self-centered focus harms you and limits your small business' success.

After all, everyone has that same survival instinct. This means when you want their cooperation, they are asking themselves, "What's in it for me?" This is where enlightened self-interest comes into play.

How Do You React as an Employee to Orders?

If you want the best performance out of your employees explain how it benefits them. The cynic says, "I'm their boss. If they want to keep their jobs, they'll do what I tell them." How does that line work with you when you were an employee? Did that get you motivated to put forth any extra effort? What I've observed is that employees will do the minimum necessary to just keep their job.

As a small business consultant doing profit and expense control jobs and organization for management jobs, my co-workers and I would often recommend employers use a profit sharing plan that actually rewards their employees when the company does well.

Other Motivations Work Well Too

- Involve them in major decisions

- Listen to their input and ideas

- Explain how their efforts improve their customers' lives

- Do things as a company to benefit the community

Involve Them in Major Decisions

Employees care more about your company than you probably appreciate. Admittedly, there is self-interest in their concern for their jobs. However, they also identify with their employer. They want you to thrive. If there are major challenges, like downsizing, or new directions, share the high level overview as early as possible. Respect their input even when you can't do it their way.

Listen to Their Input and Ideas

One of the strongest needs in all people is to be appreciated and to feel valued. When you meet with your employees and sincerely, actively ask for their input, you win in so many ways. You boost morale of everyone in the company; you get a great idea that can save you money, make you money, improve efficiency, or improve the effectiveness of your employees or products.

Example in Hawaii

On a consulting job in Hawaii, I spoke to the staff about coming to us with any problems or ideas to improve their operations. One supervisor brought some ideas for reorganizing the company to improve workflow and sales. I wrote up the justification for part of the workflow suggestion that supported the labor savings. When I presented the recommendation, giving credit for the idea to that supervisor, the owner jumped on it. By the next day, they had reorganized the workflow.

I can't begin to tell you how exciting that experience was. What an example of enlightened self-interest! Everyone gained. All employees knew that the owners valued and respected their ideas because they just saw it take place. Although the full scope couldn't be used, something was.

It Takes Courage to Speak Up

Remember, it takes courage to speak up. Many employees are intimidated just by the fact you are the owner. So, always respect their contributions and show gratitude. Use what you can of their ideas. When possible explain your decision so they can understand and learn what it is you are looking for.

Explain How Their Efforts Improve Their Customers' Lives

You may have some employees who are only there for a pay check. Nevertheless, most employees want to take care of their customers. For instance, I have had wonderful advice from sales clerks at Best Buy where they are not on commission.

Do Things as a Company to Benefit the Community

Your employees want to be proud of where they work, which is why contributing to the community is so important to them. It's important to customers too. People love to buy from companies that demonstrate a social consciousness. But our concern here is how your employees feel. Employees who feel proud of what they do are more likely to put in extra effort.

If you are like most people I have met, focusing on enlightened self-interest requires training and discipline. You need to learn to focus on surrendering short term gains so as to obtain long term results. This means involving your employees and sharing the credit and/or the profits. Your small business management will improve and both your satisfaction and results will too.

*Note: This was written by a Yahoo! contributor. Do you have a small business story that you'd like to share? Sign up with the Yahoo! Contributor Network to start publishing your own finance articles.

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