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Over the years, you’ve built a reasonably profitable garden center, but you often feel that you should be doing better. Unfortunately, pinpointing the reasons for less than optimum results can be a tricky business.

It’s far too easy to blame external causes such as weather, poor employee performance, uncontrollable operating expenses or the economy. While situations like that can and do exist, another cause can be much more difficult to face: management shortcomings.

Are you really doing the great management job that you think you’re doing? These nine questions will help you to analyze your own performance while leading the way to better profits:

1. Do you avoid showing any signs of favoritism?

Favoritism, or even the appearance of it, can be a deadly enemy of positive employee attitudes. An employee who feels that he or she is the victim of favoritism is likely to develop an unseen grudge; one that can silently, but effectively, damage your business.

Any indication that you regard one employee with more respect or appreciation than any other is a certain path to negative employee morale. While it’s not always possible for you to avoid regarding some employees more highly than others, allowing that feeling to become obvious to others is a serious management failure, one that almost certainly will exact a costly penalty.

2. Do you understand the importance of self-esteem?

Every human being has a powerful need to feel respected, to be accepted, and to be valued by others. This need is felt in every aspect of a person’s life, and nowhere is it felt more strongly than in a business environment. From brain surgeons to salesclerks, the craving for self-respect and recognition is so strong that it can dominate and control employee behavior and performance regardless of financial considerations.

The work of employees left with no reason to think that their leaders respect and value their contributions are almost certain to fall well below their potential. In extreme cases, negligent or even harmful behavior will be the eventual result.

Providing the kind of recognition that satisfies this important need is a critical part of being a great boss.

Leaders model the type of behavior they want. If they ask their staff to stay late or arrive early during busy seasons, they need to do the same.
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3. Are you a good listener?

Most experts agree that good listeners are rare. Human nature being what it is makes it easier for us to think about what we want to say next rather than listen to what the other person is saying. If that sounds familiar, you have a valuable opportunity to bolster your business success.

Good listeners have a huge advantage in connecting with people; and connecting with customers, prospects, and employees is a critically important part of running a retail garden center. According to playwright Wilson Mizner, “A good listener is not only popular everywhere, but after a while he knows something.”

Michelle Tillis Lederman, author and adjunct professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business, echoes this sentiment. “Regardless of where you are in your business career, listening is a skill that you must work on,” she says. “Listening is not a passive activity. It takes energy and concentration to focus on what people are saying and what they mean by it.”

4. Do you avoid “passing the buck”?

A serious disincentive for employee motivation generated by some owners and managers is failing to accept the blame when something goes wrong. President Harry S. Truman set the tone for his administration when he placed a sign on his desk saying, “The buck stops here.”

A reputation for always putting the blame on others is a management deficiency that will eventually exact a heavy toll in the form of employee unrest. Being in charge means being willing to take responsibility for whatever happens on your watch.

If a leader wants to build an atmosphere that promotes positive motivation, he or she needs to discuss problems with employees in a private setting. If he wants people to work hard on Fridays to get ready for the coming weekend, he needs to stay late himself. If she wants courteous employees, she must offer courtesy to others. In short, the person leading the operation must display the behavior he or she wants others to emulate.

While employee motivation may seem too theoretical a subject for some garden center owners, others will recognize that attention to the kind of employee concerns discussed here can make the difference between mediocrity and optimum performance.

5. Do you encourage your employees to contribute their ideas?

People who do the same job over and over every day often gain a perspective that even the boss cannot match. This can lead to ideas for improvement attainable in no other way.

Not every employee idea will be workable, but those that are used have a double benefit: They improve productivity and they encourage the contributor and other employees to make a strong effort to make them work.

Good, active listening is an essential management skill and one that must be practiced and developed.
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6. Do you really know your employees?

Each of your employees is a human being with a unique set of needs, talents and individual circumstances. Fortunately, providing the kind of recognition that considers employee individuality is an easy task. One of the simplest and most effective ways to develop and demonstrate sincere interest in your employees is to take a little time to learn something about each one. Ask about such simple things as the names of spouses and children, employee hobbies, or special interests and then follow through from time-to-time with a little conversation that shows you remember them and are genuinely interested.

Showing that you have a genuine interest in your employees as fellow human beings is one of the best ways to build employee loyalty — and productivity.

7. Are you a good delegator?

The idea of delegating responsibility to others makes some bosses feel uncomfortable, as if they are giving up power that rightfully belongs to them. Actually, good delegation is a way of harnessing the talent of other people to the boss’s advantage.

Some managers fool themselves into thinking that if they want it done right they always have to do it themselves. That philosophy is a way of closing the door on employees who want to contribute to the success of the business. In actual practice, effective delegation is a hallmark of skillful management.

8. Are you a good communicator?

Have you ever been frustrated by an employee’s failure to follow instructions correctly or do a task the way you expected it to be done? If so, it’s possible that the fault was your own and that you failed to make your instructions unmistakably clear.

The ability to communicate with precision doesn’t come naturally to most of us, regardless of the extent of our education. That’s unfortunate, since the ability to express our thoughts clearly and effectively is an essential ingredient in successful business management.

Since words are the tools with which we build ideas, most experts agree that building a better vocabulary is a key to better communication. That does not mean that you should take the job of building a powerful vocabulary to mean the relentless addition of exotic words just for the sake of sheer numbers. The most appropriate word will seldom be the longest or most obscure one.

The possessor of an unnecessarily large vocabulary runs a constant risk of being misunderstood. The trick is to master enough words to allow clear expression of your thoughts without resorting to the use of words that are beyond the understanding of all but English professors.

In short, the responsibility for successful communication lies primarily with the sender, not the receiver.

Good managers display behavior they want their staff to emulate, and get to know their employees personally.
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9. Do you set a good example?

If you want to get the best out of your employees and want them to be loyal and productive, it’s important for you to set a good example.

Employees don’t receive inspiration from employee manuals or vocal instructions. The kinds of behavior you want to see from your employees are best shown, not told.

As an example, great bosses raise the bar by handling tough situations such as customer complaints with courtesy and respect toward the customer, even when the customer seems to be “wrong.”

Good bosses never practice the philosophy “Do as I say, not as I do.” The most effective managers are those who can answer “yes” to all or most of the questions in this brief test. How did you make out?

William is a freelance writer in Pennsylvania, specializing in business management as well as personal and business finance. lynott@verizon.net