The Employers' Association

The Employers’ Association (TEA) is a not-for-profit employers’ association, formed in 1939, with offices in Grand Rapids serving the West Michigan employer community. We help more than 600 member companies maximize employee productivity and minimize employer liability through human resources and management advice, training, survey data, and consulting services.

TEA is in the business of helping people. This blog is intended to address human issues, concerns and the things that impact people - be they self-perpetuated or externally imposed. Feel free to respond to the thoughts presented here, for without each other, we are nothing!

Wednesday, January 18, 2017


People sometimes forget they were born with one mouth and two ears.  Might we not learn valuable lessons if only we listened twice as much as we talked?  We have two hands (so that we can lift and handle things), two feet (so that we can travel along the path which we choose), two hemispheres within our brain (some say for redundancy) and two eyes (allowing us focus while moving forward), and the aforementioned two ears – but only one mouth.  Might not this reality provide some significance regarding the importance of listening (as opposed to talking) – of hearing and considering (with both sides of our brain) rather than thoughtlessly interrupting others with words coming from our single mouth?  What would happen if people began to listen before speaking – or if our elected officials listened at all?  PERHAPS the world would become a very different place if we listened before speaking AND thought before opening our mouths.  Think about the power that silence could exhibit over our thoughts and minds if only we allowed it to inhibit our actions before committing to the path our words might lead us to travel – the validation it might bring to the intentional and fully developed actions we might make if only we were to look and listen before we leap.

Most people approach a situation directly, walking into it with their heads held high, their eyes open (with their mouths rarely closed) striving to establish a position or opinion in whatever the matter might be.  Too few people begin to resolve a situation by asking “why?”  Most prefer to state what they feel (know or understand) rather than seeking the sublime.  Perhaps we could resolve issues more effectively (and in a more lasting manner) by identifying their root cause (asking questions) before addressing them boldly (acting on what we hear) RATHER THAN by simply reacting to what appear to be obvious symptoms without understanding or consideration.  It has been stated that we retain only a small fraction of what we hear…think how much less we will retain if we are too busy talking (and reacting) to pay attention to what is being said by others!

It takes courage to listen.  In order to listen one often must be the first to ask questions – potentially putting themselves at risk of ridicule or second-guessing.  In order to ask, one admits (either directly or implicitly) that he or she does not know something – an admission that is difficult for many.  To be an effective listener we must recognize that gathering information in order to make a decision is a sign of strength rather than an admission of weakness.  When one goes about problem resolution in the correct manner, the only failure one can make is deciding to act before all the facts have been gathered and discussed.  Questioning should never simply validate one’s thoughts or preconceived conclusions but rather clarify, expand and refine a solution before implementation.  Remain receptive to what you might hear, however, while questioning others.  Far too many of us admit our small weaknesses and apprehensions in order to hide our greater flaws and insecurities from others RATHER THAN seeking to overcome our inadequacies by accomplishing great things.

A good listener knows not only when to encourage discussion but also when to end a conversation.  When facilitating a discussion group or work team meeting, good listening may involve asking open-ended questions (as opposed to giving close-ended solutions), encouraging others to expand on partially developed thoughts (rather than adding to it yourself), and drawing introspective individuals into the conversation.  When listening for effective solutions, the only “bad or dumb question” is one not asked (or that you either openly discourage or simply fail to encourage).  Asking questions with the understanding that you will wait for an answer before moving forward requires one to keep their mouth closed while opening both ears so that what is heard can be processed before something is said that might stifle an otherwise productive conversation. 

Have you ever heard that “actions speak louder than words?”  People often say things like “I care…I’m interested…I’m listening…” as they continue writing or working when someone comes into their office to speak.  They might ask all the right questions but discourage an engaged response by quietly sitting with their arms crossed, their foot tapping, and a vacant look in their eyes that screams, “I do not hear you nor do I care!”  While we have two ears with which to listen, our body is much larger than our ears and can make a greater impression upon someone trying to speak than does our silence or feigned interest.  Make an effort to keep your mind receptive to the words spoken when others answer your questions (or ask questions of their own).  Listening involves more than simply hearing - it requires the processing of information and the generation (and delivery) of solutions.  It requires open and honest communication by two (or more) individuals refusing to hear simply the words used in a discussion – for there is always more left unsaid than is said during any conversation.  We must concentrate to hear the subtleties beyond the words used to converse if we hope to discern the underlying thoughts that are being withheld. Paying attention to the “tone” of another’s body language when listening will often allow us to “hear” more by watching (we were given two eyes as well as two ears…we can see twice as much as we say) than by listening.

Listening is a complex task.  Some people listen far too much, acting far too infrequently (back to the elected official reference?).  Others act too quickly without taking the time to hear alternative possibilities.  A patient listener can be a great addition to any work team BUT too many listeners can impede progress – particularly when strong individuals who speak before listening (or thinking) mistakenly view good listeners as being “weak” or “followers.” 

In order to work with and through people we must act on what they say as well as on what may be implied but not said.   We must link listening skills to intentional actions in order to accomplish specific tasks.  How much more might be accomplished in our world if only people would “listen more loudly than they speak” while acting boldly on what they hear?  Unless we learn to listen – then to act intentionally in order to bring about change – we may never know what could possibly be accomplished when we move relentlessly forward under the banner of “why not” (rather than being content with all that has been done and all that has been said).

Wednesday, January 11, 2017


Far too often people focus on how their day starts, how their task is being accomplished or what must be done first RATHER THAN on how their day ends, what progress was actually made or what must be done to consider an assignment complete.  We focus on the path that must be taken rather than upon the end that must be reached – on how quickly we start and what kind of “pace” we should maintain to complete each “race” we run rather than focusing all of our efforts and energies to a strong finish.  Regardless of how well each individual assignment is performed, one cannot do only what has been assigned and expect to receive more than minimal reward, growth or success.  Looking back (instead of ahead), remaining content with the present (rather than building upon the present as a springboard to the future), and doing what works (as opposed to seeking what might work better) are all signs of stagnation.  An acorn cannot become an oak tree without the proper conditions and nourishment present to define a path for its future growth.  What kind of a butterfly would a caterpillar become if it were not to finish the race?  An individual cannot become “one” with another without caring more for the other than for him or her self.  If one wishes to achieve “the possible” rather than being content to accomplish those things that are “probable,” the race that is run must be built upon a path that transforms “what is” into “what could be.”  Our sights must be firmly focused upon that which has yet to be considered or accomplished if we are to run the race as never before run – to climb mountains not yet conquered rather than being content to perform those things that have been tried, tested and found to be safe.  In order to focus on the ends (rather than being caught in the means) – to accomplish and achieve (rather than simply to perform and comply) – we must strive to:

1)            Clarify the difference between efficiency and effectiveness.  Efficient individuals make sure that every investment of time and/or energy has a direct and measurable impact.  They rarely waste time or energy doing unnecessary things that “could be done or might be nice” but are not related to the accomplishment of their objectives.  Effective individuals are focused – accomplishing things that need doing in order to move forward – now.  Effective individuals accomplish all things well as long as they advance their cause or move them towards the accomplishment of defined objectives.  An efficient individual may tell others what to do then get out of the way – coordinating actions and monitoring ideas so that all involved can work in a complimentary fashion towards the accomplishment of goals and objectives.
2)            Stop believing that we are irreplaceable.   If an individual feels that nobody could EVER do what he or she does, that person has probably limited what he or she can accomplish.  When we feel nobody could ever do the things we do as well as we do them ourselves – and accept that as an unwavering paradigm – we become so enamored with our ability to accomplish defined objectives that we fail to identify possible alternative outcomes.  If nobody else can do (or even wishes to try) your job, then you will never advance beyond the rung of the ladder upon which you have firmly positioned yourself.
3)            Quit believing we know all the answers.  People who know the right answers in life often find themselves thrust into management roles.  Those that ask the right questions are much more valuable than those who can give all the right answers – often becoming well respected leaders rather than successful managers.  In order to finish each race strongly we must ALWAYS be open to new ideas, techniques, and ways of doing things.  We can truly contribute to success and profitability – or experience all that life could offer – ONLY after identifying the limitations of current systems, policies, practices or procedures (by asking questions as to how they might be improved) then intentionally acting to implement change.  Nothing will change, however, until we decide to act – to move forward by implementing the answers received of the questions we asked (rather than doing things as we have always done them because we think we know all the answers ourselves).
4)            ALWAYS give credit to others (when deserved) and accept responsibility for “learning experiences” (when blame should be shared).  People recognizing and acknowledging the ideas and actions of others tend to share a never-ending ride to the top – enjoying a seemingly unlimited potential “upside” while minimizing (but not eliminating)  their individual risk.  Those that take credit for the ideas of others (and assign blame for failure or shift focus to deflect accountability) may not have supportive friends, relationships or peers to prop them up in the future. 
5)            Add to our existing abilities and upgrade outdated skills, refusing to accept “what is” as a destination and “what has always been” as an infallible truth.  What was once necessary to maintain a life-long job or to enjoy a long-lasting relationship is no longer sufficient in today’s ever-changing world.  Employees who “fail to know” typically fail to grow – those who refuse to retrain typically will not remain.  Unless an individual brings more into a relationship than he or she could ever expect it to return – is willing to give to another more than is taken (unconditionally and without expectations) and seeks to gain more by sharing than by receiving, he or she will never realize the treasures awaiting them just beyond their current reality.

While we may be able to start a race (or a project) on our own, we need the help, support and efforts of those around us to finish it in the best possible manner.  Life is not a sprint run within a vacuum – it is a marathon that requires a team of runners each relying upon the other for strength, encouragement and support.  Turning individual accomplishment into achievement that impacts many requires more than singular thoughts that initiate personal actions.  We must leverage the abilities of a team having diverse experiences, different perspectives and unique aptitudes to produce the best possible outcomes that will be supported, championed and carried out by the most possible people.  We must build the foundation upon which we stand (so that we are firmly rooted and grounded in our convictions) as we intentionally choose the paths upon which we will travel (keeping our eyes wide open to avoid unwarranted or unwanted turbulence).  We must be approachable as we acknowledge other’s abilities while allowing them to learn from their mistakes (rather than making them fear failure) – encouraging the individuals around us to make personal contributions to the resolution of an issue THEN recognize the importance of their input by giving them appropriate credit (and rewards) when due.  Leaders able to mobilize the thoughts, abilities, capabilities and experiences of those around them achieve objectives not yet imagined and reach heights not previously considered possible.

Friday, January 6, 2017


When working with people, our first impressions often influence the way we respond to and react with them - they presuppose what another’s strengths or weaknesses might be because of the way they look, act or present themselves.  We limit (or elevate) their ability to contribute solely upon what WE THINK they might be able to accomplish.  When we rush to judgment, defining the capabilities of others based on what we perceive rather than through an analysis of their proven abilities or and examination of the results they produce, we predispose their performance to rise only to the level of competence our minds have established.  Some dangers inherent in giving in to our first impressions – particularly for those privileged to lead or manage others – would include:

Pre-conceived judgments, opinions or basing “today’s reality” on “yesterday’s history” about a person can negatively influence our thoughts and actions – often encouraging us to make inappropriate and potentially harmful decisions.

Our perceptions can cause us to act more on what we feel than what may actually be fact – a dangerous and unreliable driver when making significant decisions.  The way others look, dress or speak can indicate much about their actions, reactions and thoughts BUT it can also mislead us into limiting (or elevating) their capabilities.  When we label an individual based on what they look like, sound like or appear to be we potentially lose the potential they might bring to our organization – then wonder why the person did not blossom as we hoped they would have when hired.  People tend to make judgments based on first impressions but must look beneath the surface when determining the true value of an individual.  Acting on what we think or feel can also mask the “root causes” of a situation or hide the value of an individual.  Delving into today’s political world, MUCH is being said about “who hacked whom” in our most recent election and who valued most from the secrets that were disclosed.  Focusing on the perception that “hacking is wrong” tends to minimize the fact that what was “revealed” was wrong – that we are more concerned with HOW our secrets are exposed than with the fact that they were questionable actions in the first place.  Great leaders take the time needed to identify (and grow) the strengths of those working for them while nurturing (and developing) their areas of weakness.  Unless (and until) we look to leverage the abilities of those we lead we will never be able to overcome the disabilities that we all bring to the workplace.

We miss much in life when we assume what another is thinking or why they act as they do.  We limit what they can contribute by rendering it unnecessary for them to speak, express their opinion or contribute their experience when we pre-judge what they bring to the party by who they are or what they have done.

We have all heard someone interrupt another by saying, “I know what you are thinking…” or simply complete another’s sentence only to hear, “That is not what I was going to say.”  When we assume what another thinks (or can contribute), we discount anything they might say or do to improve a situation.  Rather than defining another’s abilities through a potentially inaccurate first impression it is better to ask questions, listen to responses, and drill down to establish capabilities.  Finding out what someone can contribute by providing an environment allowing him or her to utilize their knowledge as they leverage their experiences to realize their potential will accomplish much.  Good managers like to win and often utilize the capabilities of others to accomplish their defined objectives.  Great leaders provide support and encouragement to individuals as they seek to define and establish their own reality within a broad framework which has been communicated as being safe and acceptable – allowing them to learn from (rather than trying to prevent them from) failure as they exceed established expectations..

We tend to fulfill our own prophecies when we allow our first impressions to determine our expectations of others.  We limit those around us when we establish ceilings that define what we feel is their full potential and build floors that establish how far they might be able to fall.  Keeping others safely wrapped within a cocoon of expectations may protect them but will never allow them to transform from a caterpillar to the butterfly they were meant to become.

Some individuals prefer to experience success ONLY by achieving a specified result rather than by measuring progress – by finding satisfaction ONLY in reaching the destination rather than experiencing pleasure in every step along the way.  They find fulfillment in performing as directed rather than seeking new and innovative solutions.  Rather than focusing only upon our end results, successful leaders measure progress to identify how far they have come and how far they have yet to go – progress that can help determine how close we are to the accomplishment of a goal while moving from past success, previous failures or finding satisfaction in how far we may have advanced (rather than looking ahead to what mountain we may yet climb).  Great leaders leverage singular accomplishments (their own as well as those of the people they lead) as springboards propelling them towards future success (rather than as resting places from ongoing change).  Had someone not imagined flight then sought results through practical efforts (rather than stopping when their thoughts had materialized), we would never have joined the birds in the sky after applying the dynamics of upward lift and power.  The first impression teachers had of Albert Einstein was his being a distracted individual having poor math skills who would never fit into society – an impression he did not accept as a final definition of his worth and value.  He chose to use the “label” as a springboard to accomplish what he dreamed possible rather than settling for what others thought probable. 

When working with people, if we establish high expectations, great things happen.  We may find comfort but will rarely experience satisfaction should we settle for something less than the best. Since individuals tend to rise to the level they are expected to reach – to accomplish the objectives that have been established for them (but not often much more than that) – it is important that we overcome our tendency to label people when we meet them, choosing instead to maintain an open mind as we seek astonishing results.  While someone labeled “mediocre” or “lacking” during a first impression does not often realize excellence, mediocrity will not find a place in the world when we truly believe that all people are capable of accomplishing great things.  IF we feel that our first impressions are infallible – and seek to determine our direction based on our pre-conceived values of others – we will thrive ONLY if we can accept that our initial judgments may change and that what was once considered to be a reasonable expectation may, in fact, be but a foundation for future growth.  Should we choose to limit the contributions of others through our unfounded first impressions, we actually hinder our own success (as well as the worth and value of whomever we lead).

Great leaders find that it is easier to work with the strengths of individuals than it is to develop their weaknesses – and that communicating lofty goals and expectations is a precursor to their becoming valued contributors.  Do not let your first impressions (be they overly positive as they may set others up to fail OR too minimal as they may limit individual contributions) and misconceptions be the driving force in determining success.  Looking at what those working for us can accomplish (rather than what they have done) – then equipping them to achieve greatness by fulfilling their unique and individual potential – will allow us all to grow and thrive.