How to release employee potential?

Work Horizons

This blog post has been produced for the Greater Birmingham Chambers of Commerce as part of the 2023 Growth Through People campaign.

A simple encapsulation of the message is we need to move from human resources to human sources, providers of productivity, creativity and innovation. Implicit in human resources is the view people can be moved, moulded and used as any other commodity. But people aren’t like that; we are all different, we respond to different stimuli and our performance is inconsistent. Inspiration and insight do not occur in a linear manner.

If our people were highly motivated imagine the experience our customers would receive and, then, imagine the impact on the various success criteria including profit. The output and contribution of staff cannot be 100 per cent for all of the hours worked. Human beings cannot concentrate at peak level non-stop for several hours.

Not many people go to work to do a bad job. Too many see it as a necessary evil to fund other things including food and shelter. Yet, those lucky enough to have a job spend nearly half of their waking hours at work or travelling to and from it, and then wish the hours away so they can do something else, even if that isn’t much or doesn’t help them grow. Time is the dominant aspect of our lives; it moves too fast, too slow or there isn’t enough of it. We also cannot get it back once it has gone. Shouldn’t we try to use it more effectively?

Too many managers want the straightforward answers to the questions they ask about maximising the potential in their team, when none exist. Highly sophisticated guidance and direction are available, but leadership is an art, albeit with clues from numerous disciplines.

A favourite question when interviewing for a management role is, “What is your management style?” Interviewees well prepared often give a very fluent reply which shows them to be fair but firm. Of course, the answer is not really the point of the question.

To think that there is one approach which will suit all people in all situations is naïve at best and dangerous at worst. It isn’t only in people management that 1D or 2D solutions are sought for 3D problems, but it is graphically illustrated.

Some bosses want answers which are either yes or no, accepting no version of life which have grey areas or multiple variables. It is no surprise that they are often amazed when issues stray from the neat tracks which run through their minds. People are complex and this includes customers. If we judge by our own standards, we will accommodate a very small proportion of the population.

Our quest must be to find models and behaviours which make the most of every situation for all of the people involved. People deliver everything, which sadly means only a small amount if they are de-motivated. Our success comes through the efforts of others.

On numerous occasions, when managers are asked to list out their key areas of responsibility, the vast majority of occasions they produce a very good list which has either missed out leadership all together or it has been a very late addition.

Naturally, we must include quality, output, finance and other facets but to put people last shows the priority given by these managers’ managers. It is absolutely true that what gets measured gets done, so it is critical we measure the correct things. And it is difficult to objectively measure a lot of the activity around people, so why try?

If senior management micro-manage systems and processes, it is certain they will be the main focus of middle and junior management. Many years ago, the Managing Director of an organisation had production figures faxed to his office hourly.

If the numbers were down in any area, he would ring the Production Director for an explanation. Inevitably, this meant the Production Director also had the numbers hourly, so he could appear to be fully in control and so it cascaded through the structure, everyone giving a ridiculous amount of time and energy to hourly numbers.

Where was the time going to come from to plan, improve and lead? As bonus payments were never linked to people issues, they were never going to be a priority, even though any intelligent analysis would have shown the staff could have made a big impact on all of the factors that did influence the amount of bonus paid.

So, if leadership is crucial to a team, organisation or business being successful, why is it ignored to a lesser or greater degree?

Fundamentally, each leader has three generic responsibilities, irrespective of the nature of the business or the role being performed:

  • He or she is a member of the team reporting to the immediate boss. This team has key collective targets and goals.
  • He or she is the leader of a team of people. There are functional/silo targets and goals.
  • He or she has specific responsibilities which cannot be delegated or shared.

The issue too often is that the final one of these three gets the greatest attention. For these activities there is no hiding place, they are down to that manager and outcomes are solely down to them. These may also be highly sensitive and confidential; they may be very important (at least in this manager’s mind). And there are never enough hours in the day; and these are time demanding. Of course, appraisals and team meetings get slipped and, anyway, don’t the team know these tasks are critical, even if they don’t know what they could they do or say?

We delude ourselves; we keep too much for ourselves and we don’t trust our people enough. If we are unable to trust, we will become permanently in a state of walking though treacle; we will be going nowhere fast.

So, to ask the question again, if leadership is crucial to a team, an organisation or a business being successful, why is it ignored to a lesser or greater degree? Indeed, as we live for such a short period of time, why would we not want to be productive or effective at anything we do?

  • Are we innately lazy?
  • Do we not know the questions to ask?
  • Are we scared to ask the questions?
  • Are we not curious?
  • Does arrogance or complacency override our ignorance??
  • Is it the realisation simple solutions aren’t available?
  • Do we lack vision?
  • Is it because we are totally focussed on “now”?
  • Can we not see the challenges?
  • Are people so complex we cannot even consider trying to understand them?
  • Have we not been stimulated to try to be better?
  • Has experience shown that curiosity is an intellectual cul-de-sac or, worse, it is frowned upon by the arrogant or threatened?

Who knows? And it will vary from person to person. We must address issues of leadership and motivation but in the contexts of operational performance, customer relations and reputation.


Growth Through People is the Chamber’s annual campaign aiming to help local firms boost productivity and grow through improved leadership and people management skills. In 2023 this involves 4 free webinars and events sharing best practice advice and guidance taking place throughout March, and a Growth Through People conference on 10th May. In addition, throughout the campaign the Chambers will be publishing podcasts and blog content.

Thanks to our Headline Partners and Sponsors – Aston University, South and City College Birmingham and the West Midlands Combined Authority - all Growth Through People events and webinars are free to attend. Interested readers can find out more and register to attend here.