If you’ve spent any time in the trades industry, then you know that running a tradie business takes serious manpower. Dedicated owners can work miracles through the power of their own grit and determination, but running a sustainable business takes more than a one-man show.

No matter the situation, you’ll need a reliable crew to run your enterprise. In the early years of a business, it pays to keep the right number of people around. The extra hands help you stay sane and productive as you get your business off the ground, and they’re an investment in skill sets that grow as your trade grows.

Of course, warm bodies aren’t enough to cement your success –you need to develop the skills to make the most out of the teams you assemble. You don’t need a special degree to manage a team, but having the right discipline goes a long way towards keeping your tradies working at peak efficiency.

Lastly, having the right employees means having a strong set of advisors and partners who are just as invested as you are in the future of your business. You may be the only executive decision maker around, but planning and organising your way to success is a team effort.

To help you navigate the problems and pitfalls of team management, we’ve written a series of articles covering the topic –beginning with this one, the tradie’s guide to team management.

This article covers all the basic concepts you’ll need to put together a powerhouse team of tradies: assessing your business’ needs, structuring your teams, hiring the best team members, decoding the secrets of team management, training exceptional tradies, and dealing with conflict.

Team management is a pillar of a smart business ownership. Take the initiative to do more with your human resource potential, and read on.

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What is team management?

Team management is a concept worth inspecting. Anyone can give orders, take notes on employee performance, and make constructive suggestions, but a team manager worth the name knows how to turn this into an art form.

We define a team manager as a leader whose primary job is to maximise the potential of a group of employees while keeping them happy and productive.

A team manager is a leader, first and foremost. If he or she wants to be a competent leader, then they accept the reality that they’re responsible for the success or failure of the teams under their care. They might be exceptional, they might be negligent, or they might fall somewhere in between –whatever the case, they have a direct role to play in the projects to which their teams are assigned.

Next, team management involves maximizing the potential of their subordinates. In the short run, this means setting the pace and conditions for them to get their jobs done quickly and effectively. They make sure their teams have the right tools (meaning both equipment and structure), training, and direction.

In the long run, the goal of team management is to help subordinates learn and grow as skilled tradesmen. They take every opportunity to assess their teams’ abilities, and set them up to tackle the next round of projects with greater speed and precision.

Finally, a team manager keeps their subordinates happy and productive. They keep employee morale high by listening to employee grievances, setting friendlier policies, and giving encouragement when they think it necessary.

Why bother learning team management?

Team management is the art of turning an employee into an asset. It can spell the difference between having a business operated by a team of grunts, and an enterprise run by a team of well-trained and highly motivated experts.

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If you’ve ever had problems with employee morale, absenteeism, repeated mistakes, and similar poor habits, then odds are you could do with a crash course on team management. Likewise, if you’re used to feeling like the only person in your business who gives a damn about the place, you could be doing more to promote the right values.

You can only blame bad luck or the generational gap for so long before the true nature of the problem sets in: your team management needs an upgrade. Whether you hire a set of team managers, or manage your workforce yourself, it pays to know the ideal strategy behind inspiring your staff to work harder, smarter, and towards your business’ goals.

Assessing your business’ needs

The first step to perfect team management is knowing what your business needs out of its employees. Since not every problem can be solved by management wisdom, it’s vital that you hire and structure teams to fit your needs.

Gaps in your workforce can make for tough situations because it’s often hard to distinguish between a lack of staff members, and poor performance by the staff members you already have. While it’s true that even the leanest teams can get away with the biggest successes, you’d be wrong to pressure a small workforce into producing monumental results.Your business isn’t going anywhere until it has enough people to support it.

Of course, simply hiring your problems away won’t do you much good either. Grow your talent pool too large, and you’ll struggle to account for the increases to your overhead costs, ultimately falling victim to the law of diminishing returns. More doesn’t always mean merrier, and the gain isn’t always worth the pain.

The proper move is to take a step back, plan thoroughly, and build a team that solves your problems without adding to them.

There are two steps to identifying the different pain points that your business can address through hiring: prediction and reaction.

Predicting your needs

Prediction helps you fill in your stable needs: the tasks and responsibilities that are part and parcel of your niche in the industry. As a home repair service, for example, you know you’ll need at least one or two mobile teams to set out and accomplish your projects.

These “bread and butter” employees –the ones who do the jobs that your business is known for doing– vary in number depending on the size of your shop, your line of work, and the goals you’ve set out to achieve.

Every business needs administrative help. Hiring clerical and support staff can save you time and pain –as the owner of a tradie business, you should have more pressing work to do than filing receipts and taking calls. How many secretaries, accountants, managers, and phone operators you’ll need depends on the size of your workforce, and to a certain extent, the popularity of your business.

Have a look at the following questions, and see if you can form a clearer picture about your ideal number of employees:

  1. How many people does it take to complete the average project?
  2. How many projects should my business handle on a good day?
  3. Once deployed, how long would a team take to complete the average project?
  4. What kinds of skills should the members of a team possess?
  5. How much time do I spend running clerical (administrative) tasks at the office?
  6. How many calls does my business receive on an average day?
  7. What steps or processes are involved in preparing a team for deployment?
  8. What kinds of skills should the members of my administrative staff possess?
  9. How many absent tradies would it take before I closed down for a day?
  10. How many people can I afford to hire?

While these questions aren’t exhaustive, they should help you set a more detailed plan for hiring or restructuring.

If you’re already running a functioning tradie business, odds are you tried to predict or gauge your labour needs at the get-go. You had an idea of the different roles that needed filling, and maybe even set up contingencies for sudden absences or extra-demanding projects. We can’t say for sure if your efforts paid off, but a review of your hiring choices based on the process we outlined above could lead you to make some necessary changes to your shop’s structure.

Reacting to new challenges

Reaction kicks in when you find that your initial hiring plan falls short of your expectations, or when unexpected problems and windfalls make it so that you need a different team today than you did the day before.

As a matter of first resort, we suggest trying your best to tweak your existing setup to handle new challenges. Most problems can be solved by redistributing work, or asking more of your current roster in exchange for higher pay. Keep the following guide questions in mind when doing so:

  1. What specific tasks are involved in solving this new challenge?
  2. Are my current employees stretched to their limits, or can they take on more work?
  3. How much am I willing to spend to fix or take advantage of these new developments?

If you can work around the problem or opportunity by redistributing labour, then great. If you can’t, or if you try and fail to do so, then expanding your teams might be the best course of action. In that case, make sure you get the most value out of your new hires by listing positions that go beyond addressing your new problems.

Assessing your business’ needs in the way of manpower is a tricky but rewarding exercise in problem-solving. Hire to fix the problems you have, the problems you might have, and the problems you encounter along the way.

Structuring your teams

You wouldn’t send a tradie out to work without giving them the proper set of tools. Your loadout empowers your tradies to do their jobs right, and make short work of any hiccups they encounter along the way. It also keeps you from looking like the kind of idiot who’d send a truck full of men to remodel a house with nothing but their hands and winning smiles.

It only makes sense, then, to treat the organisational structure of your business with the same amount of care and consideration as you would your inventory of tools. It may not be as dramatic –or as shiny– as a set of pristine hammers, saws, and drills, but it plays just as big of a role in determining your overall success rate.

As a team manager, you solve most of your problems by setting clear expectations for each member of your team and illustrating where your tradies’ jobs intersect and diverge. Crossed lines in a business can make everyone’s job a little harder, and it can pose a problem for you and your team managers when trying to hold someone accountable for an error in the workplace.

Various flowcharts and diagrams you can find online detail how management structures should look, but to keep things simple, we’re going to talk about two simple dimensions: the horizontal and the vertical.

Horizontal divisions in a business

There’s a simple way to explain the horizontal divisions among your workforce: who does what?

As a tradie business owner, you know that there’s a wide range of tasks that need to be done within a day. Team management means clustering those tasks into areas of specialty and then dividing the work among your pool of workers.

Majority of businesses in the trades industry have three clusters: operations, administration, and management. Operations are the tasks that come to mind when you think of a tradie business, such as deployment or production. Administration refers to the work of your accountant, your lawyer, your secretary, and your custodians. Finally, management tasks involve making sure that your business runs smoothly, and that you always have an idea of how your staff members are performing.

Examples of tasks per cluster

Operations (Ops) Operations (Ops) Management (Mgmt)
Accomplishing projects Organising documents Monitoring Ops and Admin
Maintaining equipment Tracking finances Drafting reports
Tracking inventory Interfacing with customers Team leadership
Knowing the different kinds of work that need to be done within your business helps you set clear and distinct job descriptions for your staff. This is a goal definitely worth setting, as crossed wires lead to friction, making it tough for anyone to get things done.

Vertical divisions in a business

Once you’ve narrowed down a clear division of labour, it’s time to determine who gets to call the shots in key aspects of your business.

There are tiers of authority and responsibility in any enterprise, and within any team. For example, you have a much wider slate of responsibilities from that of your secretary, and greater authority to help you see those responsibilities through. This leaves you on a higher tier within the overall structure.

The wrong way to go about determining a structure of authority for a small business is to plug everyone into a chart and assign ranks. This might work for large corporations with separate divisions and hundreds of employees –but trade shops are best run as small communities rather than sprawling armies. Worse yet, dishing out generalised authority is also a good way to bring out the power trippers among your staff.

There’s a winning mentality when it comes to brainstorming who deserves authority, and how it should be packaged: more work, more influence. Work before influence, strictly in that order.

Starting with the work makes it easier to decide how much authority a person should have, and where that authority applies. If you give a manager the job of making sure deployment runs smoothly, then it only makes sense to give them the authority to direct your operations teams. Conversely, it’s a lot more difficult to decide on a set of powers that a manager should have, if it isn’t clear to you what it is that a manager should do.

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Another benefit to this mindset is that it helps prevent your staff members from running wild with the power they’re given. If you start by giving your managers the authority to direct your operations teams (i.e. decide who does what, when, and how), it emphasises their power instead of their role, which can be a recipe for a disaster.

At this point, it’s important that we stress the need to hire quality managers, with strong work habits and the right priorities. Power in the wrong hands will only cause you problems.

The ideal structure

The ideal structure for a tradie business has clearly designated roles, and minimal overlap between staff members. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all structure, but there are ways to tell if the structure you have is good enough to keep. Have a look at the following guide questions:

  1. Can each of my employees perform their jobs without stopping the rest from doing theirs?
  2. Do my employees need to ask for my permission to do certain aspects of their jobs?
  3. If something goes wrong, is there a clear line of accountability for damage or lost business?
  4. Are any of my employees given too much authority?

If you have the right structure, you shouldn’t be receiving any complaints about conflicting tasks, abuses of power, or slow progress due to arbitrary rules.

Hiring the best team members

Hiring employees is far from a walk in the park. It’s hard to find good candidates, and even harder to tell if they work as well as they say they do.

This section covers a number of best practices for hiring team members.

1. Know what you’re after

If you’ve been following our work, then you know we’re big fans of entering a challenge prepared –hiring is no different. If you don’t have a good idea of what kind of employee you’re after, what position you’re looking to fill, and what skills you need to add to your organisation, you aren’t in the best place to look for hires.

Know what you’re after before you put up any listings. Take a good, long look at where your business is and where you want it to go, then draft profiles of the employees best suited for the job. If you plan to write a listing or advertise your vacancies, flag the qualities you’re after to have a higher chance of landing the workers you need.

Don’t be afraid to aim high when visualising your hire, since it’s easier to arrive at more reasonable expectations than it is to deal with the fact that you overlooked an important quality while hiring.

2. Aim for referrals

Job listings are a dime a dozen. When you advertise an opening in the local paper or on a dedicated website, you roll the dice and select from pool of strangers who may or may not have credible references listed on their applications.

This isn’t to say that job listings aren’t a reliable method for finding new talent –they can lead to exceptional hires, and they’re a readily available option for businesses of all sorts. All we’re getting at is, if a better option exists, then wouldn’t that be worth pursuing?

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Listings are convenient, but owners who know what they’re doing play on safer terms: they scout for referrals. You lose nothing by asking friends and colleagues for recommendations, but a reputable hire with a history in the industry is generally more dependable than a stranger.

This isn’t a foolproof method, and like any hiring practice, chasing referrals comes with its own risks. After all, one man’s prize employee could be a poor fit for another, and workplace culture plays a big part in determining a tradie’s productivity.

As a general rule, however, you can often depend on a strong recommendation from an experienced tradie to turn out well in the end.

3. Attitude over skill

Skills can be learned, but attitudes are difficult to change. Ask any of the thousands of managers and employees who’ve had to deal with problematic employees.

When screening candidates, you can’t go wrong by prioritising people who exhibit a strong tendency for teamwork. You can get a sense for their inclination towards a collective effort in the way they talk about themselves, their former coworkers, and the successes they’ve had while working their previous jobs.

The winning attitude also involves a healthy dose of enthusiasm. As we mentioned in our article on hiring apprentices, enthusiasm for a tradie’s line of work is a positive sign. Motivated employees make for better team players, and are generally much more pleasant to be around –meaning fewer problems integrating them with the rest of your workforce.

Now don’t get us wrong: skills matter. At the end of the day, the best personalities do little to cover up a lack of usable talent. Don’t let go of a candidate with top-grade skills and a passion for your craft; just remember that it’s easier to teach a skill than it is to fix a bad attitude.

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4. Check references

Interviews are far from perfect. Not only are they time-consuming and imprecise, but there’s also an overwhelming tendency among people to lie during their job interviews.

Still, the fact remains that screening your candidates is a must. To avoid being duped or misled, it’s always a good idea to ask for references and cross-check the claims they make on their application forms and during the interview. People can and do present filtered versions of themselves when applying for new jobs, hence the need for direct accounts from former bosses, managers, coworkers, and even teachers (if the candidate is fresh from schooling).

If you find any discrepancies but still think the candidate may be worth hiring, a quick phone call gives them a chance to clear things up and either win or lose your favor definitively.

5. Social lives matter

Workaholics burn out. Contrary to what you may have heard, a work-is-life mentality does more harm than good in the long run. For instance, the pressure that workaholics voluntarily put themselves through can rub off on your other, more balanced employees.

Be wary when screening candidates who look like they might spend too much time on the grind and not enough time taking care of their other needs. These types make a great first impression, but it’s rare for them to sustain the habit over the course of a career without hitting a breaking point.

If we had to peg success to a single non-work related characteristic, our money is on sociability. Sociable employees make for better team players, and are more likely to take initiative by offering their insights on how the business is run. Self-management is hard to come by, which is why a candidate with confidence is a great choice.

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Decoding the secrets of team management

Like we said at the start, you don’t need a degree to be successful at team management. All it takes is a willingness to learn, and a mind for experimentation: trying different configurations to see what works best.

This section of the guide will discuss a set of tips and best practices related to team management –the kinds of stuff that wouldn’t fill separate articles, but are important to know regardless.

1. Praise is valuable

Employee motivation is one of most influential factors to successful team management. It’s a taxing job to keep your workers’ chins up and their eyes on the prize, but the payoff is worth it: more effective staff means happier customers.

Of all the things standing between you and more motivated employees, fatigue is the toughest to beat. Everyone has a job to do, and if they’re working as hard as they should be, then they’re bound to feel the strain build up after a long enough while.

Although a good hobby and some vacation time might do them the trick, you can go a long way with a habit of praising their efforts. The data suggests that praise can improve creativity and lower stress among workers who hear it. Building a culture of commendation and positive self-reflection can inspire workers to reach for the limits of their potential, and grow their skill sets even wider over time.

Make a habit out of commending your workers for their efforts, and develop a strong growth mindset among your teams. Instead of expressing disappointment at their shortcomings, encourage them to work harder. Remind them that whatever achievements they’ve had in the past can be reached again, but only through focus and determination.

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2. Lead by example

There’s more to team management than putting on a stern face and giving clear instructions. Leadership takes a demonstration of mastery, not just authority.

It’s easier for employees to put their trust and confidence in a boss or manager who knows what their jobs entail. This isn’t to prove their jobs are easy –on the contrary, the advice kicks in when a manager has to give orders that complicate an already difficult job.

Whether you’re introducing a new policy, demanding better output, or leveling some well-meaning criticism at an employee, it pays to prove you know how the job works. If your employees feel you’re telling them how to work a job that you have no personal experience with, you’re likely to be dismissed or branded unreasonable.

Compare that against a team manager who explains how the new policy fits into an employee’s existing work in detail, then offers suggestions to make the transition easier. Not only does the manager go out of their way to make the change in status quo easier, but they also prove that the policy was set after taking the employee’s workload into consideration.

If you’re used to working the same tasks that are expected of your employees, brush up on your skills. If not, then make sure you’re familiar with how the different processes go –that way, you can hold your own when implementing better ways of getting things done.

3. Take employee complaints to heart

Active listening is the mark of great team management. When your team complains about their working conditions, their deck of projects, or their fellow team members, it’s the team manager’s job to make sure those complaints lead to concrete action.

As the owner of a tradie business, that means taking employee complaints to heart and implementing changes that address the root causes of their concerns. If they feel overworked, consider redistributing your workload, taking on fewer projects, or extending their lunch breaks. If they complain about faulty equipment, replace your equipment.

Now, if they demand too much, or your business simply isn’t in a place to give them the changes they’re after, then you owe it to them to work towards a compromise that manages to solve at least the symptoms of their problems.

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4. Optimise your employee manual

Poorly designed, cookie-cutter handbooks are good for two things: weighing down paper, and holding tricky doors open. Nobody’s going to read them if they’re bereft of value.

On the other hand, a well-made and thoughtfully-written employee manual can be a lifesaver for any business owner, most especially those who are in the market for better team management. Employee manuals have the potential to set the tone for new hires, and keep your seasoned team members aligned with your wider goals as a tradie business.

There are a handful of elements that should go into any employee manual, but take note of the following two pointers for optimisation:

Set a clear mission and vision statement. Avoid making it seem generic. Your business should have a unique energy to it; channel that energy and put it into your handbook. This sets the tone for how your team acts while on the job.

Be strategic when setting your guidelines for conduct. Your manual is equal parts legal reference, and equal part textbook. Set guidelines for conduct that steer your employees towards positive work habits, and be clear when noting workplace policies –they should have no excuse to violate the rules you set.

Design your manual to be read. Far from the office stereotype of clean lines, thick paragraphs, and an endless series of sections and subsections, a good employee manual uses clever design to guide readers from point to point.

Your manual should make your job, and the jobs of any team managers you hire down the line, significantly easier. It should set a clear standard for what you expect out of your tradies, and describe what your tradies should expect if policies are violated.

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Training exceptional tradies

Putting together a team and guiding them to better productivity are only part of what team management entails. The rest is a matter of training your employees to become more valuable over time.

Who does the training? Everybody.

If you’re playing your cards right, then all members of your organisation should be involved in training in some capacity or another. Your employees won’t need to run workshops or spend Wednesdays tutoring each other; they just have to contribute to a learning environment.

There’s not really much effort that goes into cultivating a learning environment. Have a look at the following pointers to see how you can make it happen.

1. Don’t punish mistakes; reward learning

In an organisation built by people and run by people, one thing is for certain: mistakes will happen. The difference between success and failure lies in how you and your other team managers handle those mistakes.

The best practice is to treat mistakes like learning opportunities. After you settle the business of paying for whatever broke or went wrong, help the employee at fault to come up with ways of avoiding it down the line. Not only does the helpful gesture build trust between you and your workforce, it prevents them from losing morale along with whatever you had to spend to recover from the error.

This tip is particularly important if your business has a policy of hiring apprentices. Younger members shouldn’t be coddled, but neither should they dread the chopping block whenever they have an honest slip-up.

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2. Encourage questions and suggestions

It’s practically impossible to learn in an environment that demands you just, “get it.”

It’s in your best interest to entertain questions from your staff, and to train your senior members to do the same. For one thing, it’s cheaper to build a culture of sharing information than it is to shoulder the cost of mistakes that wouldn’t have happened if the person at fault had just gotten the instructions they were after. You may even stand to earn more over time, as your employees learn to do more, work faster, and use up fewer resources.

An ask-and-answer policy keeps your seasoned tradies sharp as well. It invites discussions on the best ways to perform a task, and encourages your veterans to take a closer look at the habits they’ve formed for themselves.

Equally important are comments and suggestions. We highly recommend including your staff to meetings or brainstorming sessions aimed at solving common workplace problems, or reaching a specific business goal.

Beyond receiving valuable insights coming from the people working closest to your business, you also train them to see your shop as their own personal investment: the harder they work to improve themselves and their surroundings, the more the business earns. The more the business earns, the sooner they can get a pay raise.

If you don’t have the time to hold special meetings to brainstorm, set aside some time for an open floor during your regular staff assemblies. Give everyone an equal chance to be heard, but don’t feel compelled to put people on the spot and demand suggestions –the goal is to get them to pitch ideas of their own volition.

Finally, do your best to put your employees’ suggestions into practice. If you can put suggesting employees in charge of implementing changes, even better. They learn to see the workplace as one that listens to them, and they get to practice leading (small) projects independently. However you choose to handle it, just don’t sit on your suggestion box.

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3. Give your employees a ladder

Promotions and advancement are big motivators to learn and improve. Giving your employees a career ladder to climb is important, even to a tradie business. Whether it’s a bar they need to reach before qualifying for a pay raise, or a set of formal leadership positions you can fill as your business grows, the potential to move forward keeps your staff motivated to improve.

If you haven’t planned a series of pay raises, get to it. These are necessary increases to your overhead costs that keep your workers moving and your employee retention rates high. Once you’ve settled on a plan –and had your partners, lawyer, and accountant take a look at it– list the path up the ladder in your employee manual.

Emphasise the skills they’d need to possess and responsibilities they’d need to take on in order to move up a rung, and give them every opportunity to learn how to handle them while they’re on the job. You can plan seminars and workshops to formalize the process if you find the pace of their learning to be too slow.

4. Track your staff’s progress

Put these pointers in to practice as soon as you can manage it. It’s wise to start investing in your human capital as early as possible –like many other forms of investments, the rewards are bigger the sooner you buy in.

You should notice some benefits rolling in soon after you’ve taken steps to promote learning. Your employees should engage in discussions with one another more frequently, and you should be sorting through a handful of suggestions on a weekly basis.

The real measure of your success will come when you compare your employees’ task completion time. There should come a point where they get projects done much faster than they did before, and making fewer mistakes along the way.

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Dealing with conflict

Our final section for this team management guide involves managing conflicts between team members. We did our best to collect tips that apply universally, but take them with a grain of salt: every instance of workplace conflict is different, and we recommend assessing each case carefully before choosing to act.

Avoid playing favorites

Prevention is the best cure, and when it comes to conflict resolution, the best way to prevent tensions from escalating is to avoid a reputation for playing favorites.

While you’re bound to like some employees better than others, you can’t let your workforce feel like you have any preferences among them. This means making an effort to get to know everyone equally, and leaving no man behind when going out for dinner or drinks after work.

You’ll be glad you did when you find yourself caught between two arguing employees. The last thing you want to hear when resolving a dispute are the dreaded words: of course you’d side with him/her!

Keep your emotional distance

Conflict has a way of bringing the fighters out in people –even those charged with mediating said conflict. One of the most important team management tricks you have to keep in mind when resolving conflicts among members of your team is to keep a cool head.

There are two ill fates you avoid by keeping your composure. First, you keep yourself from dumping more fuel on the proverbial fire; maintaining an emotional distance keeps you from interjecting, cutting people off, or saying something out of turn. Second, you avoid making decisions in the heat of the moment.

Your tradies depend on you to give fair and rational verdicts when weighing in on disputes, and the only way to do that is by keeping a clear head.

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Watch your language

Your choice of words can steer the outcome of your attempt to play peacemaker without you knowing it.

English speakers tend to favor the active voice in conversational speech. In English, you’d be more likely to say that someone lost the keys to a truck than you are to say that the keys to a truck were lost. This might seem like a quirk of the language, but it has real implications for conflict resolution.

It pays to be careful when choosing your words as the mediator of a dispute, since the last thing you want to do when finding out the objective facts of a case is to sound like you’re accusing someone.

Watch your language and do your best to avoid asking pointed questions, or favoring one side of a conflict by accident. For instance, when one half of the discussion is accusing the other of some form of misbehavior, don’t ask the latter why they did it –ask them to confirm the charge before anything else.

Conclusion

Now that we’ve gone through the list of pointers that a tradie boss should keep in mind when considering their team management, we’ll leave you with the most important lesson you should take home with you: lead people.

There’s a tendency for team managers to spin together their own interpretations of the nature of the job. Some see it as leading employees, others as leading a troop of soldiers. At the end of the day, you’d be doing yourself and your subordinates a favor by remembering that your job is to lead people.

People have quirks, fears, ambitions –all the different factors that sum up to the best and worst sides of being human. Learn to manage the human side of your business, and you’ll find yourself having a much easier time chasing the growth and profit you’re after.

Read more about team management on the tradiematepro blog

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