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We Pay Good Salaries – So Why Is My Shop Dysfunctional?

It’s the burning question in this month’s “Ask Big Picture.




As the leader of the company, is it best to know all facets of the business?

From low-on-the-totem-pole newbie to press operator, designer, fabricator, and more, “a mashup of all the roles I’ve held as a signage or branding professional has helped me,” says Derek Atchley of Atchley Graphics. “I’ve operated in small mom-and-pop shops, corporate franchises and independent company settings. All roles and environments have merged to give me the impetus to be the printer and print company we are today.”

Our team is pretty dysfunctional. Nobody wants to go the extra mile. Petty feuding is constant, and problems just get swept under the carpet. As a result, we’re not performing as a business. I don’t get it – we pay good salaries.

“There’s a saying that if money can fix a problem, it’s not a problem. We suggest buying yourself a copy of The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, the classic management book by business consultant Patrick Lencioni. The issues you describe are reflected in his “dysfunctional pyramid,” which is divided into five sections. From top to bottom, they read:

  1. Inattention to results,
  2. avoidance of accountability,
  3. lack of commitment,
  4. fear of conflict, and underpinning it all,
  5. absence of trust.

Like the dysfunctions themselves, the solutions to these five failings apply equally to staff and management. At the risk of oversimplifying Lencioni’s work, they are :

  1. Focus on outcomes,
  2. confront difficult issues,
  3. focus on clarity and closure,
  4. demand debate, and the big one,
  5. be human, and treat your staff like humans. To a lot of bosses, a great culture – i.e., the opposite of a dysfunctional one – is one that motivates employees to work hard even when no one is watching. This requires trust, which underpins not just the last of these principles but all of Lencioni’s pyramid. Be clear about your goals and standards and demand excellence, but also give your employees the space they need to do their best work.

Can I compensate extra hours with extra time off rather than with overtime pay?

Federal law and most states allow you to juggle hours with the employee’s consent, but you are nearly always required to pay an overtime premium (usually 50 percent, whether in dollars or minutes). If the staff member works 42 hours in a week, you owe three, not two, hours of time in compensation. You can, however, offer them four 10-hour shifts in a week and not break the 40-hour threshold. California, Colorado, Connecticut, and a few other states use an eight-hour daily overtime standard, so your options are more limited. There are numerous exemptions in the laws, so it’s a good idea to check the Department of Labor’s website at (do a search for “overtime”) and with your state labor office.

We let an unsatisfactory employee go. Now a prospective employer wants a reference. What can I say without getting sued?

Employers get in trouble when they blurt out things they believe to be true – the staff member kept calling in sick when they weren’t, they shirked work, they were stealing – but then can’t back them up in court. We advise keeping it brief and sticking to the facts, even if you live in a state that provides “good faith” protection to employers.

What does the law say about conducting a body search on an employee I suspect of company theft?

It says keep your hands to yourself. The laws regarding searches (body and workplace) all stem from how the Constitution guarantees American citizens a basic right to privacy – and your employee has a very strong privacy interest in his or her own body. If you have a legitimate concern about theft, call the police. For more information on searches, try The Essential Guide to Workplace Investigations by attorney Lisa Guerin.


Being part of a family business is terrific but also really challenging at times. How can we enjoy more of the positive and less of the negative?

Boundaries and well-defined roles that keep family members clear on what is expected of them can a go a long way. If you don’t have one yet, put in place a formal business plan (agreed on by everyone) that includes detailed descriptions of each family member’s roles and responsibilities, as well as the financial expectations of the business. It’s also important to have regular meetings to discuss any issues that may be impacting the business. If communication is an issue, an outside mediator or advisor can provide unbiased and objective advice.

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