COOL THING #39: What is the secret of workplace “chemistry”? Yes, ma’am.

I once heard a speaker tell the story of a boss who’d offered a new bonus program for his employees: $100 to the best idea of the month. The first winner was the employee who suggested cutting the bonus to $50.

That old line came to me when I talked with Nick Weaver. In a good way. That’s because Nick, who’s the COO of Blue Delta Jeans, told me a marvelous story of how he and his employees are always trying to do more to help each other.

Nick and his partner bought the equipment of a defunct garment factory in Memphis and moved it to their new venture in Tupelo, Mississippi. Their plan was to make custom-fit blue jeans. One problem: they knew almost nothing about the actual process of making jeans. But, they knew there were plenty of Southerners who did, given the history of the garment industry before most of it moved out of the country. So they started interviewing seamstresses. The first woman they interviewed heard their plans and told the two new partners, “You’re fools — that will never work.” Then she walked out.

But the two persevered and eventually made their first hires, including some who’d worked for a Levi’s manufacturer. Nick Weaver said of his employees, “Our first employees had a hundred years of sewing, so they knew lot more than the bosses. Out of that grew the love and admiration on both sides.”

Sarah Richey, Blue Delta’s first hire
Nick offered this example of what love/admiration can do:

“Our employees decided that the manufacturing space needed higher-standards, so they agreed among themselves to come in early to clean and prepare before their workday started.”

Say what? They came in early to clean on their own initiative?

How does that happen? Nick says,

“We pay a little bit better than we have to. And we treat everyone with respect. They aren’t nickel-and-dimed and we aren’t nickel-and-dimed. For instance, we don’t try to tell people when to use their cellphones or when they can or can’t text. About the biggest disagreement we’ve had is what music to listen to – the ladies like Elvis and Southern Gospel and they get their way. It’s ‘yes, ma’am’ and ‘no, ma’am.'”

And then Nick said a sentence that contains the secret to chemistry in the workplace:

“Everyone wants it to work. We all believe in giving more than you take.”


Notice that little sentence, “Everyone wants it to work.” The secret of creating workplace chemistry isn’t just giving more – there are plenty of willing takers – no, the secret is finding people of like “giver” minds.

You don’t just hire people who want to work, you hire people who work at making “it” work – the relationship, the team, the company.

Great bosses live this whoppingly simple principle:

You get great employees by being worthy of great employees.

Nick also mentioned that his employees set the standards for work and report to him anyone who isn’t upholding the standards. That’s when you have a team, not just a collection of employees. That’s when you get to the magic place where the culture does the hiring and firing for you – no one is willing to look the other way, not when everyone wants it to work.

Let’s sum it up this way:

Brilliant bosses are committing to making “it” work and they do that by setting out to create a place so special that those marvelous make-it-work employees commit to living up to the culture. Yes, ma’am.

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