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Employee Management Lessons from a Cave Man

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In the summer of 1977, I landed a new job with a large auto repair facility. Right from the start, something didn’t feel right:  I knew I was in unfamiliar territory. All my jobs prior to this were at smaller shops. I was used to close-knit groups, working in a team environment. This shop? Not so close-knit. In fact, it was “every man for himself.”

One of my first repair jobs was to replace a master cylinder on a ‘74 Caddy. After I installed the master cylinder, I asked the mechanic in the next bay to help me bleed the brakes. He laughed and said, “Go find the pressure bleeder; it’s somewhere buried in the tool room.” Another time I needed help pushing a car with a no-start problem into my bay. No one wanted to help. I finally persuaded the clean-up kid to help me. The overall mood of this shop was poor, with non-existent morale. It became clear that there was no future here and I quit within a year. Six years later, by the way, this shop went bankrupt.

In the short time I worked there, I never felt connected to the other mechanics or to the company. Everyone complained about everything. The place was an emotional mess. The only positive thing from that experience was that I learned what a workplace environment should not be. Why I got a job there is the subject for a future article. 

Life experience and my years as a business owner have taught me that people are social beings and that the right leadership is crucial to the success of any organization. We can trace this back to our ancestral days when we were hunters and gatherers. We survived as a species because of our ability to work together. It was essential for survival that we create strong bonds in a unified group. If the group did not create strong bonds, it would fail.  

The strength of a group starts with the leader. The leader sets the tone and mood of the group. An effective leader looks out for the well-being of everyone. When the people inside the group feel safe due to the actions of the leader, the group will do things for intrinsic reasons. The sense of belonging and safety unites everyone.   

thinkstockWhen the members of the group feel that the leader does not care about their well-being, the members begin to isolate themselves and adapt an attitude of self-preservation. This is when the group weakens and becomes divided. This is also when anxiety and stress begin to take over, and our bodies enter into “fight or flight” mode. We’ve all heard the expression “running on adrenaline.” This condition, while designed to prepare us to do battle or run from it, was never meant for sustained periods of time. When people live in this condition for prolonged periods of time, negative results occur. Morale suffers, people splinter off into cliques and the people within the group don’t trust their leaders. The feelings of mistrust lead to a sense of uncertainty and this is when many people flee the group. To parallel today’s world, this is when people shut down and quit.  

On the other hand, when people have a sense of belonging, there is a feeling of safety. People feel good about being part of the group and are emotionally connected to each other. They know that the leaders care about them. This promotes an environment where people want to contribute to the welfare of the group and are willing to help others because they know others are willing to help them. 

Socially, the workplace today is not much different from our cavemen days. When you bring out the human spirit, which is written in our DNA, great things can be accomplished. There isn’t enough money in the world that will have this same effect.  

As a shop owner, it might be a good idea to take a lesson from our cavemen ancestors. Create a workplace environment where your employees feel connected to each other and to you as the leader. Reach out to your employees. Let them know, by your actions, that you care. Do what you can to strengthen and unify the group. 

For example, on a hot summer day, when all the techs are pushing through the day in the sweltering heat, take five minutes and hand out Gatorade or water. Tell them to take five minutes, and gather them around in a group. You won’t be hurting production. In fact, everyone will know you care, and watch how morale and production increases.

Our cavemen ancestors did not get paid. We do. But the focus should be on people, not the dollars. When you have a workplace that is united and strong, I can assure you, your company will survive and become more profitable—not because of your focus on money, but because of your focus on people. 


Joe Marconi has more than three decades of experience in the automotive repair industry. He is the owner of Osceola Garage in Baldwin Place, N.Y., a business development coach for Elite Worldwide and co-founder of autoshopowner.com. Reach him at jmarconi@ratchetandwrench.com

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