Sunday, January 23, 2011

Volume 3 Issue 4: Two-Cent Economics

The Entitlement Attitude - Final Part

In the past two issues of the Mainstreeter (here and here), we saw how damaging the entitlement attitude can be and hopefully, you would have noticed how appalling it can be as well. It is definitely close to the top in the list of things an employer would hate to see when recruiting. For all our sakes, I hope that when you become an employer or when you are in charge of hiring, you would not have to meet with such candidates.

In addition, we also looked at how the entitlement attitude manifests and hopefully we are all able to take a brutally honest look at ourselves and be self-aware enough to avoid making the same mistakes. In this issue of the Mainstreeter, we will take a look at some measures to avoid this attitude of entitlement.

For starters, as I mentioned in Part 1, one of the most scary things about the entitlement attitude is the fact that the world is constantly moving forward. The moment we let go of our guard and be complacent, the world takes a step forward and consequently, we slip a step backwards. We are not just competing within the Malaysian context, but with the rest of the world. In this dog eat dog world, we must always be ready to compete.

To be competitive means to be able to contribute to what is demanded by society. Or else, we become redundant. So to stay competitive, we must always stay flexible, and adapt to whatever the situation demands. We must not insist on doing only what is required by our job scopes or what is written in our contracts. To be able to meet the demands of society will ensure that we remain relevant and that allows us to stay competitive. In essence, competitiveness is all about the mindset.

To further elaborate on what I am talking about, here is an excerpt from a speech by Singapore's Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, on what flexibility means:

"Being productive means creating maximum value out of limited resources. If you want to raise productivity, you can either use fewer resources to produce the same value, or deploy the same amount of resources to more productive purposes and generate more value out of that. Singapore businesses cannot expect to save costs by employing more low cost workers. Instead, you have got to utilise resources efficiently, develop new markets and innovate.

Companies have to be nimble and adaptable to respond to changing market conditions. You have got to shift your resources to where they are most needed and most productive. When growth can be negative one year and more than 10% the following year – this is happening to us now – you need enormous flexibility to anticipate changes, adapt and do well. In other words, to underpin your improvement in productivity, you need enormous flexibility. Flexibility in skill, flexibility in wages, flexibility in mindsets.

Skills flexibility means training workers to master multiple skill sets, and be able to perform many different tasks. To enable workers to do this, firms have to strongly support workers’ training, and properly recognise workers who make the effort to acquire additional skills. Then, if you have flexible workers, the firms can deploy them to different areas depending on conditions, depending on business demand, and this will give you an important edge.

Take an example from the hotel industry: Ritz-Carlton, but probably others too. During the recession last year, Ritz-Carlton’s management and staff decided to multitask to reduce costs and save jobs. Business was slow, occupancy rates were low, but the Chinese restaurant still drew in the crowds at wedding banquets and Chinese New Year. It did not make sense to hire workers just for that period, or just for those parts of the hotel. So, all the hotel employees, starting from the General Manager and administrative staff, helped out in the restaurant so as to save on temporary staff and short-term hires. Room attendants also agreed to be deployed to do laundry work, because occupancy was low. Some employees were understandably concerned about handling very different tasks from their usual jobs, but Ritz-Carlton put in place a structured training programme to enable workers to pick up new skills and better understand the other functions within the hotel. And I think it not only helped them through the crisis, but helped with their teambuilding, and helped with their sense of camaraderie and corporate loyalty.

Another aspect of flexibility is wage flexibility. We have been working on this for a long time, since the mid-1980s. After years of patient hard work, many companies now structure their wages not just with a basic wage, but with monthly and annual variable components. And it has become part of the vocabulary for wage bargaining, for collective negotiations. The unions support this as a tool which will buffer workers against economic downturns. Flexible wage systems fully demonstrated their worth during the recent downturn, when more than half the companies froze basic wages, and many reduced bonuses. Along with SPUR and Jobs Credit, this helped firms manage their costs and hold on to most of their workforce.

Let me cite one specific example – CapitaLand. Last January, when the outlook was bleak, the CapitaLand management and executives took wage cuts of up to 20%, with the deepest cuts for management, but everybody being affected some, 3% maybe, but everybody chipped in. Throughout the downturn, CapitaLand worked with its workers and its union, the Singapore Industrial and Services Employees’ Union (SISEU) to cut costs. When performance and business outlook improved towards the end of the year, it reinstated and later on it raised employee wages. This is the model of labour relations that we must aim for – sharing benefits in good times and riding out difficulties together in bad times, with management leading by example.

So to be flexible, you need to be flexible in your jobs, in your wages, but especially in your mindsets. It is the most basic and critical flexibility, because we are in a dynamic environment, you cannot tell exactly what the demands will be, we cannot tell exactly what we need to get the job done tomorrow, which will be the most urgent, the most critical task. We have to quickly hoist in situations when they change, often unexpectedly, and be able to respond. And we cannot simply go strictly by what is explicitly spelt out in collective agreements, or individual contracts, or worse, work to rule, because however we try to anticipate and spell out and be explicit, there will always be unanticipated situations, and then we will have to use our good sense."

Source: SG Press Centre

Another way to avoid the entitlement mentality is to escape from the mindset that doing our best is good enough. Many of us feel that it is OK to fail once we have tried our best. This is one of the ways complacency can develop. For one, it is very difficult to determine what exactly is our best. Very often, we stop short of our best because we stop trying when things get very difficult. We would then be short-changing ourselves on our performance.

Furthermore, if we always stop at exactly at our best, we will always only be able to do our best, never better. This means that we would never be able to improve. As mentioned, with the world advancing at a scary pace, we cannot afford to remain stagnant. So, to improve ourselves, we must not only do our best every time, but also to push further after we have hit the wall that we think is our best. I was only recently made aware of this fact by my boss. Perhaps you can forgive my ignorance, but I just felt that I should give credit where credit is due.

This wraps up the series on the Entitlement Attitude and I hope that the lessons would prove useful in your efforts to become world class. Let us not stop at just being "jaguh kampung".

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