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The Globe and Mail

Do you have an employee who gets under your skin?

You know the one: he's reasonably good at his job, but there's just something about him that rubs you the wrong way. The problem may be less about what he does, and more about who he is.

As entrepreneurs, we're more likely than big-company managers to get frustrated with particular employees because in a smaller setting, their behaviour often reflects on us personally. In the absence of layers of management and thousands of workers, people often assume you tacitly endorse your staff's conduct.

When a business only has one or two levels of management, I think every employee needs to reflect at least some of the owner's values. That doesn't mean they need to be your carbon copies, but it does mean that they should understand and share the two or three core values you hold most strongly.

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For example, one of my core values is personal accountability; meaning, I enjoy working with people who take responsibility when something goes wrong. This trait is neither inherently good nor bad. However, my acceptance of it - and, in fact, overwhelming appreciation for it - often gets me in trouble because I'll allow people who are over their heads on a project to continue to make mistakes as long as they own them.

Perhaps because I make so many of them myself, the willingness to take ownership of mistakes, to my way of thinking, erases even the most egregious screw-ups.

I really only figured this out about myself after ten years of running my own business. For years, I put up with competent employees who got under my skin while not realizing why they aggravated me so much. Keeping these people around sent mixed messages to my other employees and undermined our culture. Eventually, the offending employee would leave - or I would ask him or her to - and our collective mood would lighten.

After I figured out my obsession with personal accountability, instead of trying to rewire my brain, I started to ask job candidates in interviews about a mistake they had recently made. It didn't matter what the mistake was; I just needed to know that they had the ability to own up to an error. If they couldn't admit a mistake, I wouldn't hire them no matter how qualified they were.

We all have things that irritate us about people, and it usually comes down to a mismatch in personal values. In a large company, tiers of management and countless employees buffer all sorts of idiosyncrasies. In a smaller business, however, where everything is personal, there's no room for anyone who doesn't share your deep personal values. It doesn't mean these people are bad or incompetent; it just means they shouldn't work for your company.

Have you thought about what bugs you in people?

Special to The Globe and Mail

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John Warrillow is a writer, speaker and angel investor in a number of start-up companies. He writes a blog about building a valuable – sellable – company. Follow him on Twitter @JohnWarrillow.

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