When you manage others, you are evaluated based on the work your employees perform (by your customers, by your boss, etc.). This can feel like a very risky proposition, if you don’t know how to get your employees to do good work. Here are some of the reasons I’ve encountered that employees don’t perform.
- You don’t act like the boss. “Boss” behavior can run a full gamut. There is everything from the nice caring friend to the mean unapproachable monster. How do you act like the boss? Well, first, you have to know that neither of these extremes work well. If you act like a friend, your employees will not take you seriously. They will feel supported by you, but they won’t think you will really push them if they don’t want to do something. On the other hand, if you are bristly and yell all the time, you will not be taken seriously either, because employees will think they cannot win (“so why try?”). It is important to be yourself, but make sure that you hold strong personal boundaries, are clear that you are in charge, and don’t fly off the handle when you don’t get your way. This can be especially difficult if you are a new leader, but these boundaries must be set if you want to move forward.
- They aren’t clear on what is expected of them. Make sure that your employees are very clear on what is expected of them. This may seem easy and obvious, but, in reality, it’s really not. Clear job titles and job descriptions are the first step. If you ask your employee what their job title is or what they are supposed to do and get a blank stare, you must start there. After that, it comes down to clarity about specific tasks and accountability (rinse and repeat). I understand that there are many jobs where flexibility is important, but in those cases, it is even more important to be clear on who should do what. (I forgot, was I supposed to do that or were you?) Also, we will go into this in the next section, but it is important that you have provided the level of clarity that each employee needs. Employee A may need “go accomplish this project.” However, employee B may need “go accomplish this project which includes steps 1, 2, and 3.” Make sure that the employee is clear what he must do and hold him accountable for getting it done. If you ask someone to do something and only occasionally hold him accountable or, worse, discount that the work actually needs to be done, good luck with getting consistent performance.
- Your directives don’t line up with their level of competence. You must always match your directives to how competent the person is with the task at hand. What does this mean? Well, you want to make sure that you provide sufficient guidance based on the knowledge the employee has, not how smart or senior she is. I have fallen into this trap. It is very easy to under-explain a task to a company veteran who is intelligent and seems ready to go. Here is a new task, let me talk generally and send you on your way! NO!! If someone has not faced the task before, make sure to go into detail and explain all the pieces. As long as you’re open for feedback (i.e., “Okay, I got it.”) and don’t keep explaining well after the employee has understood, I can’t imagine an employee complaining when getting more information. According to the situational leadership model developed by Dr. Paul Hersey, as your employee becomes more competent or “performance ready,” you move from telling the employee exactly what to do through decreasing levels of support (e.g., developing buy in on the task, participating together on decision-making) until you are able to fully delegate the responsibility to him. Don’t get caught in the trap of delegating a task that your employee is not ready to accomplish.
- You don’t understand how they are different than you. This one is very common. I can do this task, why can’t my employee? YOU’RE DIFFERENT! As we just talked about, I may need something different to understand the work at hand than you do. Another consideration is how we work, how we best interact, and how we want to have our accomplishments acknowledged. It is critical that you observe your employees, so you can adjust your style to maximize their performance based on their strengths and preferences. For example, I love to get public accolades. Put me out front and shine a spotlight and I will perform! Given that preference and strength, I am best served with public praise and performance. Now, if I assume that everyone is like me, I will probably hit a number of stumbling blocks. For example, how many of you cringed when I talked about having to perform in a public way? I must pay attention to that and make sure that your projects are less out front. If you are forced to do something far outside your comfort zone, you are more likely to fail. In addition, I am best served by praising your work privately (i.e., a written commendation laid on your desk or nice card in the mail would be much better than an awards ceremony that includes a comedy roast). Let’s say those introverts out there knew that if they performed at the top, they would be put out on display? They would be more motivated to hit second or third (or lower), rather than first, wouldn’t they? Those differences are so important that I wrote at length about it in a previous blog post.
- You don’t know how to talk to them. Communication is key. It is important to practice good communication in all interactions, but especially with employees. Given the previous points, I won’t go too far into what you say, we already talked about that. This point is about how you say things to them. Some folks would rather communicate face-to-face, some prefer email, text, or phone. This may be due to expedience, shyness, or the need to have things written down in order to truly comprehend them. Make sure that you are clear in your speech or written communication, using language that your employees understand and relate to.
- The environment does not support team work. There are many different reasons that team work fails. One is creating an environment that is based on blame. If you focus on losses and seek out who is at fault (and punish the “guilty” party), you will create an environment that supports throwing each other under the bus instead of working together. Another aspect of the environment is how your company handles stress. Many different types of work require long hours, split second decisions, and other high stress activities. What you want to manage is how you respond to that stress. If employees do not have the support they need to come down from the adrenaline rush of the fight or flight response, they will quickly burn out. Further, if they are truly scared or overwhelmed to the point that their natural instincts kick in, they are more likely to get into arguments, zone out, or freeze under pressure. None of these qualities suggest high quality work will be performed.
- They aren’t bought in to what you are trying to accomplish. There are some people out there in the world who will follow directions because you told them to. They will perform well with directives and not need much more. Not many of us are that way, however. To perform our best, we want to know why we do what we do and feel connected to it. The work must feel meaningful and important for us to go the extra mile. According to Simon Sinek, the greatest leaders create forward momentum (toward change or toward profit) by explaining the why of the work. We must understand the vision before we are inspired to act. You can make your employees do what you want with the promise of money and benefits (or to avoid the threat of being fired). However, if you want employees that will go the distance, hire people that share your values around the work and make sure they understand why you do what you do.
A brief note: If you have done all of this and an employee still does not perform, she may not be a fit. It is best to move out those who cannot perform, even in the best circumstances. We always hope that higher performers will pull these stragglers up, but, in truth, the lower performers often pull others down with them. We also hurt those who are not a fit by allowing them to face failure day in and day out.
Choose those who will help your business shine and nurture them. Maintain boundaries and calm in the boss role, be clear with what is expected, provide directives at the employee’s level of competence, respect differences, provide a blame-free environment that can handle employee stress, and inspire your employees about why you do what you do. When leaders can master these skills, their employees will provide higher quality work. An employee who is clear on what to do, feels respected and cared for, and who is excited to work on the problem at hand within a collaborative team, cannot be stopped!
Find your path… to excellence!
If you would like help identifying ways to improve your employees’ performance, please feel free to contact me: firstname.lastname@example.org; 424-241-3205