“Why Can’t I Get My Employees To … ?”

If you manage people, chances are that you have been frustrated, at one time or another, about some performance or behavior you want from your reports, but can’t get them to consistently display. You may want them to …


…suggest new ideas

…make decisions and take responsibility

…manage their own performance on an entire task without needing you to monitor and prod

…think about how their actions and choices will affect others downstream

…give you authentic feedback about how your behavior affects them


If you’ve tried to manage your frustration by exhorting your reports – “Why can’t you just do x?” or “I need you to do x!” – you know that exhorting doesn’t work.  To get what you want from them, you need to understand the causes of this dilemma. Here are some potential ones:


  • They don’t understand exactly what you want. Perhaps you’re stating a global expectation and assuming the employee “gets it”. If you find yourself using code words like “be strategic”, these words mean different things to different people and it’s likely that your report “got” something other than what you intended.  Or perhaps you assigned a broad task, such as, “Reach out to all the key clients.” What that means in your mind may not fully translate in your report’s mind.


  • They lack the ability or skill to do what you asked. One manager asked a new report to “write a project plan.” This report had never written a project plan, but was afraid to admit that to the manager and ask for clarification. Not surprisingly, what he produced wasn’t what the manager had in mind. Or, an employee hits a roadblock in accomplishing the task and doesn’t know how to navigate past it, so he simply drops it.


  • They fear the potential effects of doing what you asked.  A manager who was working on becoming less autocratic asked his reports for feedback on his behavior. They told him “everything is fine,” but later he learned that they were talking with each other about their continued concerns with his behavior, but were afraid to give him what they perceived as bad news. Or, perhaps you’re asking your report to go and have what he perceives to be a difficult conversation with someone. Perhaps he fears the consequences of doing what you asked more than he fears the consequences of not doing what you asked.


As you may have noticed, the responsibility for these problems lies not just in your employees, but also potentially in you and your managerial style. What is your contribution, and what can you do differently to get what you want from your reports?


  • Understand how fear operates in employees. Managers often are surprised to learn how much fear their employees experience – fear to share authentic feedback, fear to ask for clarification, fear to question a request that doesn’t make sense or that seemingly conflicts with another expectation. This fear comes in part from where they sit in the power structure, and in part from how they see the power structure – their assumptions about authority and about what it means to be subordinate. For someone who sees the world in this way, taking responsibility and making decisions carries a scary risk of making a mistake.


  • Pay attention to your own behaviors that could increase fear. Many senior managers don’t recognize the effect of their own position on how others in more junior roles perceive them. Your authority causes the effects of your behavior to be multiplied, including the effects of your frustration when your reports don’t perform as you expected.


  • Don’t confuse standards and style Look at your expectations about how an employee completes a deliverable. Is there more room for you to accept different styles of accomplishing it? Could a good quality deliverable take different forms, without your having to let go of your standards?


  • Ask questions. Your employees know why they’re doing what they’re doing, and you don’t. Less telling and more asking is the most effective way to understand what’s getting in the way of your expected performance.


  • Have the conversation about what “good work” looks like.  Make sure you articulate every criterion for a good work product and process that you’re carrying around in your mind. Then, subject this picture to dialogue with the employee to make sure it fits with their picture.


  • Talk about why. Why do you want them to approach the work in a certain way? Bring them into your thinking process. This also serves a developmental purpose by helping them link their efforts to broader outcomes.


  • When you’re frustrated, talk about it directly and non-judgmentally.  For example, when you believe that an employee didn’t use good judgment, discuss the consequences of her actions on others’ ability to meet their goals.  Judging actions as right or wrong, good or bad, is not helpful to your ultimate goal of broadening the employee’s perspective and increasing her ability to use her own judgment in the future.


  • Consider the possibility that you’re missing something. When you get caught up in the single-minded focus on getting what you want, you don’t open yourself up to the possibility that there’s some information or viewpoint that you’re missing – that your own expectation may need to change. When you have a dialogue with your report about the performance you want that you’re not getting, it’s only a true dialogue if you are also listening for information that might cause you to modify your expectation.


What works best for you, when you seek to get the desired performance out of your reports?

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