Question #6: : Why can’t employees just do what I tell them?
This is the sixth in a series of thoughts and opinions by Graham Edwards and Renée Cormier — click here to read the backstory and inspiration (if only for the entertainment). It should be noted that neither of us have seen or discussed our answers before they are posted, which in our mind makes this all the more interesting.
In this blog series we will attempt to answer ten different questions business owners may need answered, using our individual and unique perspectives and approaches. It is our hope that this series will inspire both action and interaction. Please feel free to comment and ask more questions.
When we first came up with this question I didn’t like it at all; in fact I thought it was a silly question. As I sat down to craft some sort of answer I actually came to the realization that it is a brilliant question because it scratches at effective leadership.
With that said (and with explanation), the answer to this question is, “It’s the employee’s way of helping you become a more effective leader.” And here’s the explanation —
If at anytime you find yourself thinking (or even worse saying out loud), “Why can’t employees just do what I tell them?” you are an autocratic leader at one level or another, and your employees may be just trying to tell you — and not necessarily in a conscious way.
au·to·crat·ic [ˌôdəˈkradik] ADJECTIVE — of or relating to a ruler who has absolute power ; taking no account of other people's wishes or opinions; domineering
With this type of leadership style (and with time) you find an employee will stop asking questions, stop engaging, stop bringing ideas to the table, stop offering a difference of opinion to make things better, stop striving for excellence, stop going above and beyond, and either stay because they really have no choice or look for a new career opportunity — and not surprisingly, don’t really do what is asked of them. These are the components that make up dysfunctional teams, disgruntle employees, and at the very best create mediocre business situations — just ask around or check out the countless research on the topic.
This is the colour commentary of an ineffective Leader.
Don’t get me wrong, the final decision and responsibility has to fall to a defined leader (or owner) to ensure things get done (so they in effect always get “two votes”), but this does not suggests that a Leader doesn’t have to listen effectively, communicate ideas and circumstances transparently, accept better ideas, engage, openly request feedback, and always promote the word “we”.
With all of this said, there will always be employees who (for many reasons) are not meeting the expectations of their role — and although it is the responsibility of every employee to own their career, it is the responsibility of the leader to ensure all employees are meeting expectations. For an employee who is falling short of expectations it is important to 1) offer timely communication regarding the issue and 2) review corrective action with the employee (my experience is many issues are usually corrected with a discussion). If an issue is not corrected quickly, it is crucially important (also in a timely manner) to develop formal and measureable development plans to either move the employee “up or out” of the organization.
An employee should never be surprised when asked to leave a company for performance reasons.
“Why can’t employees just do what I tell them?” is a leadership question that asks if you are working to be the best leader you can be — as well as asks how you are going about developing your employees to be the best they can be (even if the result is letting them do it with another company).
I suppose it would have been easier to ask, “Are you being the most effective leader you possibly can?”
Generally speaking, there are two main reasons why your employees don’t take direction from you. They either don’t understand exactly what you want, or they don’t have any respect for you (or both). You need to realize, however, that both of these reasons are directly connected to your leadership skills. Leadership is about a lot more than being able to give direction and delegate tasks. Who you are as a person, the way you interact with others, the values you hold, your attention to detail and your dependability all affect the way your employees interact with you. Read on to discover what you can do to get your employees to fall in line and do what you want them to do.
Present clear cut objectives: If people know exactly what you want, then there will be no mistaking the expected outcomes. No one can read your mind. Whatever you can do to make it simple for people to understand exactly what you are looking for is always good. Provide a timeline and be willing to discuss various approaches. Less experienced employees need more attention than seasoned employees. Don’t stifle creativity by being a micromanager, but be prepared to have discussions that cover the “who, what, when, where, why and how” of any task, if necessary.
Explain why your objectives are important: Employees tend to be more eager to help when they understand why they must do something. In the world of work, things that are understood to be important tend to get done correctly. Retailers are great at never explaining why their employees must follow certain procedures. If you’ve ever gone into a store and watched the cashier ring in one item under the SKU of another, then you have witnessed what happens when leaders don’t explain why things are important. This seemingly insignificant act, done frequently enough will screw up your inventory and sales numbers, but how is a cashier to know that if you don’t explain it? The other downside of not explaining the rationale behind your requests is that you limit your employees’ ability to help customers or other employees.
Be tolerant of mistakes: Throwing a hissy fit every time somebody screws up only inhibits creativity and proactivity. Mistakes are learning opportunities. If you demand perfection, you will cultivate a culture of fear, insecurity and disengagement.
Follow up: Any new initiative should be put into a project planner and followed up with regular meetings to discuss progress, problems, solutions, etc. Nobody will do anything consistently if it appears you don’t have a timeline, or a reporting system for progress. My beBee post, Work the Plan: Secrets to Successful Business Execution shows a sample of a simple project planner done in Excel and can also give you some additional advice around how to get things done.
Provide feedback: Employees who receive no feedback from their boss perform as poorly as those who only receive negative feedback. In my leadership training days, I used to play a training game where I formed three groups who each had to toss an object onto a line. Each team had a leader with a different direction for feedback. One team was to only receive praise from the leader, no matter what. The second team received only negative feedback from the leader, no matter what, and the third team got no feedback at all; only silence from their leader. Invariably, the team with the best results was the one that received only positive feedback. Such is the power of words to motivate. Remember that.
Don’t play favourites: In grade school, the teacher’s pet got beaten up by the other kids and the kids all hated their teacher because she payed favourites. In the work place, there is nothing more divisive than paying favourites and nothing will bring on passive aggressive behaviour (such as not following direction) the way playing favourites does. If you are playing favourites, then you need to have an ego check. Treat your employees equally. Give bonuses to top performers, not your company ass kissers.
Keep your promises: Nothing causes your employees to really get angry like being lied to or mislead. Angry employees don’t do what you want them to do. They won’t respect you, they will resent you and they will undermine your business. They may even start quitting, and who needs that grief?
Be a strong leader: Don’t keep changing your mind about things. Be consistently available to your employees, care about them as people and be clear in your communication. If you set and achieve goals for yourself, so will your team. Your people will naturally respond to the example you set. If you are strong and stable, they will get things done. If you are an emotional mess, unreliable and unpredictable, then they will be very unsettled and disorganized.
Be respectful: It’s a simple human relations principle that everyone should follow. Don’t tolerate disrespectful behaviour and don’t model it. John C. Maxwell is one of my all-time favourite authors of leadership books. Check out Leadership Gold and his other books on leadership.
Become known for your exemplary character: Leaders who show up for work stinking of last night’s booze don’t get respect. Neither do leaders who cheat on their spouse, make inappropriate remarks about others, engage in unscrupulous business practices, and so on, and so on… You get the drill. Your employees will talk about all the crap you did long after they have left your company. I have witnessed this many times. People love to talk, and they will.
Get employees to contribute ideas to help solve problems: Treat your employees as colleagues rather than underlings. They are your greatest resource and it is your strong leadership that will bring the best out in them.
All of this seems so elementary to me, but I know that many people in leadership positions don’t have a clue how to get employees to respond positively to their requests. I’ve said it before and I will say it again. The results you are getting are directly related to the quality of your leadership. It may hurt to hear it, but it is all about you!
Thanks to the social media platform beBee, Renée Cormier & Graham Edwards developed a business relationship and friendship that typically involves regular meetings, goal setting sessions, etc. Our meetings often provide the fuel for plans around business strategy, blog ideas and more.