I recently had a manager explain to me that he had a department with over 200 employees and that his biggest challenge was a lack of productivity. When I asked him what he meant by that he stated, “I just don’t understand why people can’t do what I ask them to do!”
When people fail to meet our expectations or perform poorly, they may offer any number of reasons, excuses, or stories in explanation for their lack of results. These explanations should signal that “fake talk” has occurred and may be occurring again. From our research, we have identified a number of common explanations for nonperformance and the meaning behind them.
“I Didn’t Know How to Do It That Way.”
This explanation reveals that the individual did not have the ability or requisite skills for completing the assigned task. What is more interesting than the lack of skill is the individual’s unwillingness to identify their own deficiencies. Clearly this individual did not feel comfortable identifying their challenge until after the deadline. Finding out why they didn’t feel comfortable speaking up is important to their future performance.
“I Didn’t Understand Why You Wanted Me to Do It That Way.”
This story reveals that this person needs a justification or reason for doing a task a certain way. Those individuals who are perfectionists often resist new ways of doing things if they think they will perform poorly or if they don’t understand the benefit of doing something differently. Offering a reason or justification for the request you have made will help to put their concerns to rest.
“I Thought Something Else Was More Important.”
This is clearly an issue of priority. This individual didn’t understand the specifics of which tasks were more important in terms of implementation. Checking your specificity as to the priority of certain tasks is the beginning to understanding the root of this challenge. If you realize that you haven’t been specific, then you need to hold a conversation about changing priorities.
“I Didn’t Think It Would Work.”
This statement is a corollary to, “I thought my way was better, quicker, or easier.” When you gave directions to this person, you probably didn’t recognize the resistance signals they offered. Signals such as eye rolling, hesitation, or deep sighs are signs of disagreement or resistance to what you are asking them to do. When you see such behavior, you need to check out the meaning behind their behavior.
This statement also helps you understand that the person might not have had the big picture, nor did they understand how their work contributed to the overall objective to be achieved. Consequently, they engaged in behavior that did not help them to complete the desired task.
“I Didn’t Think It Would Be a Big Deal If I Didn’t Get It Right the First Time.”
This person clearly didn’t see the consequences for poor performance. Such a statement should lead you to question the specifics of your directions as well as the degree of accountability to which this individual is held responsible. The statement also is revealing about the culture that the “first time” doesn’t count towards the results.
“There Were Too Many Obstacles to Reasonably Meet the Deadline.”
This statement illustrates the individual’s assignment of value to the amount of effort they perceive is required versus the achievement of a specific result. If they think that a greater effort is required than they need or want to expend, then they won’t make the effort. You will need to spend time with this individual helping them to understand the value of their effort in achieving the desired results. This statement also raises the question about adequate planning to achieve the desired objective. Finally, exploring how this individual handles obstacles would be useful.
“Why Should I Kill Myself Working so Hard When No One Seems to Notice or Care?”
Often when people work really hard and perform well, no one seems to notice or even recognize their efforts. When this happens discretionary effort becomes nonexistent. Many end up thinking that what they do doesn’t really matter or they will decide to just do the minimum to just get by.
These explanations signal that fake talk has occurred. When you hear such explanations, you need to explore more specifically why the desired results were not achieved. What is important is to hear what people say and to understand the messages or issues that are often hidden in the stories they offer.
Here are six tips for engaging in REAL conversations that will help you to improve the way you give directions and attempt to improve your results.
1. Assume Positive Intent
Assume that people want to do well. If you assume that they are stupid, lazy, or incompetent, then your negative assumptions will color the entire conversation. You will end up creating more defensiveness and resistance than candor and honesty.
2. Ask Questions
When goals aren’t met it is not only important to understand what happened, but also what needs to be improved the next time. Asking questions that move you into the future is more important than dwelling on the past. Notice the difference in these questions:
“Why did you do that?” (past) vs. “What would you improve next time?” (future)
Notice that the first question will cause the other person to become defensive as they defend their actions in the past. Whereas, the second question stimulates the person to address challenges that may occur in the future.
3. Explore Challenges
When things don’t go as planned or the unexpected occurs, it is important to identify how, where, and when certain obstacles presented themselves. Taking the time to do this will produce a better result and help you anticipate what may occur in the future.
4. Clarify Priorities
Sometimes people have so many tasks on their plate that they don’t understand what they need to do and by when. Don’t assume they know what you are thinking, what takes priority, or that they’ll ask for clarification. You need to clearly communicate your priorities repeatedly if you hope to be successful and invite them to ask questions if they aren’t clear on something.
5. Explain the Consequences
This is something that should take place more frequently. When you share positive consequences for completing certain tasks you are naturally reinforcing the importance of their commitment to achieving the desired results. Although I believe people are more motivated by positive consequences, sometimes it is necessary to be very clear about any negative consequences for poor performance, and specifically how those consequences will affect not only them, but those around them.
6. Offer Support
I am surprised how often when things don’t go as planned, no one speaks up or says a thing. You need to emphasize that people can and should approach you when they don’t know what to do or when they need to handle certain challenges. It is impossible to support and assist others if you don’t even know a challenge exists.
All of these behaviors, practiced frequently, should help you to not only create a culture of candor and openness, but also should help you achieve the results you want.