Getting staff to do stuff

“Why don’t staff just do what they’re paid to do?”

“Sometimes I feel like their parent rather than a boss”

“It’s exhausting constantly having to tell them what to do. Why can’t they show some initiative?”

Managing people can be tough. In fact, judging by the questions I get in coaching and workshops, it’s the primary, but shrouded, challenge of most business owners and leaders. I say shrouded because it’s easier to talk about supplier negotiations, marketing conversion and pricing than it is to ‘fess up to how difficult getting staff to do stuff feels. There’s an assumption that you should just know – I mean, you’re the boss, right?  If thinking about and dealing with staff performance is soaking up too much of your time and energy and you’d prefer to be focussing more gratifying activities, read on.

Three truths about staff

Let’s start by understanding how staff members are wired. Just like customers, there are three truths about how your staff engage with the world:

  1. They write the script – they have a narrative of how the world works, and anything contrary to that (i.e. you are not doing what I need you to do), will be ignored or distorted;
  2. They are the hero of the story – the business isn’t the main thing in their world – they are. Anything that threatens their self-worth (i.e. they are not doing something correctly) will be rationalised away (e.g. it’s your fault/the business’ fault/other people’s fault, not theirs); and
  3. They run on batteries – energy levels, mood and cognition vary throughout the hour, day and week. Some days they will be “on”, some days they will be “off”.

How to get staff to do stuff

The three truths about how your staff members are wired force us to shift perspective from us to them, and this is vital if we want to influence their behaviour.

“Why do I have to always be the one who changes?” I hear you groan.

As I wrote in a piece about stone sculpture, if you hit a block of stone front on you’ll get one of two responses. One, you might split the stone in half, which ruins both the stone and your plans. Second, your chisel will bounce off the stone, right back at you. This happens with people if we try to bludgeon them with our views. Being too direct will either break their spirit or be met with a wall of defensiveness. Instead, if we want to shape the stone we need to chip away using angles.  It doesn’t need to be difficult, but it does require some thought.

By this point, then, I’m hoping you are thinking how you can speak to your staff from their point of view, not yours. But let’s delve further. There are only three reasons staff don’t do what you are asking:

  • Apathy – they can’t be bothered;
  • Paralysis – they are overwhelmed or confused; and/or
  • Anxiety – they are scared.

What to do when staff can’t be bothered

There are two mistakes we tend to make when trying to overcome staff apathy.

1. Assume money is sufficient motivation

Money may motivate to a degree and for roles that are based time or piece-work rates, but most behavioural research suggests:

  • Salary doesn’t motivate once you’ve reached a point where basic needs are taken care of (e.g. food, shelter). Most salaried employees don’t wake up every day excited that today they will earn $x – its salience recedes in their mind. While you might be thinking “I’m paying them for this”, they won’t have the same connection between money and productivity;
  • Money can actually impair performance in high-incentive cognitive tasks; and
  • Reminders of money can make staff less collaborative, so if you are emphasising individual bonuses don’t expect a lot of team play.  

2. Assume it should be enough once we’ve motivated them

Motivation is not a stable state – sometimes it’s up, sometimes it’s down. That means you can spend a lot of time and energy getting staff enthused about their work only to see it naturally abate.

Instead of relying on motivation to get staff to be bothered you need to:

  • Hit the effort sweet spot – if something is too hard, staff won’t engage for fear of failure. If something is too easy (e.g. you do it for them), they won’t engage because they feel they bring nothing to the work – there’s no ‘skin in the game’;
  • Make it intrinsically rewarding – extrinsic rewards like bonuses and promotions are not as compelling as those that make your staff member (the hero, remember) feel great about the contribution they are making. Share with them the purpose of the task – why it’s important – and give them the space to actually do it. Swooping in and doing it for them may work in the short-term, but you’ve just killed any desire they had to contribute in future;
  • Foster a culture of endeavour – if people see others coasting along they will be more likely to conform to that behaviour. Instead you need to showcase those who try as the ones who get rewarded; and
  • Acknowledge their efforts. I know, I know, spending your time acknowledging them for work they are PAID to do should not be required, but it is. In fact, ignoring their efforts is as detrimental as destroying their work in front of their eyes. It can be as simple as a “thanks for the effort you put into this” email or comment – just make sure you do it and you do it at the time, not months later in an annual review.

What to do when staff are overwhelmed

If your staff seem like bunnies in the headlights who can’t make a decision, it’s probably because they feel overwhelmed.  This often happens when priorities are in conflict and everything seems equally urgent and important.

Your role is to help them clarify both their objective and their first step towards it. Keep it simple – they just need to start – and help them disentangle what is urgent vs. what is important.

What to do when staff are scared

The silent killer of staff performance is anxiety – they may know what to do and why, but they are worried about proceeding.  They may feel there is too much pressure to perform (high stakes, high profile), they are out of their depth (a competency issue) or to proceed means breaking the cultural dynamic (i.e. Tall poppy syndrome).

Your role is to give them:

  • Nothing to fear if they do what you want – Encourage a ‘growth mindset’ culture where trying and learning is rewarded; let them know their job is secure and that you have their back; let them feel safe calling out when they are out of depth – relating stories when you felt this way will make it permissible; and
  • Something to fear if they don’t – Send the message through your actions that people who don’t put in will be left behind; that they’ll miss out realising their own potential if they don’t try; reward teams for the behaviour you want to see, and have them acknowledge team mates that made a difference so you create a culture where those who don’t contribute will feel like they are letting others down.

Is managing staff sometimes exhausting? Yes. Thankless? Often. But it is also one of the best things you can do. It is my ardent belief that most people turn up to work wanting do a good job – your task is to let them.

This article also appeared in Smartcompany.

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