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Article: Leadership: Why won't they do what they're supposed to? Related Resources

Leadership: Why won't they do what they're supposed to?
by Wally Bock

The people who work for you should do what they're supposed to do. But sometimes they don't. If you're the boss, you have to figure out what's going on and then fix the problem.

Start out by asking the person why they didn't do what you want. Do not get emotional. Do not get defensive. Even if you think what you hear is really dumb, remain calm.

Then analyze what you hear so you can take action to fix the problem. Remember that one of your objectives as a boss is to take away all your people's excuses for not doing what they're supposed to do. Here are some of the reasons you'll discover.

Maybe they don't know what you want them to do. They "should" know, but they often don't.

To fix this one, you have to make sure that your expectations are clear. Give your instructions in several different ways. Use active listening techniques to check for understanding.

Set clear expectations in four areas. Your subordinate should know what behavior or performance is expected. They should be clear about when it's expected. You should also make sure they understand how performance will be measured and what the consequences are of good and bad performance or behavior.

Maybe they don't think it's as important as other things. In today's overloaded world, this is a really common reason.

To fix this one, you need to make your priorities clear. Don't be surprised if your subordinate asks you: "What do you want me to not do so I can do this?" Be prepared to offer suggestions for how they can do everything they're supposed to.

If the task is a high priority one, set up an alarm system that will let you know early if there's going to be a problem getting the work done. That way you can re-arrange things so commitments and goals are met.

There are two kinds of alarm systems. First there are performance milestones.

If your goal is something like mailing fifty marketing pieces a week, then you can set milestones for each day. At the end of Monday check performance. If the Monday milestone hasn't been met, find out why. Fix the problem.

The other kind of alarm system is telling your subordinate to alert you if they're going to have trouble meeting performance targets. This works best with confident workers who can make realistic estimates of how things are going. For others, use the milestone system.

Maybe they don't know how to do what you want. This happens surprisingly often. It's most likely to happen with people who are new on the job. But it can also happen with experienced workers who haven't done the specific task you want for quite a while.

This is a training issue. To fix the problem, show your subordinate how to do the job. Or send them off for training. Or have them shadow another worker who does the job well.

Maybe they don't have the resources to do what you want. Your expectations can be clear, but if your subordinate doesn't have the tools, time or budget to do the job, you've got a problem.

Fixing this one is simple, but it's not always easy. Make sure your subordinate has the resources he or she needs to do the job.

Maybe they're scared of the task. Hardly anyone talks about this, but it happens all the time. Your subordinate might be worried about physical injury. He or she may fear embarrassment or ridicule or failure.

To fix this problem, ease your subordinate into the task. Give him or her lots of small wins. Step by safe step is the way to success.

Maybe, they choose not to do what you want. This is a tough one. Some people have the training and the resources and simply don't do what they're supposed to do.

There are a couple of keys to handling this situation well. First, give notice that specific behavior or performance is unacceptable and that you're going to pay attention with notebook in hand.

Let him or her know that you will document their behavior. Let your subordinate know what the consequences will be of continued unacceptable performance or behavior.

Then do what you promise. Monitor behavior or performance. Deliver negative consequences for unacceptable performance. Use positive consequences to encourage the right behavior. Document your subordinate's performance, your meetings and agreements, and whatever consequences get delivered.

You'll find that most folks change their behavior as soon as you give them notice. Most of the rest will change after a negative consequence or two.

A small fraction will continue in their unacceptable ways. In those cases you will probably wind up delivering formal discipline or perhaps even terminating employment. But if that's the case, your good documentation will support the discipline or firing.

Wally Bock is an author, speaker and consultant who helps businesses improve morale and productivity. His latest book is Performance Talk: The One-on-One Part of Leadership. Wally Bock may be contacted at or


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