Why don’t my employees do what I ask them?

Exploring the four W’s: Who, What, When and Why.

One of the most common complaints among managers is that it is faster and easier to just do things themselves because they have to check and fix almost everything their team does, especially with younger members of the team. This is presented as “a generational thing” and one of the main reasons they do not have time to think strategically about their business.

One manager, John, gave me an example. A client was unhappy and, as he was busy with something else, he asked his team (six employees) to attend to the matter. After a few days, the team has done nothing and he had to raise his voice. The next day the client cancelled their contract, citing unhappiness with the way the complaint was handled. John then had to drop everything and handle the situation himself, eventually meeting with the client to salvage the deal. He felt that it would have been easier to just sort it out himself.

I took some time to sit with the team to find out what it was that caused this disconnect. The word disconnect is used because I found they were generally smart and willing. As far as they are concerned, they are doing a good job as much as they can, given the constraints. I asked about those constraints and they showed me the email in question. John forwarded the complaint from the client with these words: “Will one of you please sort this out?”

Who: His instruction was not issued to a specific person but to “one of you”. They did not know who should attend to it as they were all busy with something. If they drop what they were doing, will they get in trouble? Which one of them should phone? They were not sure, played safe and each thought someone else will do it.

What: “sort this out” contains no information on what they are supposed to do. They did not know what it meant when John said “sort this out”. For John, it was obvious that the matter should be resolved by phoning the client, listen to the complaint, make sure it gets resolved by arranging a repair with the field team and offer the client some compensation for their trouble. For the team, this was not obvious at all. They often see John driving to clients to personally attend to problems, go to the owner to discuss a problem or meet with the field team to arrange something. What is said and done at each of these interactions is unknown to the team. None of them has the authority to offer a discount, call for a re-install or present the client with any options. When one of them eventually phoned after John lost his temper, all he could do was to listen to the client screaming at them, getting more irate when she realised the person she speaks to is a junior with no authority to actually fix the problem.

When: John’s instruction contained no information regarding the timeline or urgency of the matter. They do not have insight into the strategic priorities of the department and go on how hard John shouts. The more frustrated he is, the higher priority they assign to a task. It supports John’s observation that he must shout for something to happen, not realising that he is the reason this is happening.

Why: The why consisted of two parts. Firstly, the team did not understand that client retention was a major concern for the business due to the impact of the lockdown because the strategic priorities were never shared with them. They also shared that they all get the same increase and no-one in that department has ever got a promotion – John was the last. They loved the company but felt they were in a dead-beat job with no career prospects. Why must they risk making a mistake and get shouted at?

John would have had more success if his instruction addressed the “W’s”. Something like:

Peter (be specific who should attend), please phone Miss Johnson (name the client – the team must feel the personal connection) today before the end of business (give a specific time) and apologise for the inconvenience. Find out what exactly is wrong and arrange with the field team to visit her and fix the problem. Phone her back once you spoke to the field team and give her an update. Apologise on my behalf for not attending to her problem. Ask her if there is anything else we can do for her (give specific instruction). Please give me feedback and make sure you tell me if she demands a discount or some form of monetary compensation (make sure they know this is important for you). Team, we cannot afford to lose a client. Client retention is our highest priority (provide a why).

When presented with this suggestion, I often hear managers say “they are not babies” or “I cannot be expected to think for them”. I urge you to think back to the days you started. You also started with no idea what to do. But someone took you under their wings and showed you the ropes. That manager probably allowed you to make mistakes and learn from them. Be that mentor for your team.

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