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Why Don't Employees Do What You Want Them to Do?

BY SUSAN M. HEATHFIELD   Updated on May 02, 2020

Managers perennially ask why employees don’t do what they are supposed to do. While part of the responsibility falls on choices individual employees make, managers need to shoulder part of the blame, too. Managers and the management systems they create are commonly responsible when employees don't do what you want them to do.

Employees want to succeed at work. You don’t know a single person who gets up in the morning and says, “Gee, I think I’ll go to work and fail today.” Employees often fail because of a failure in your employee management systems.

Note: To determine why an employee is failing at a task or why their goals seem unachievable, you need to ask the question that Dr. W. Edwards Deming (the father of the U.S. quality movement) traditionally asked: “What about the work system is causing the employee to fail?” An examination of the work systems usually yields important answers he was wont to say in his lectures to managers.

Why Don’t Employees Do What You Want Them to Do?

Internationally known consultant, speaker, and former professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Business, Ferdinand Fournies, in his landmark book, "Why Employees Don’t Do What They’re Supposed to Do and What to Do About It," says that one reason is that employees don’t know what they are supposed to do. Managers play an essential role in helping employees know what they are supposed to do.

5 Critical Management Systems

Managers do this by creating effective management systems. They help employees by developing and using these five critical management systems.

Management Systems: Goal Setting and Employee Involvement

As a manager, you'll want to design your employee management system of goal setting and employee involvement to enable employees to succeed.

  • Help to establish overall goals for your department and work unit. Take ownership of the goals that the company requires you to meet and the goals that you can subjectively set, in addition.

  • Communicate the goals of the work unit or enable employees to participate in setting the goals, to develop more employee ownership of the goals.

  • Involve employees in determining how they will go about achieving the goals.

  • Help employees know what to measure and how to measure so that they can see that they are making progress in meeting the goals.

Management Systems: Delegation

Delegate projects and other activities to help employees meet department goals by using effective management system delegation methods.

  • Assist the employee to make an overall work plan with dates and a timeline for when key deliverables are due for review.

  • Share any preconceived pictures you may have of what you want the outcome or deliverables to look like so that you and the employee share meaning.

  • Establish the criteria for success. You'll want to create the opportunity for a celebration.

  • Meet with the employee at designated due dates to assess progress and roadblocks encountered. You don't want to be blindsided—and the employee doesn't want to be either—if a deadline or step is missed.

Management Systems: Training, Education, and Development

Training plays a role in employees knowing what they are supposed to do. They need the skills and tools essential for them to succeed in their jobs. As a manager, you bear a lot of the responsibility to ensure that your reporting employees are given the opportunity to develop the skills they need to succeed.

  • Keep commitments about employee developmental opportunities written in the performance development plan. (The ability to grow and develop their skills is crucial to employee motivation and success).

  • Coach employee skill development daily and in their one-on-one, weekly meetings with you.

Management Systems: Recognition and Reward

Important: Recognition is the most powerful form of employee feedback. Timely, appropriate recognition to an employee is the feedback that reinforces actions you want to see more of from the employee. If the employee is informed, through timely, specific recognition, of the types of actions you want to see, the employee is likely to repeat them.

  • Provide recognition that is timely, and that reinforces employee learning and goal accomplishment.

  • Recognize employees for doing what you want them to do.

In a mid-sized company, semi-annual employee satisfaction surveys are conducted. The Culture and Communications team was not satisfied with the amount of specific information received in response to the question, "How does the company make you feel that it is genuinely interested in employee well-being?"

The committee devised a second questionnaire and discovered that the number one factor that affected whether employees felt genuinely cared about by the company, was positive, personal interaction time with their manager. Pretty powerful. finding, wouldn't you say?

Do you have these management systems in place? Are employees still acting as if they don't know what you want them to do?

Signs That Employees Don't Know What You Want Them to Do

Signs that your employees still don’t know what you want them to do include

  • assignments that are not completed on time;

  • procrastination on projects;

  • errors and mistakes;

  • a focus on non-essential, busy work;

  • unsatisfactory amounts of output;

  • outcomes that don't capitalize on the potential for success;

  • unwillingness to ask for help;

  • excuses and failure to take responsibility; and

  • failure to provide you with timely feedback.

If you see these signs from your employees, you need to reinforce the above described five management systems to see what you need to add to make them more effective.

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