Time to Get Tough?

In a group-coaching session yesterday with senior managers at a Fortune 500 company, the title question above came up:  When is the right time to get tough, or strict, with my employees?

The scenario:  The employees in question were balking at a productivity goal — one that matched the department’s pre-recession output.  Why balking?  Because the recession brought fewer orders in, but no layoffs.  These employees have gotten used to filling their time filling fewer orders.

So it now feels overwhelming to meet the targets they used to be able to meet without complaining!

The manager is tempted to read them the riot act — or at least to let them know in no uncertain terms, “This is what you’ll be responsible for.  Period.  Do it, and stop whining.”

That’s not a good idea.  Tempting, but not the best idea.  If, that is, you care about the attitude your employees bring to work every day.

If you let employees set the bar, they’ll often set it higher than you would …

Whether they know it or not, what these employees are facing is their own fear.  Fear of overwhelm, fear of stress, fear of long hours, fear of failure to meet the new standards.  If the company (i.e. their boss) doesn’t directly address that fear, she’s missing a golden opportunity to deconstruct it, and thus to get her employees on board intrinsically rather than with the whip of compliance.

And as I’ve said more than once in this space, intrinsic is the only sustainable motivation.

Telling your troops to suck it up and meet the new expectations ain’t exactly a recipe for buy-in.  It may be satisfying to you in the short term.  It might fill your self-righteousness bucket.  And it might even get your employees to comply in the short term, out of fear.  But the research couldn’t be clearer — a punitive approach breeds defiance, defensiveness, and passive aggression.  Doesn’t that sound appealing? Yeah, give me some of those attitudes on my team!

So here are a few alternative approaches.

YOUR PATH FORWARD: Whenever you need to raise the bar of productivity:

  1. Instead of setting the new goal for them, start by asking them what level of productivity they think they can reach, and in what amount of time.  Often if you let employees set the bar, they’ll set it higher than you would have….  And once they’ve reached it, celebrate the achievement, and then after a reasonable period of time ask them what they think is possible for setting it even higher.  Keep asking those questions.  The sky might be the limit — and they’ll have gotten there without you needing to get tough.
  2. If you absolutely have to set the bar without input from the team, ask them what they’re afraid of, in the context of meeting the new goals.  Ask them what it would take for them to feel like they can reach them.
  3. Assure them, with sincerity, that together you will find ways to meet the new goals with minimal overtime, stress, burnout, or failure.  And then own that promise.  Don’t let them down, or they may never forgive you.

About the Author

Steve Motenko
Steve Motenko is an executive coach, leadership trainer, and co-host of The Boss Show, a weekly podcast on workplace dynamics. Steve and his Boss Show co-host, Jim Hessler, are co-authors of Land On Your Feet, Not On Your Face: A Guide to Building Your Leadership Platform. Steve lives on Whidbey Island, Washington, with his wife and dog, whom he loves, and a cat he tolerates usually pretty well.

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