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Why Can't I Get My Employees to Operate Independently

Q. I hire good, experienced people to work at my company. I shouldn’t have to tell them what to do all the time. Unfortunately, I can’t seem to get them to operate independently—I’m really disappointed with my people. Do you have any advice?

A. If you expect people to work well without direction, you’ll continue to be disappointed. There is a reason why “manager” is a job. It takes a complex set of skills to influence, motivate, coach, instruct, and direct a group of people on a daily basis to achieve a common goal.

When entrepreneurs get into business, it is often because they are passionate about doing the primary work of the business. If they are successful and the business grows, they will most likely hire employees to help them. Now the business is, at least in part, dependent on how well the entrepreneur manages his or her employees. However, unless the entrepreneur has been taught to manage others, or at least has been exposed to good management techniques, it is likely that they will make many mistakes.

You may have hired experienced and talented individuals, but without direction, it is unlikely that they will perform the way you would like. It would be like throwing a group of 11 athletes onto a football field with no one to make assignments or call the plays. It is doubtful that they will win against a well-coached team—even one with much less talent.

Managing others is a learned skill. No one is born knowing how to manage. Here are some tips to get you started:

Develop a set of goals for each employee that, if accomplished, should allow the business to achieve its revenue, profit and other objectives. Writing the goals in the SMART format (Specific, Measurable, Action Oriented, Realistic and Time and Resource Bound) will help both you and your employees think through the steps needed to complete the goal and how to measure progress. Make sure that goals work harmoniously throughout the organization. You don’t want one employee’s work to achieve his/her goals unwittingly to sabotage the efforts of another.

Meet regularly with each of your direct reports. Usually this means a weekly meeting. However, for newer or less experienced employees you might want to meet more frequently. More experienced employees with a history of great performance may need less frequent meetings. However, don’t let good performance mean your best employees get ignored.

The meeting should generally be between 30 and 60 minutes in length. A good format it to spend a third of the time allowing the employee to report on how they are progressing against their goals. During this time, the employee should also reveal challenges they are facing. The second third of the meeting time should be spent coaching the employee on how they can overcome the challenges. The final third of the meeting can be spent discussing priorities for the next time period. This is also a great time to praise the employee’s accomplishments and/or express your displeasure with poor performance.

Meet as a team. In addition to individual meetings, you should have regular meetings with the entire team. Team meetings may be used to communicate information that is of interest to all, as well as to highlight individual accomplishments. However, this is not the time to bring up individual performance failures that you disguise as group failures. For example, suppose one of your employees has a punctuality issue. Group meetings are not the place to wax eloquent on the need for on-time attendance. Often, untrained managers will try to avoid the uncomfortable individual confrontation by inflicting the discussion on the entire group, hoping that the offender will take the hint and start to come in on time.

This almost never works. Instead, most of the employees will know exactly who you are talking about and will resent having to listen to the lecture. Your best employees, who have only been late once in the past year, will think you are pointing out their single transgression and be mortified. Finally, the chronically-late employee, witnessing the entire group being scolded, will believe that everyone must be late all the time, which means that his/her behavior must be the norm.

Managing is complex. These are just a few tips. We will try to send more your way in the next few weeks.

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