How much control do you think you have?
I can’t count how many times I have heard someone say it is very hard to keep people accountable in higher ed. Do any of these statements sound familiar to you?
“You really can’t make anyone do anything around here. Some people do great work, others don’t, and I can’t change that.”
“Because of the unions and employment contracts, we have to be very careful about what we ask.”
“There is just too much work and not enough people so things don’t get done and errors are inevitable.”
“People have gotten away with making excuses for so long that they feel entitled and ready to fight us when we ask them to do more or better”
And the list goes on and on...
Do I believe that some people have a bad attitude, are too complacent, and unwilling to step up? Yes, that happens, but I don’t believe it is as pervasive as some people would lead you to believe.
I sincerely believe that the majority of employees who don’t meet their supervisors’ expectations don’t know how to improve but would love to be empowered to succeed. And they deserve your attention!
When there is a performance problem, administrators are asked to (1) document it, (2) speak with the employee (and often with a union rep present), (3) counsel them and develop an improvement plan, (4) check back, evaluate, and escalate or de-escalate.
I understand how that approach will make HR happy because you are less likely to be sued when you follow the protocol, but I wouldn’t call this “helping someone do better”.
Here is why: When you tell someone that they have to meet deadlines, or that they have to make fewer errors, or that they have to show more respect for their peers, or whatever else you want to see happen, you forget that most people are already doing the best they can, given what they know (and don’t know) and what goes on in their conscious and unconscious minds.
In this article, I am not talking about the few bad apples but the huge majority of employees who sincerely want to do a good job. Pointing out problems, making judgements, and giving ultimatums won’t help someone grow.
“Honey, just relax!”
You get home and your spouse is getting upset or angry about something that looks trivial to you. From your perspective, getting upset or angry about what is happening is not justified. So you say the three magic words:
“Honey, just relax.”
What happens next? Does your spouse say “You are right! I was emotional and clearly over-reacting. My mind wasn’t working right. But now that you told me to relax, it makes perfect sense so I can relax right now. Thank you honey, I feel so much better”? Of course your spouse won’t say that. These three words don’t help. They magically make the tension five times worse. Saying “relax” to someone who is upset is the fastest way to upset them more.
Well, when someone is overwhelmed with fear and anxiety because they can’t cope with their workload and you tell them they have to meet deadlines, you are not helping. You are pouring salt on an open wound.
You expand their fear and feelings of being defeated. HR is happy that you followed the procedure but now you have a bigger problem: your employee is less able to perform than before you counseled them.
A better way
Instead, here is a better way of keeping people accountable
1. Change your mindset. Let go of the old story that you can’t keep people accountable. Acknowledge that you can and you will. There is no point in starting anything if you feel defeated before you even try. So remember, developing an empowered mindset is your #1 goal.
2. When you see problems, don’t wait for them to get so big that you need to schedule a special meeting with the employee and the union rep. Avoid anything that seems confrontational. Remember that you and your employees have the same goals and need to work as a team. Your job as their supervisor is to provide what they need to succeed. Have non-threatening conversations to know what is causing the problems.
3. Genuinely seek to understand and uncover your blind spots. It can difficult to imagine why someone would struggle with something that comes easy to you. It’s not obvious why someone would have doubts and insecurities that you have never felt yourself. Poor work habits can seem easy to break from your perspective but can be extremely difficult to drop for someone else.
4. Remember that, just like you can’t tell your spouse “Honey, just relax” and expect your words to solve the problem, you can’t say to your employee “improve your quality of work and meet deadlines.” When you create an improvement plan, you can’t just list milestones and decide who will do what. You need to figure out what obstacles caused the problem and remove the obstacles. Otherwise, you’ll keep doing more of the same, expecting different results, and we know what that’s called, right?
5. Help your employees help themselves. If you have the time, work with them more closely. Take more interest in what they are doing and help remove obstacles. If you can’t make the time, consider helping them connect with a peer who can assist, or find a mentor, or get a coach, or take a course of program to facilitate the skill development and personal transformation needed to help them thrive.
Invest in people. Human resources are the biggest resources you have on your campus. There is a reason that a large percentage of your annual budget goes to salaries and benefits. People are your greatest asset. Your employees’ performance and morale can make or break your department. You can never be too busy to help your team members grow and get better at their jobs.
So please, when it comes to accountability, don’t be quick to throw in the towel. Give people a chance to step up and make you proud.
If some of your team members have difficulty with time management, effectiveness, and meeting deadlines, consider signing them up for my self-paced coaching program. Click here for information. It will make a huge difference and the investment is less than half the price of a conference registration. Put your professional development dollars to good use. I promise you won’t regret it.
And in regards to the bad apples… well, that’s a whole other story that deserves its own blog. My point is: don’t let them discourage you. Give attention to those who want to grow because you truly have the power to make things better for them and for you. And it’s easier than you think.
About the author: Since 2010 Dr. Audrey Reille has empowered thousands of professionals through one-on-one coaching, group coaching, speaking engagements, online courses, and interviews on international telesummits. Audrey is the go-to coach for leaders in higher education administration. She empowers them to thrive by reducing stress, optimizing strategies, improving professional relationships, and developing a strong and empowered mindset.