Dear Crucial Skills,
I manage a group of more than thirty employees at six different locations, and my office is at yet another location. Needless to say, I do not see or speak to each person every day. I have set the expectation—with multiple reminders—that everyone needs to be in the office by a specific time, but I have heard that some employees don’t meet this expectation. I don’t have someone to report to me when someone is late—chronically or otherwise—and I have no way of knowing when a person arrives at work because these are salaried employees who do not punch a time clock. How can I hold my employees accountable to my expected arrival time or any other unmeasurable performance expectations when I manage from afar?
It’s time for you to ask “What do I really want?” More on that in a moment.
For the sake of discussion, I’m going to assume your employees are, in fact, frequently showing up late. Obviously, that’s an open question since you seem to be dealing with rumor here, but let’s just say for the moment it’s true.
I worry that you’re putting yourself into the same position the renowned psychologist Phil Zimbardo put subjects into at Stanford a few decades ago. In Zimbardo’s “Stanford Prison Experiment,” he randomly assigned subjects to play the role of either guard or prisoner in the basement of the psych building. Within hours, those assigned to be guards were donning dark glasses, carrying pseudo truncheons, and referring to “prisoners” as though they were some lower form of life. Similarly, those assigned the role of prisoner began to act powerless and resentful and plot ways of provoking and rebelling against the “guards.”
Now, I don’t picture you sporting a night stick and wearing shades. But you could be unintentionally putting yourself in the role of “guard” by asking for commitment to a behavior that a) they don’t buy into; and b) you can’t naturally inspect. If you continue down this path, you might get increasingly resentful and they might get increasingly rebellious because, in a sense, you’ve cast yourselves in the roles of guard and prisoners. I worry about that as well because you used the phrase, “I have set the expectation—with multiple reminders—that everyone needs to be in the office by a specific time.” It doesn’t sound like they agree that this is a reasonable requirement, only that you expect it of them. Once again, you’re the guard and they’re the prisoners. The only way out of this mess is dialogue. And dialogue means that they come in open to have their minds changed—and that you do the same.
The conversation you need to have is, “What results are we trying to achieve?” and “How will we measure our success?” Answering these two questions is the first of the three keys to influence we write about in Influencer: The New Science of Leading Change. If you don’t have clarity and commitment to the answers to these two questions, you will spend your life herding cats.
So, in anticipation of this crucial conversation, let me play the role of thought partner. What do you really want? What results do these offices really need to achieve? If you want people to be on time because these are customer service locations—and you know customer wait times are unacceptably long from 8-9 a.m., then stop focusing on punctuality and start focusing on customer wait times. If you believe these salaried folks are just not working hard enough, then what is your evidence? Is it that they take longer to produce an engineering drawing than industry standards? If so, then talk with them about productivity or cycle time measures. Punctuality is likely a means to an end—not the end itself that you really want. So clarify that end and how you’ll measure success or failure. Then let go of trying to control the means and hold people accountable for the real goals.
If it turns out that they can saunter in at 9:30 a.m. and achieve everything you say you want—at a stellar level—will you be okay with that? If not, then you have one of two problems. Either you haven’t specified what you really want—i.e. there are some other results you haven’t put into words yet—or you are trying to impose your own idiosyncrasies on others and need to let go of that desire.
If you start dictating methods, you undermine engagement. When people behave badly, it’s often a sign of a deeper problem—such as a lack of commitment to results. Spend some time clarifying the results you care about. Engage others in dialogue to develop a shared commitment to those results. Agree on valid ways of measuring how you’re doing. Then let your people find their own best way to succeed.
Or, you can buy some dark glasses!