“Why don’t they do it the way we tell them?”

The CEO was frustrated. He was quite sure that his directions had been clear, but his team members had not come through. He was beginning to think that they were lazy or didn’t care. He was especially worried because in the current environment he knew they’d be hard to replace, but he didn’t like the idea of carrying people who weren’t pulling their weight.

He started to map out how he could avoid some of the worst offenders or work around them, hoping they would at least do part of what he had assigned and thinking he would just try not to notice when they didn’t. He preferred to focus on the organization’s new plans and the people who actually were working effectively to make them a reality.

But the chief of staff had another idea. “Wait! Don’t give up so fast!” she told the CEO, turning to give me a meaningful look as she reached a hand to him across the conference table. “What are we missing?”

Avoidance Is Ineffective

Many leadership teams don’t necessarily know their team members well enough to understand their personal motivations, so when they don’t see a way to get the behavioral change they believe they need, they start to write off their subordinates. Some leaders stop taking employees seriously if they can’t get what they want from them; they sidetrack these staff members, look for ways to exit them, or just complain about them regularly.

It’s understandable that when leaders have too many competing priorities, are under too much pressure, and don’t have enough time or support, they have to triage somehow. They may choose to ration their emotional energy; when they don’t see a prompt payoff with particular employees, they divert that energy elsewhere.

But it’s wasteful and shortsighted when leaders withdraw from employees who don’t seem particularly engaged or eager. If this is your approach, it’s all too likely that you’ll repetitively hire people and need to replace them — leaving spots open when you’re unable to find replacements — because you’re not satisfied with their performance or commitment. That’s a formula for churn, underperformance, and dissatisfaction among leaders and team members alike.

Shift Your Expectations

When the CEO complained, “Why don’t they…?” his implication was, “What’s the matter with them?” There’s an embedded assumption that if employees’ reactions aren’t the same as the leader’s, or aren’t the way the leader thinks they should react, then their responses are not only inadequate but also proof that they’ll never learn or change.

Here’s the problem: It’s incredibly difficult to find new and creative ways to help people if you believe they’re hopelessly flawed or not worth your investment. That’s why many leaders turn away from employees and write them off, starting them on a path of disengagement and attrition — or even worse, disengagement and staying.

But the chief of staff had the right idea. Something was missing from the CEO’s approach.

Question Everything — Starting with Yourself

Before you give up on people, examine your own participation and theirs more deeply. Here are some questions that can be helpful:

  • How could we get them to see what we want more clearly?
  • How could we get them to participate more?
  • What would we need to do?
  • What do they need that they’re not getting from us?
  • What are the things that they don’t understand yet?
  • What are the things that they may not have accepted?
  • Are there structural, procedural, or process barriers or restrictions that are holding them back or getting in their way? How could we change or modify those impediments?
  • Are there issues in their personal lives that are making things more difficult for them — things like their families’ needs or their own physical or mental health?
  • Is there something about their responses that you don’t understand or that you’re not familiar or comfortable with, like their neurodiversity or other differences?

When your questions focus on the mechanics of change, you’re more likely to see opportunities to shift the situation to a more positive footing and outcome. Why challenge people with “Why?” — as if they are making a poor moral choice — when you can help them adjust with “How?”