How to get your staff to do what you want them to do

Do you sometimes wonder if you are talking to yourself? You give instructions or make requests. People say, ‘yes, I’ll do it’ – and then they don’t. Or they do something totally unexpected and not what you wanted at all.

Assuming that most people come to work to do a good job, and are honestly trying to do what you want, here’s something to try: the answer may lie in the way you are making your requests. This varies from culture to culture, but here in the UK where we do most of our work, people are notoriously unassertive about making requests.

What does a request sound like?

You say something like, ‘Please do X (task) by Y (date).’

Easy, you may think. What could go wrong with that? Well in the UK we are often brought up to think it rude to make direct requests, so we spend a lot of time fudging and padding: ‘Do you think you could just…’, ‘Would you mind awfully…’, ‘Shall we try to…’ etcetera. Or we drop hints: ‘It would be great if somebody would…’ or get sarcastic: ‘Is anybody ever going to…? Eventually we may even crack and have a tantrum: ‘I’ve had it. Doesn’t anybody ever do anything around here?’

Some cultures of course would just laugh at this. Most Dutch people, or Germans or US citizens have very little trouble making straight requests, and think we in the UK are ridiculously woolly about such things. But even they have trouble with the responses…

What does a response sound like?

There are only three clear direct responses to a straight request:

A person may make a promise: ‘Yes’ – full accountability. They’ll get it done whatever the circumstances, and if they fail, they’ll take the consequences on the chin.

They may decline the request: ‘No’ – they honestly don’t see themselves doing it, and are willing to take the consequences of saying ‘no’ to you.

Or they may make a counter-offer: ‘I won’t do X by Y, but I will do it by Z’. They think carefully about whether they can do it and under what circumstances and make a proposal to you.

Many people will be vague and not make a clear promise, decline or counter-offer, and even if they apparently do, they may forget or let it slide. There is a danger for everyone at first of over-promising – train yourself and others around you to check their diaries and make realistic promises, rather than just always saying ‘yes’. They may resist saying ‘no’, even if that would be the sensible thing to do. When you say ‘no’, someone might not like it, and you have to be willing to take the consequences of this – this fear is one reason we fudge. Learning to make good counter-offers is the key: ‘I can’t talk now, but come back at 3pm and I’ll be able to give you my full attention’, ‘It’s missed the post today, but I’ll send it special delivery tomorrow’ or ‘I can’t fit this in to my current workload, but if it’s more important than X task, I could prioritise it. Which would you prefer me to complete first?’

As a leader, be prepared to negotiate, and to accept a ‘no’ sometimes too – your response to this is critical in training others to give honest responses.

You need not just to make well-formed requests, but also to manage the responses, especially at first. You will probably initially want to resist managing people’s responses as well as your own communication – why should you do their job for them? Well, because you are a leader, training others in a new, more effective working skill. They won’t get it right straight away and will need coaching and hands-on management for a while.

If you first discipline yourself to make clear, direct requests and responses like this, and then train everyone around you to do likewise, it will make a bigger difference to your business than you could ever imagine.