Current Issue
This Month's Print Issue

Follow Fast Company

We’ll come to you.

If Your Employees Are Squabbling, Your Company's Probably Standing Still

In today's changing work environment, it's important for leaders to provide clarity of direction. If they don’t, fear, frustration, and inefficiency start to creep in.

In the same way that a bicycle is wobbly when it's standing still and becomes more stable the faster you pedal, the same is true with personnel issues at work. It's when the organization is standing still that people start to squabble.

Three leadership strategies can help. The first is having a clear sense of where you're going. The second is having a plan for your people so they each know their role going forward. The third is having the tenacity and stick-to-itiveness to make that plan sustainable.

Fail in any of these three areas, and the result will be lackluster financial performance and the creation of an atmosphere where negative human dynamics will begin to grow. Humans cooperate best when they are all moving toward a common goal. When an organization is standing still, the pushing and shoving starts. Parents know this. When do the kids start fighting in the car? When they are sitting still with no place to go.

Clear direction is especially important when dealing with people who've been with the organization for an extended period of time. Leaders and organizations generally do a good job of clarifying goals as they are getting new people up to speed. With long-time employees, however, leaders often assume that the employee instinctively knows what's important. As a result, leaders generally don't spend the same amount of time and energy communicating clear objectives to seasoned employees that they do with new hires. When this happens, it's not unusual for veteran employees to lose the focus and discipline necessary to achieve their individual goals.

Three strategies for leaders

Good performance begins with clear goals. That's job one. If you don't know where you're going—as the Cheshire Cat said to Alice in Wonderland—any road will get you there. Leadership is about going somewhere, and clear agreements are the first step. It's a process of creating clarity about why we’re here, what we’re doing, and how we're going to work together.

We did a study a number of years ago with a large petroleum company in North America that shows how rarely this clarity occurs. We asked more than 2,000 employees and their managers to share their goal expectations with us. To begin, we asked the employees to rank the top five things they felt they were responsible for. Then we asked the managers to list and prioritize the five things they were actually holding each of their direct reports accountable for. We saw only a 19% agreement across the population of 2,000 people! 

After clear goals are set, leaders must use strong communication skills to make sure everyone's eyes are on the ball. This includes regular one-on-one conversations with direct reports that include feedback and evaluation of how each person is doing against established targets. This helps employees understand how their role impacts the larger picture. It also allows people to have a say in the actions, decisions, priorities, and goals that are subsequently set. Leadership is done best when it is something you do with people instead of something you do to them.

The third step is for managers to help people notice and experience the incremental successes they are having. In the past, this was accomplished through extrinsic reward and recognition. Today we use a more intrinsic approach that focuses on discovering the incentives that are meaningful to individual employees to fuel their passion for the task or project they are working on. It’s about creating an environment that leads to sustainable performance.

A little structure goes a long way

On the surface, producing effective results can sound like it's about driving performance and cracking the whip—but, when it's done right, it's more about moving people in the right direction. You can begin by answering these questions: What are we trying to accomplish mutually? What is the organization trying to accomplish? What is our department’s role in accomplishing that? And what are individual contributors being held accountable for?

Your role as a leader is to use your management skills to place a certain rigor and clarity around goals. When performance is not what it should be, first ask yourself whether goals have been made clear. Goal clarity helps reduce issues regarding relationships and personnel that plague so many organizations. Set a clear vision and show people how they can contribute to it. When folks are moving in a common direction with clear goals, most workplace struggles will take care of themselves.

Scott Blanchard is the cofounder of Blanchard Certified, a new cloud-based leadership development resource and experience. Ken Blanchard is the best-selling co-author of The One Minute Manager® and 50 other books on leadership. You can follow Ken Blanchard on Twitter @KenBlanchard or @LeaderChat and also via the HowWeLead and LeaderChat blogs.

[Image: Flickr user Paul Joran]