"But I’ve told them!" You're frustrated. You've already explained the new procedures that will improve your team's work and cut costs, but they aren't listening.
Chances are, they still don't understand what you want them to do differently or don't believe it'll work. "But I’ve told them! I swear I have," you insist—first to yourself and later to a colleague over lunch. "And I have the meeting agendas where I spelled it all out to prove it!"
One of the most aggravating experiences of being a manager is when your employees don't listen to you. But how you handle those moments matters. Learn from them and your effectiveness will skyrocket, but if you become so frustrated that you rely on fear and power, your credibility and influence can start to disintegrate.
If your team isn't paying attention to your instructions, there's a reason why. Don't get mad—get to the bottom of it. Here are the likeliest culprits.
If your team can smell even an inkling of self-protection going on, they’re likely to tune you out. And if they think you're putting your career ahead of what's right for the business, you'll lose credibility even faster. They won't just bungle your instructions—they'll outright ignore what you say and do what they feel is best.
In practice, there's a big difference between wanting what’s best for the team and wanting what’s best for you—even though an ideal work culture makes for plenty of overlap. So ask yourself: What do you really want? If the answer is obedience, chances are your team will clue into that; they'll behave out of fear when they have to and ignore you when they feel it’s safe. If the answer is the next promotion available to you, they'll give you lip service but see you as a short-timer and won’t invest in what you say.
Before you do anything else, examine your own motivations. Do you truly focus on business results and healthy relationships with your direct reports? Or are you unwittingly playing career-minded games, building your own esteem, or making a power play? People know the difference even when you don't.
Ultimately, the boss-subordinate relationship is unnatural by design. Your team didn’t choose you (and for a variety of reasons, may or may not respect you). And here they are, stuck in the position of looking to you for affirmation, evaluation, and reward.
What's more, your company's performance-evaluation systems put an additional strain on that relationship.
Imagine if we burdened our personal lives with some of the same formal systems we impose at work. "Honey, I’ve decided to give you an end-of-year appraisal. Your cooking has improved and you're taking out the trash without being reminded, so you get an A in housework. But you’ve been so stressed lately; I have to give romance a B-."
If you want your team to really listen, don’t rely on your position of power or hide behind your HR forms. People will listen when they feel connected and believe your feedback is coming from a place of genuine care and concern. So to rebuild the broken connections between you and your team members, just start listening more closely.
Ask them directly, "Is there anything you’ve been trying to tell me that I’m just not hearing?" Be quiet and listen. Thank them for sharing, and respond quickly. You don’t have to agree, but you do need to hear. And you'll probably find that that alone gets your employees to start taking your directions more seriously. It’s hard not to listen to a person who’s actively listening to you.
As a manager or business leader, you're under pressure to get results, and with one look at the stack rank, it’s easy to tell your not there. So you rally the team and talk about how to move the needle—fast. Metrics are important indicators of how your team is doing, so you can't ignore them. But you also shouldn't confuse the score with the game.
The truth is, your customer doesn’t care about your internal scorecard, and the employees who talk to customers every day probably don’t, either. Most of your team members do, however, care about your customers. All of them would like a smoother experience for the people your business serves and a less stressful workday for themselves.
You might be in the habit of using the data to try to win your team members' buy-in and convince them that the changes you're trying to make are important. But that strategy can sometimes backfire. If they aren't listening to you, stop talking about the numbers and help them identify the behaviors that will make them more productive, improve their customer relationships, and reduce their stress.
Influencing a team is never easy in the best of times. Under pressure, motivating an anxious, frustrated, or recalcitrant staff can feel nearly impossible. But as leaders, the most important conversations are often the ones we have with ourselves. Start by examining your own motives, then branch out to creating genuine connections, and talking about the one or two behaviors that are most likely to make a real impact—not just for you but for everyone.
Karin Hurt is a leadership consultant and CEO of Let’s Grow Leaders and coauthor of Winning Well: A Manager’s Guide to Getting Results—Without Losing Your Soul with David Dye, a former nonprofit executive, elected official, and president of Trailblaze, a leadership training and consulting firm.