Inspiring Employees to Greatness

Leadership is the art of getting average people to do superior work.

If the word “average” means anything, it means that most people on your team are average. That’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with that. They’re the doers.

Unfortunately, you may also have some underperforming or nonperforming employees on your team. What are you doing with them? Are you in the process of transforming them? Or are you ignoring them, hoping they’ll go away? I like the way Thomas Sowell puts it. He said, “We always hear about the haves and the have-nots. Why don’t we hear about the doers and the do-nots?”

You may even be forced to write a recommendation for some of those do-nots who move on. Dr. Bev Smallwood, a clinical psychologist and professional speaker, gives these honest but tongue-in-cheek suggestions. For the employee who is chronically absent, you could write, “A person like him is hard to find” or “It seems like her career was just taking off.” For the employee with no ambition, you could write, “In my opinion, you would be fortunate to get this person to work for you.”

If you have to write recommendations for difficult colleagues, the following phrases might fit. For the cantankerous colleague, you could say, “I am pleased to say that this candidate is a former colleague of mine.” And if the person is just plain incompetent, Dr. Smallwood says, “I recommend this person with no qualifications whatsoever. I can assure you that no person would be better for the job.”

As a leader, your challenge is to get all your employees to do superior work. And thankfully it’s quite possible. I’ve worked with hundreds of leaders and dozens of organizations who’ve done exactly that. It’s just a matter of doing the right things.

START BY GETTING YOUR EMPLOYEES TO THINK LIKE MANAGERS AND LEADERS. In other words, get them to see and think beyond their jobs. Get them to see the bigger picture.

One of my clients at a financial services organization does that. As soon as he hires someone, Don Gant starts talking to them about management. He says some of his employees will make it to management, and they’ll make it quicker if he coaches them. But even if they don’t make it, Don says his employees are easier to deal with because they’re at least thinking like management.

You could try the daily five-minute Q and A or question and answer. Meet with each of your employees for five minutes every day for a month. Ask them what they accomplished yesterday, and ask them what they have planned for today. They’ll get used to planning their work, and they’ll become more productive.

Then REINFORCE EMPLOYEE BEHAVIOR THAT YOU LIKE. Too many people and too many companies reward the wrong behavior — without realizing it. For instance, Management Review magazine cited a manufacturing company that rewarded maintenance mechanics for “wrench time.” The longer it took them to fix a problem, the more they were rewarded. In effect they were punished for time spent analyzing problems and performing preventative maintenance.

In other examples, a pizza company focused its reward system on the on-time performance of its drivers, and in so doing inadvertently rewarded reckless driving. An insurance agency rewarded sales agents for the number of calls they made — and ended up with fewer actual sales and a larger telephone bill.

Finally, a freight company based its reward system on the number of packages shipped. It thought its productivity had gone way up until an internal audit revealed that only 45% of the containers were being shipped full.

If you want superior performance from employees, you’ve got to be sure you’re reinforcing the right behavior. Dr. Irene Kassorla learned that when she was doing her graduate work in London. She was assigned to work with Charlie, reputed to be “the sickest man in Britain.” So she decided to use this reinforcement technique.

For over 30 years Charlie spent his days sitting in complete silence, talking to no one and doing nothing. Dr. Kassorla started by looking for a twitch of his nose, a grunt, or even a burp so she could start the process of encouraging healthy behavior with positive reinforcement. She knew the change would occur slowly, but she had to start somewhere.

When Charlie was mute or behaved in some bizarre way, Dr. Kassorla would turn her head for ten seconds. That was the extent of her negative punishment. Everything else was positive. She never shouted, got angry, unkind, or physical.

Whenever Charlie made a response she liked, Dr. Kassorla would say, “Good, Mr. Blake” or “I like that sound you’re making.” Within a month, Charlie Blake, who had been mute for 30 years, was talking, reading the newspaper aloud, and answering Dr. Kassorla’s questions directly. By focusing on the behaviors she liked and reinforcing those behaviors, she transformed her patient in an astonishingly short time. You can do the same thing with your colleagues and employees.

You’ll also need to ENCOURAGE OWNERSHIP if you want your employees to do superior work. The Romans learned that 2000 years ago. After building an arch, they would have the lead engineer stand beneath it as they removed the scaffolding. If the arch didn’t hold, the engineer was the first to know.

Likewise, effective leaders let their employees have ownership for their situations. After all, if you continue to run in and lift the weight off your staff’s shoulders, they’re never going to build any muscle of their own.

If you behave like the “hero” manager or leader, you may end up with more problems in the long run. Every time you rescue your employee or pull a symbolic rabbit out of their business hat, you generate more dependency in your employees.

Astute managers and leaders, on the other hand, encourage ownership. They listen as employees discuss problems and solutions, but they don’t let the employees dump those problems in their offices. As one of the chief engineers at United Technologies wrote, “Remember, at no time during your discussion will your problem become mine. If that happens, then you don’t have a problem, and I can’t help anyone who doesn’t have a problem.”

Of course, you may have some employees who resist ownership. They may whine that they can’t do it or it’s too hard. But don’t despair.

Most people have vast reserves of untapped talent. Just look at teenagers. Teenagers who can’t seem to figure out how to run a vacuum cleaner or lawnmower can learn to drive a car in an amazingly short amount of time. It just takes the right kind of leader with the right kind of strategies to pull the talent out of people.

You may have some superior employees, but you’ve probably got some average and underperforming ones as well. Whatever you’ve got, if you’re any kind of leader, you want to see them all improve.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, the author and jurist, spoke about that kind of improvement. He once mistook a mental institution for a college. When the gatekeeper informed him of his mistake, Holmes said with a smile, “Well I guess there isn’t much difference between them anyhow.”

“There certainly is,” replied the guard. “You must show a lot of improvement before you can get out of this place.”

Action:  Take a serious look at what behaviors you are reinforcing in others. If you are inadvertently reinforcing behaviors that you don’t like, stop it. Then select five behaviors you like in your colleagues, and make sure you are reinforcing those behaviors so they keep doing them.