Who’s the boss?

Boss pointingAs the executive of a small business or non-profit organization, it is your job to find areas that need improvement, and figure out how to do things differently to increase performance.  Many times, achieving that improvement requires other employees to implement your ideas.  And if you’re the boss, you may be thinking “How hard can this be?  These people work for me—I’ll tell them what I would like them to do differently, and they’ll follow my lead.”

Based on questions I’ve received over the years from managers in small organizations, this approach rarely seems to work.  After sending e-mails, discussing the expected changes in staff meetings, and maybe even providing incentives or trying to hold employees accountable, these changes just don’t get implemented.  What can you do differently to make these changes happen?

Let’s use school as an example, because everyone has had experience with a school setting at some point in their lives.  Imagine a school wants the teachers to contact students’ parents once per month.  Maybe the first month teachers will send an e-mail or make a call, but by month two or three, 90% of the teachers haven’t contacted the parents.  The principal has tried everything she can think of, but the teachers just aren’t getting it done.

This question can be addressed with a variety of strategies that I will discuss in future posts, some of which may require the executive to gain new skills.  One approach that uses the skills an executive probably already has is to consider what forces were in place when the unwanted practices began, and how might those forces be combated now?

Using our example, let’s consider 3 reasons teachers haven’t engaged with parents until this point, with possible solutions:

  1. They don’t have extra time in the day, and they have other responsibilities at night. Since calling parents is not an essential teaching duty, it always gets dropped if other things come up.

Solution: Schools may be able to protect a specific time during the month for teachers to write emails or make phone calls.  This way, teachers have the practice built into their schedule, and they do not have to make a choice between this and other tasks.

  1. They don’t know what to say. For some teachers, writing these messages may come easily.  For many, however, writing to people they have never met can be intimidating, and it makes sense they will avoid it.  Teachers may also be nervous that they don’t have something unique for each student.

Solution: Provide teachers with templates for how to write to each parent, accounting for different types of students.  This may require more work by the administration, but it will allow teachers to feel much more confident in communicating with parents.

  1. Teachers have no idea how long this process will take. Even though writing an e-mail is quick and predictable, once they open communication with parents, they may need many more hours to work with parents.  As such, it is much easier not to contact parents in the first place.

Solution:  Support the teachers in setting boundaries with parents.  In this way, they will not feel nervous that the principal will be upset with them for setting limits; instead, they will feel that they have the backing of their boss in working with parents.

It is important to remember that practices do not develop in vacuum, and many times changing organizational habits requires more than just telling employees to do things differently. Understanding where a certain behavior came from can provide valuable insight into what adjustments will be useful to change that behavior to one that increases organizational production.