WHY WHY is crucial
There is no such thing as a "bad employee"....
A colleague of mine told me a story many years ago that I have oft repeated. When he finished school with an itch to travel and with a connection in the oil industry, he found himself working on a gigantic tanker moving oil up and down the Suez Canal back in the 1970's. As the new man on the ship, he was given several less than desirable tasks. When the crew had completed his first trip along the canal, his boss pulled him into a dark, greasy room. He told him to put on a tyvek plastic suit, handed him a metal mallet and told him to hit all 32 circular metal plates in the room. When he was done, he could wash up and join the rest of the crew in the bar.
What did he do on his first voyage? He did what most of us do on our first day on the job....exactly what the boss told him to do. He hit all 32 plates, cleaned up and joined the team in the pub. This task was part of his responsibility every time they pulled into a port every week or so. Now....what do you think he did on the 20th time they pulled into port? He did what a majority of employees would do in his situation. He hit about 75% of the plates. No one else was there, he needed to get dirty and couldn't show in the pub too quickly after the others. As time went on, he hit fewer and fewer plates.
One day, when he was down to hitting just a handful of them, he hit one of them with the mallet and heard a completely different sound to anything he had ever heard before. What had happened? He informed his boss at the bar and the team rushed back to the ship to begin repairs. He learned that he had been hitting the tops of the pistons of the ships engine. He learned that the sound changed because one of the pistons had loosened significantly and could have caused a major catastrophe for the ship carrying valuable cargo through some high-risk territory at the time. He had gotten lucky....as had his boss.
Invest Time Up Front
Leaders need to take the time to explain to their employees the "WHY" of what they are doing. This takes more time than just telling people what to do or even how to do it. It is time well spent!
At times, I have leaders in my office complaining about the competency or effort level of their direct reports. We all need to vent and I understand that to an extent. After I have listened, I ask a few background questions.....has the employee been trained properly?...does he/she have the tools to be successful?....has the expectation been set clearly in a language they understand? If all of the above have been answered to the affirmative, I ask how much time the leader has invested in explaining the true purpose and criticality of the task in question. This is often where the leader cringes, takes a deep breath and acknowledges that there may be opportunity to do a better job in this crucial leadership task.
You will find it hard to find an employee who will shirk off a task or underperform if they truly know how important it is. If they are gathering data, share with them and demonstrate how that data is utilized. If they are interacting with a customer, explain to them how the customer is likely to make a decision and how important her interaction is. Never assume they fully understand the impact and importance of their job or a particular task. If you invest in the WHY, the quality of the work will stay high and sustain for the long term!