Alison Green, the writer at one of my favorite blogs, Ask a Manager, recently received this question from a reader:
I inherited a department of people who I don’t feel were adequately managed for several years. Basically, as long as they showed up and were physically present, then nothing more was expected of them. I’ve worked on trying to teach and show what I’m looking for, but in most cases the results are not there.
I’ve actually personally faced this situation twice in my career, and I found it very frustrating. Here’s what Alison advised:
I suggest that you sit down with your staff and talk to them straightforwardly. Tell them that you understand that expectations and standards have been different in the past, but that the department is currently falling short in some major ways. Explain that things are going to be changing, and you hope they’ll be a part of that change. Paint a picture of the type of department that you want to have a few months from now. Ask people what kind of help they need to get there, and offer help where it’s reasonable, but hold the bar high.
Then, start managing them to that higher bar: Check in often, review samples of their work, give feedback regularly, and point out when and where the bar isn’t being met. If you’re not seeing significant improvement within a few weeks, you need to start setting and enforcing consequences, which in this case will mean warning people that they risk termination if you don’t see fairly quick changes.
I think Alison’s approach is 100 percent dead on, but I cringe a little when I think of the resistance I received from my teams when I tried something similar. The truth is, you have to be prepared for your employees to be irritated by the fact that they are going to be compensated the same for meeting a higher bar, and you need to continue to be assertive about your plans even if it feels uncomfortable and results in conflict.
If you are in doubt as to whether your expectations are at all unreasonable, talk with your boss or someone else at your level to get a reality check. And even if you don’t feel you need your boss’ advice, keep her informed from the get-go so that she is on your side should your employees complain to her, and so you can more easily justify greater-than-usual turnover.