The Biggest Reason Why Employees Don't Do What They're Told

Jose came out to my house to replace a corroded section of gas pipe. Before starting the job, he placed a small fire extinguisher near the work space.

Jose explained it was a new safety procedure. Technicians were required to have a fire extinguisher nearby for all gas repairs.

I marveled at Jose's diligence. 

He had being doing this job for more than 25 years, yet he was following a new procedure even though his boss wasn't watching. 

Many employees, especially those with a lot of experience, find themselves cutting corners. They get set in their ways and don't like to change.

It's frustrating when employees don't do what you ask them to do. You email a new procedure or share an important customer service tip in a staff meeting but employees don't do it. At least not consistently.

The big question is why? 

In many cases, it comes down to how the task was communicated. Here's what can go wrong and how you can fix it.

Communication Assessment

Just for fun, let's do a little communication assessment.

Imagine you had to communicate a new policy or procedure to your employees. It's not overly complicated, but it's something that employees should start doing right away.

Which of the following communication methods are you likely to use?

  1. Email or other written communication.
  2. Visually demonstrate the new procedure for employees.
  3. Discuss the new procedure with employees using open-ended questions.
  4. Observe employees using the new procedure to check their understanding.
  5. Verbally explain the procedure to employees.

Most managers rely on written communication like email. They might throw in a dash of verbal communication, but they're unlikely to rely on other forms.

Here's how Jose's manager communicated the new safety procedure.

  1. He provided everyone with a written copy of the procedure. 
  2. The procedure was verbally explained in a team meeting.
  3. The explanation was aided by using a fire extinguisher as a visual reference. 
  4. Employees discussed the procedure's importance. 
  5. The manager verified that employees were following the procedure whenever he visited a job site.

Jose's manager did two things that many leaders don't. First, he used multiple methods of communication to reinforce the message. Second, he ensured that the communication was two-way, so that employees were active participants.

This may seem like a lot of extra work for the manager, but it's essential to take time to make sure employees get the message.


Communication Goals

Employees often don't do what they're told to do because their manager has miscommunicated the task. 

Managers should have two goals when they ask an employee to do something.

  1. Ensure understanding
  2. Gain agreement

First, you want to be sure your employees understand what you want them to do. That's difficult to achieve with one-way communication like email. 

Jose's manager used the team discussion to ensure that everyone understood the new procedure.

Second, you want to gain your employees' agreement. To achieve this goal, you often need to get employees to understand why you are asking them to do something. Once again, two-way communication is far more effective than one-way communication.

Jose agreed to follow the new procedure because he clearly understood why it was important. He'd been around long enough to know why it made sense to have a fire extinguisher handy when doing work on a gas line.


Additional Resources

Miscommunication is just one of many causes of poor employee performance that can easily be fixed. This quick fix checklist can help you find other root causes too.

Customer service leaders often use my weekly customer service tips to reinforce good customer service skills with their teams. The tips arrive via email, but managers augment that written communication with two-way dialogue in team meetings and one-on-one discussions.

You might also enjoy this short video that explains why employees might not even be aware there's a problem.