In the campy, fun, 1966 Batman film, Batman (played by Adam West) was running all over a waterfront marketplace trying to dispose of an active bomb (the round, black kind, like in the Bugs Bunny cartoons). To his dismay, everywhere he wanted to dump the bomb, people kept showing up, from marching bands to conversing nuns to mothers with baby carriages. Even a family of ducks got in the way, swimming by just as he was about to finally toss the bomb in the water. Frustrated, he looked at the camera and uttered the now iconic line:
“Some days, you just can’t get rid of a bomb.”
When it comes to the workplace, sometimes, things happen that are indeed out of anyone’s control, despite the best of plans. Other times, people simply don’t perform, for various reasons. You’ve planned to get the right people on the right projects and the right time, but they simply aren’t executing.
The good news is that this latter situation is fixable.
In his book, Fixing Performance Problems, executive coach Bud Bilanich suggests that there are 11 reasons why employees don’t do what they’re supposed to, and most of the reasons are not the fault of the employee (the list was influenced by the writings of training and education guru Robert Mager). Bilanich, also known as “The Common Sense Guy,” proposes that we rule out all 11 reasons and their solutions in sequence. They are as follows (the comments in parenthesis are my own):
1. People don’t know what they’re supposed to do.
2. People don’t know why they should do what they are supposed to do.
3. People don’t know how to do what they’re supposed to do.
4. People think the prescribed methods will not, or do not work, or believe that their way is better. (Hint: They may be right! Only through open dialogue will you know. For more on this, see my earlier post, Strategy Execution is Driven by Conversations)
5. People think other things are more important. (Again, they may be right! And again, this is where open and candid communication comes in, which requires a culture of trust and respect.)
6. People think they are performing in an acceptable manner. (Maybe they are! Or Maybe expectations weren’t clear.)
7. Non-performance is rewarded. (by giving them less work. Instead, focus on figuring out the cause and helping them be a valuable contributor.)
8. Good performance feels like punishment. (by piling even more work on them!)
9. There are obstacles to performing that the individual cannot control. (i.e., the Batman situation)
10. There are no positive consequences for good performance.
11. There are no negative consequences for poor performance.
Note that negative consequences aren’t addressed until point 11. That’s because flawed systems, mismanagement, and poor communication are frequently the root cause of the supposed inferior performance. Indeed, before assuming poor performance is the fault of the employee, we owe it to the employee—and to ourselves as leaders—to rule out the first 10 points.
Speaking of negative consequences, Bilanich reminds us that a simple reminder may be adequate.
He tells the story of the final moments of the 1968 NBA Eastern Division basketball playoffs, where the Boston Celtics were facing the Philadelphia 76ers. Bill Russell missed a crucial foul shot, and his teammate Sam Jones called him aside and whispered some words in his ear. Russell nodded, then made the next foul shot to win the game.
The big news story that followed was, “What were the magic words that Sam Jones uttered to Bill Russell?” For a while, the players were silent on the topic. Eventually, it came out. The magic words were:
Flex your knees, Bill.
Often, that’s all it takes.