Why do some employees not do what they’re supposed to do? Why do some of them deliberately engage in a number of unproductive work behaviors, even when they know better, and agreed to do a good job the day they were hired?

Why are some returning from lunch or breaks late, not following procedures,
 punching in on time, helping co-workers, or cooperating after getting feedback from managers?

Several reasons, including the usual ones: the lack of a good work ethic; not a good match for the job; the job is difficult or unpleasant at times; or they just want to see how much they can get away with.

Although these unproductive work behaviors aren’t as serious as other infractions, including violating important security procedures, or stealing products, they steal time, and they cost organizations plenty in lost productivity, collaboration, and customer service.

After working with a large number of problem employees, and their managers, over the past 25 years, I’ve come to an important conclusion.

Some employees resort to unproductive work behaviors because they feel it’s the only way they have any power, influence, or control at work. It’s a negative and unproductive approach for sure, but it’s a way of resisting, and paying management back to some degree for feeling slighted, or that their input isn’t important.

In addition, many of these behaviors are the direct result of how managers work with their employees. The single biggest cause is created by managers whose working style and communication consists primarily of giving employees order after order, or “do this, and do that,” while excluding almost any other form of communication.

This emphasizes mandatory compliance at the expense of willing cooperation, in effect encouraging employees to only do what they have to do, and no more. No wonder some supervisors and managers don’t get the performance they want, and that their organizations and customers need.

True, some employees will perform poorly no matter how managers strive to work with them. They probably always have, and always will. Let’s not focus on them. Let’s focus on the employees who’ll be responsive to improved communication.

Being focused almost solely on giving orders, or the task side of work, deletes the benefits of the people side of work. Yes, the task side’s important, and managers are responsible for getting results. But they hinder achieving results when they ignore the people side, as employees push back with less cooperation. and unproductive work behaviors.

Several years ago, I asked three high-performing vice presidents at a major insurance company which was more important, focusing on the people side of business, or the task side? They said “assuming that you have competent people who know how to do their jobs, if you take care of the people side, the task side takes care of itself.”

A second cause, which greatly compounds the first one, is having little or no dialogue, or two-way conversations with employees. This results in legitimate concerns, questions, and improvement ideas not being discussed. Plus, some problems that could be avoided aren’t; and some improvements that could be made, never happen. Why wouldn’t we want such input from the other half of manager-employee teams that are responsible for achieving results?

Without dialogue, the valuable experience of communicating successfully is also lost. When managers and employees experience workplace conversations as comfortable and worthwhile, they become more willing to share, discuss, and solve other concerns and issues, too. In addition, over the past 25 years, no managers or employees have ever told me that less dialogue between them would be beneficial.

The third cause is scant, or even no recognition, for good employee performance. Managers who don’t deliver sufficient positive feedback often tell me, “I’ll praise them if they do something really good, but I’m not praising them for doing their jobs. That’s what they’re being paid for.” 

Praise employees for excellent work and “what they’re being paid for” and you’ll get more good work in both areas. Outstanding efforts deserve appreciation. However, if managers want “what employees are being paid for,” such as arriving for work on time, helping co-workers, following procedures, etc., to continue, it’s necessary to recognize them. Doing so encourages employees to want to do more outstanding work.

Add opportunities for two-way conversations and dialogue; avoid delivering orders excessively, and also focus on the people side; ask employees for concerns about assignments, and improvements about how you work with them; and deliver four times as much positive as corrective feedback.

Managers who do so get fewer unproductive work behaviors, more employee cooperation, improved work relationships, and achieve more results.

It’s what happens in more productive work places.

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