Mon | Sep 24, 2018

Francis Wade | The cure for listless employees

Published:Sunday | May 7, 2017 | 12:00 AM

It is remarkable how quickly a new employee, once excited by the job, becomes just as ordinary as others who have been in the company for years.

As a leader, what difference can you make before the rot sets in? In this article, I share one practice suggested by psychologists that works.

Managers shake their heads in bewilderment. There is a disappointment they feel when they realise that a fresh new hire, in whom they have invested a modicum of hope, has lost his way. All of a sudden, when compared to his listless colleagues, he is just as disengaged and lacklustre. What happened?

There's usually more than a single cause, but an employee can benefit from learning how to remain resilient. As a supervisor, you can fill the gap with the right lessons. If you intervene early and equip him with the skills and awareness he needs, you can help him keep his optimism intact.

Consider one powerful practice that has emerged from the research of Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile. In an effort to distinguish the elements that make for a great day on the job, she discovered that people's satisfaction and productivity are strongly tied to the belief that they are making progress. She noted that if you can help them notice their positive movement towards their goals and stay present to it, they are more satisfied.

However, the average manager is quite unaware of this finding, often acting in a careless, if not reckless, way. Here are a few things they fail to do that are quite damaging but can be easily remedied.

Train employees to wake up. New employees eventually adopt the cynical mindset of those around them. They divide the week into two phases with respect to their time: 'mine', which I experience on weekends, holidays, and vacations; and 'theirs', which consists of every working weekday.

It leads them to act as if a bad day on my own time is better than a good day on their time. Before long, this mantra becomes their modus operandi.

A more useful focus would be to look for progress towards meaningful goals. When taught this lesson, employees can instantly recite their daily accomplishments on demand. For example, The Ritz Carlton is famous for including acknowledgments in its daily mandatory huddles. Keeping your achievements top of mind becomes a habit in this environment.


Lopsided reaction


Employees also must learn that humans have a lopsided reaction to failure and success. According to the research, a setback has a greater impact than a win when measured in emotional terms. This remarkable fact can be used to train employees to be extra-vigilant during moments when their results are poor.

However, managers who don't know the importance of these elements leave employees to discover them by chance. The result is predictable: they don't have a clue, which leads them into a deep sense of resignation.

Teach employees to practise daily accomplishments. The few managers who try to wake employees up sometimes overuse trite cliches or sermons. These put people to sleep. There's a more effective alternative: uncover the physical activities that guarantee results.

For example, instead of telling employees to "focus on the positive", it's far better to give them a diary on the first day of the job, along with specific questions to answer each day, which helps them capture their progress. Don't stop there. Also set up one-on-one meetings in which the first order of business is a report on their most recent accomplishments.

Stop making unforced errors. Most managers have given little thought to the above two actions, but they still make mistakes, which dent, employees enthusiasm. They share casual stories, jokes, and anecdotes that don't help. they end up robbing and undermining employees of any sense of progress.

The same happens when an employee's work is reassigned, his/her ideas are dismissed, or when his/her attempts to improve the way he/she does the job are rebuffed.

These minor, daily occurrences don't register as important events for most managers, but they burden employees. When the manager is the cause of the damage to an employee's progress, the wound is doubly-deep and likely to scar the psyche of even the most motivated employee.

Over time, a negative track record is built, which drives out high performers who can get jobs elsewhere. When they leave, they'll say they are getting more money when, in fact, they just want to feel as if they are not wasting their careers.

Managers need to be more disciplined, and less cavalier, about their utterances and actions so that they don't create unintended setbacks. The best are aware of these dynamics and use them as leverage to achieve results, starting with the very first day on the job.

- Francis Wade is a management consultant and author of "Perfect Time-Based Productivity". To receive a Summary of Links to past columns, or give feedback, email: