EXERCISING AUTHORITY: THE “IF NOT, THEN WHAT” MESSAGE

The best managers intuitively seem to understand that the less often they need to blatantly exercise their authority, the better.  Frequent displays of management behavior, designed to impress and remind subordinates of “who is in charge”, generally have more negative, than positive, consequences.  Moreover, a manager really has to go to extreme lengths of avoiding her or his use of authority, before most subordinates will come to question if anybody is actually in charge.

The best managers understand that steady, calm, patient, respectful, and consistent treatment of subordinates — treatment  that recognizes them as adult members of a common work team — generally accomplishes more, than a barrage of barked orders and demands of the “do this because I said so” variety.  The best managers also understand that most of those entrusted to their management skills, will strive hard to achieve those mutually agreed upon performance expectations — including stretch goals — without the overt threat of negative consequences should they fall short.  The reward for this sort of management is usually a high performing team.

However, for various reasons some subordinates will underperform, fail to meet acceptable standards, and thus require management intervention to remedy the situation.  The challenge occurs when no amount of management encouragement, advice, coaching, and other forms of assistance seems to improve the substandard performance in question.  The issue we address often in my management workshops is, can consistent poor performance simply be allowed to go on indefinitely?

Of course not, many of you will instantly reply.  It’s about the work contract:  to get paid, we must successfully do a specific job to the standards defined by the organization that hires us. But why then does substandard performance consistently get ignored in so many workplaces?  Why do so many forms of unacceptable performance and behavior go unaddressed, usually to the consternation of other member of a work team?

Two obvious reasons are the sheer emotional discomfort involved in conversations about poor performance for both the manager and subordinate, and the reticence of many managers to carry out the necessary adverse actions called for if substandard performance persists. But I believe getting to the point of having to actually sanction a subordinate in some way can often be avoided, if managers develop their skill at having what I call an “if not, then what” conversation right from the start in dealing with a persistent sub par performance.

I am not talking about issuing threats, or harsh ultimatums.  Nor am I arguing that every conversation related to performance shortfalls be of the “if not, then what” variety. Rather I am simply suggesting that in those cases where consistent poor performance persists, managers should make clear — spell out — that continued failure to meet common, organization-wide performance expectations will inexorably lead to some clearly defined consequences; often a series of standard procedures of ever-increasing severity .

Human beings have the unfortunate habit of “selective hearing”, especially when it comes to potentially bad news; the ability to convince themselves that this doesn’t apply to them.  Moreover, when the message about addressing elements of persistent poor performance contains no “if not, then what” message, many will simply assume there is little need for urgent action.

In the best-managed organizations, there is a common workforce-wide understanding concerning the consequences that result from consistent poor performance — or work code violations — and they observe, over time, that these consequences are invariably enforced.  In poorly managed organizations, either consequences are rarely discussed, or worse, sometimes discussed but rarely enforced.  Absent an “if not, then what” understanding between management and employees, little wonder poor performance often persists.

As I have written elsewhere (see post: “Who Bears Responsibility For A Firing?), taking necessary adverse action — even extreme action — is an essential component of a manager’s responsibility, an extension of the authority bestowed on them by their organization, and a legitimate expectation of every member of a work team effected by the poor performance of a fellow team member.  Judicious early on delivery of the “if not, then what” message, accompanied by the appropriate follow through, should help a manager reduce those occasions when extreme action is required.

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