How Should You Respond When Employees Drag Their Heels?


Take a Page From Parenting 101

When it comes to parenting, experts agree that there are four main parenting styles:

  • Permissive (“Ice cream for dinner every night? Sure!”)
  • Neglectful (“Whoops, forgot to feed the kids dinner again. They’ll fend.”)
  • Authoritarian (“No ice cream for you, EVER, and don’t question me!”)
  • Authoritative (“Sure! We can have ice cream tonight, if everyone eats a good dinner!”)

And this isn’t one of those situations where all styles are created equal. Experts likewise agree that one style is by far the best when it comes to raising successful, happy kids: authoritative. It’s high warmth combined with solid boundaries, a killer combination for raising well-adjusted adults.

What does this have to do with responding to negative employee pushback?

If you find yourself drowning in a sea of complaints — or apathy —  every time you make a change or ask employees to rise to the occasion of a new project, new responsibility, or new way of doing things, it might have more to do with your management style than your employees.

When you introduce a new change or ask your employees to jump onboard with a new policy or protocol, what happens?

If you’re a permissive managerYour employees might comply, or they might not — typically depending on what’s convenient. They know that, either way, there probably won’t be negative repercussions. You may hear “I forgot” or “I haven’t gotten around to it yet,” if you bring up the change or request.

If you’re a neglectful manager You might not have a clear idea of whether or not your employees have complied with the change or request at all. Maybe that’s because you have too much on your plate, or maybe you’ve lost the love for management. The definition of a “neglectful” manager isn’t always straightforward, but if it’s been a few days and you haven’t checked in with your employees on the status of your request, something’s gotta give!

If you’re an authoritarian managerYou may overhear employees complaining about the new rule or policy behind your back (since approaching you directly hasn’t proven to be productive, or employees are intimidated by the lack of connection and warmth). You’re also likely to hear more convincing excuses about why the change hasn’t been made yet despite the rigid rules.

If you’re an authoritative manager You’ll encourage employee feedback and follow up on employee concerns in an approachable way. However, since you’ve made it clear that cooperation isn’t optional, you may need to address the problem through discipline if employees ultimately won’t get on board. In general, negative pushback is minimal and changes go over pretty smoothly!

The good news? You’re not boxed into your management style. If the dynamic in your business between employees and managers isn’t working out so well — especially when it comes to making changes or getting everyone on the same page — there are a few things you can do.

How to Become a More Authoritative Manager

Becoming a more authoritative manager takes work and diligence. But the payoff is a better relationship with employees, a more functional and productive team, and far fewer complaints and negative pushback!

Take a Look in the Mirror

If you’re getting negative employee pushback or noncompliance, your instinctive response might be to push right back on your employees by becoming more rigid or doubling down on rules and unpleasant consequences. But before going there, remember what it means to be a leader. You’re leading your employees — grown adults — not pushing them. To have a truly functional, cohesive team, your employees need to want to follow you. Are you the kind of leader they want to follow? When you ask for something (especially when it comes to change!), you’ll get the minimum effort —  or outright mutiny —  every time, unless you’re the kind of leader your employees respect and want to follow.

Check in on Culture

What is the culture of your team like? Negative pushback, complaints, or failure to jump on board often coincide with a team that hasn’t hit its stride when it comes to company culture. Is your team or company policy-heavy without a lot of warmth or personality (authoritarian)? Is yours a culture where anything goes and consequences don’t really materialize (permissive)? Are you and other leaders aware of what your teams are doing and accomplishing (neglectful)? Taking time to check in with the culture that your management style has helped create can be a great starting point to see what needs to change.

Build Relationships With Your Employees

How is your connection with your team members? As a manager of a large or very busy team, it can be difficult to find moments to connect one on one, to see each team member as a real human being, and remind each of the important and unique contributions they make to the team. That said, it’s absolutely critical for ensuring that you and your team move forward together, rather than straggle — especially when it comes to change or overcoming obstacles.

Are you noticing a lot of negative pushback or resistance to change? Try scheduling a few one-on-ones to really talk with employees. Have an impromptu happy hour toward the end of the work day in the middle of the week, where everyone talks and decompresses and connects. Spend a few minutes talking about good news at the start of a meeting. That sense of unity will go a long way toward trust and goodwill from employees.

Set Policies and Boundaries — And Follow Through!

If your team or company trends neglectful or permissive, it’s important to do a boundary check. Do you know your policies around important matters that relate to how employees get paid, how time off is arranged, how hours are tracked, and other matters that relate to paychecks, company culture, and office life?

While it’s not necessary (and not advised) to micromanage every aspect of work, the important things should be clarified and made available to everyone. And then — here’s the most important part — followed through. This can be difficult, especially for a permissive manager. But with high warmth, connection, and a focus on culture, employees will feel more secure and respect the company’s needs — just like the company respects theirs!

Learn to Translate What Employees Are Really Saying

You should also keep in mind that there’s usually some translation involved in negative employee pushback or failure to comply with changes or requests. For example, your employee might say one thing while meaning something very different.

When an employee says “I can’t figure it out,” they usually don’t mean “I can’t figure it out.” This phrase typically means, “I don’t want to figure it out.” Your job as an employer or manager is to determine why the employee doesn’t want to figure it out. Have you provided proper training and onboarding resources? Have you communicated effectively to the employee that this new change or request isn’t optional? Are there boundaries and policies in place that lay out what happens if the employee does not comply?

When an employee says, “I forgot” on a regular basis, the usual translation is, “This isn’t a priority for me.” While everyone forgets things at times, none of us forget the things that are most important. Think of it this way: If you told your employee that he or she would receive a million-dollar bonus if he or she recorded his or her hours exactly, correctly for the next pay period, it would probably happen, right? Probably! Because motivation would be high.

Dealing with heel-dragging, negative pushback, and uncooperative employees is difficult. But by treating these issues at the root of the problem — rather than dealing with symptoms or accommodating the negative behavior — it’s possible to have a team that works together well and enjoys the eight (or more) hours a day you spend together as a work family.

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