Why Won't Your Team Do What You Want?

It happens all the time. We’ll have just finished a workshop on decision-making, or collaboration, or vision and strategy, when a leader pulls us aside and asks us the real question that’s been on their mind all day:

“How do I get people to do what I want?”

Maybe your team keeps working late, even though you’ve told them to go home on time. Maybe they’re complaining about the workload, even though you’ve helped them prioritize and eliminate tasks. Or maybe they keep coming to you with problems that you just don’t have the answers to.

Assuming you’ve already adequately communicated your vision, there are several things you can do when the team isn’t falling in line:

  • Understand what motivates your team. Maybe your motivations aren’t quite the same as your team’s—you prioritize building relationships, for instance, but your team cares more about problem-solving. Determine what would give them most energy in achieving the vision or way forward.

  • Get to the root of the problem. Prioritize curiosity and work on your listening skills to see if you really understand the source of resistance. Ask questions like “What’s really at stake for others?” and “How do our ways of working conflict?”

  • Clear roadblocks. Maybe they’re properly motivated, but something (or someone) is preventing them from achieving their goals. Work with them to remove obstacles so they can focus on their work, not navigating the organization.

  • Admit you don’t have all the answers. It might seem counterintuitive, but sharing what you don't know or are unsure of can be a good thing—that way, people know they have some agency in building towards the vision. Turn their questions around on them and ask the team to collaborate on potential solutions.

  • Make sure incentives are properly aligned. If achieving the long-term vision means sacrificing quarterly bonuses, or performance reviews reward individual achievement while you’re trying to encourage collaboration, your team won’t budge. New ways of working must be in their self-interest, so adjust as needed.

  • Remember you’re always modeling behavior. What you do is more important than what you say. If you’ve already established a reasonable level of psychological safety on the team, check in with others: ask how well the team practices what they preach, and whether you, the leader, need to adjust your behavior.

  • Reconsider your hiring criteria. If you just want people to do what you tell them, is that what you hired for? Remember, your job is to organize and support the people doing the work—not do the work yourself.  Are you frustrated because you have independent, autonomous, and therefore, “difficult,” employees? Or, given the task, do you need to hire people who are more willing to go along with directives handed down from the top?

  • Pick your battles. Last but not least, decide if this battle is worth spending political capital on. There may come a time when things must be done a certain way, but insisting on it will have a price. Is this issue mission-critical, or is it just personal preference?

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