Why People Don’t Do What You Want Them To

Powerful principles for analyzing any performance problem.

I love the work of Robert “Bob” Mager, including his framework for preparing learning objectives and criterion-referenced instruction (CRI), and his work on dealing with performance problems.

If you haven’t already read his book, “Analyzing Performance Problems,” and the included process flow, you should. It is a valuable tool to invest in for figuring out why people aren’t doing what you think they should be doing.

According to Mager, there are potentially seven reasons why people drop the ball on performance results. I continue to see these seven reasons highlighted in my work with employee recognition, let alone why things don’t get done at home, or even within my community and church responsibilities.

Let’s take a closer look at these seven reasons.

1. No Expectations: Nothing will ever get started if you don’t set clear expectations for what you want done, when you want it done by, and with general guidelines for how to do it and where to go for needed help.

I have seen managers not giving employees the kind of recognition company engagement surveys said employees lacked. But no one had told the managers what employees wanted nor had senior managers set the standard for recognition giving to happen.

It can sound crazy to have to give people permission to do what seems like common sense. But as Mark Twain wisely penned, “Common sense isn’t so common.”

2. No Feedback: Both positive and constructive feedback is essential to knowing if you are on the right track. Feedback given the right way can help a person with proper growth and development for his or her career. You will never know if you are reaching the desired expectations or how you could improve if you don’t receive candid feedback on your performance. Proper feedback is both motivational by giving you reinforcement for work well done and beneficial by providing needed course corrections along the way.

3. No Resources: If you don’t have the right tools, or perhaps the manpower, to ensure a task is done correctly, nothing is going to change.

I was trying to chisel out the hole in the door jamb of our home’s front door where the strike plate for the door lock would go. But the chisel wasn’t cutting in too well. I called a carpenter friend of mine, explaining I didn’t want him to do the job but just to give me some tips on what I needed to do. He looked at my dull chisel point and told me it wouldn’t even cut butter. He sharpened the chisel and showed me some methods to chisel correctly, and I had the job done in no time. It wasn’t just about having the right tool but making sure it was functioning at optimum levels, too.

4. No Training: All of us need to know how to do specific tasks or actions the right way, or to receive knowledge and instruction to help us with our work. This likely will require us to learn through various methods how to do something. Whether it is in-class instruction, online learning, or reading books and manuals, if we don’t know how to do something the right way, we will be paralyzed and unable to move ahead. For example, managers who are poor givers of recognition often require education on the behavioral skills needed to be effective givers of recognition to employees.

5. Punish the Right: Have you ever had a manager ask who completed a specific assignment given to each person in the room? You feel good about being able to report and share how you finished the task but then find out that everyone else has not, and they start saying negative comments such as “brown-noser” or “Mr. Goody Two-Shoes” or other smart remarks.

Getting negative put-down responses from peers becomes a disincentive to report performance completed, and can cause a person to not finish future assignments in a timely manner.

6. Reward the Wrong: It was with a power company where I heard my favorite example of “rewarding the wrong” things. They wanted to have zero accidents. When dealing with electrical power, little things can add up to fatalities, and no one wants to visit employees’ family members with bad news. The company established a reward system where departments that submitted reports with zero accidents rewarded all employees with a $50 gift card for each specific time period.

Guess what happened? The focus on receiving the reward caused all levels of employees to ignore reporting minor accidents so they could send in zero accident reports. By doing this, everyone received his or her free bonus of a $50 gift card for an empty report even though small safety infractions had occurred.

7. Ignore Either: And the worst of any consequential feedback is to receive nothing at all—no praise, criticism, or correction of any kind.

The scary part about why people don’t always do what we want them to is it is most often the manager who didn’t bother to prevent these seven reasons from happening. That’s right, the responsibility most often falls back to the manager, supervisor, or person extending the assignment.

What can we do to counter these seven areas that so often get in the way of great performance? Consider the following quick perspectives on how to address these principles:

1. Clarify the expectations of the task.
2. Provide people with the right kind of feedback.
3. Provide the resources to complete the task.
4. Provide accessibility to appropriate training.
5. Remove unwarranted punishment.
6. Remove inappropriate rewards.
7. Deliver appropriate consequences as necessary.

It would appear that great performance is in our hands after all.

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