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Manager Series, Part 3: How to Get Your Employees to Give You What You Need

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Manager Series, Part 3: How to Get Your Employees to Give You What You Need

This is Part 3 of a 7-part series on management best practices, tips and tricks, and what not to do.
Part 1 starts with the basics of being in management, and how to be a good manager.
Part 2 teaches you how to conduct a good employee performance evaluation.
Part 4 gives you ways to manage difficult employee conversations.
Part 5 helps you decide whether it’s time to fire someone.
Part 6 shows you how to fire someone properly.
Part 7 talks about how to tell the remaining members of your team that someone has been fired.


So far in our “How to Manager” series, we’ve learned that 2 things are clear: 1. Being a manager is different from parenting, or being friends, or really anything else in life. And 2. evaluating employees should be based on measured behavior — not beliefs or attitudes.

It’s easy to praise employees for awesome actions that lead to awesome results. But what about those behaviors that aren’t up to par? Giving “feedback” is one of corporate America’s favorite buzzwords right now, but isn’t about pulling someone into a conference room to present them with a list of everything they’re doing wrong.

Behaviors that are unbefitting depend on the role but can include missing deadlines, failing to greet customers, or in many cases, not delivering what the boss asked for. Your first instinct when something like that happens might be to assume that the employee is checked out, but that’s not always the case.

So what do you do when you ask for one thing and what you get is decidedly not that thing? You do the hard thing — talk with the employee.

But first, you need to learn to speak Manager.

The One Where Zac Learns a New Language

Meet Zac. When he first became a human, he learned to use English to convey information to other humans. It worked like a charm — if he ordered a sandwich with no mayo, that’s what he got, most of the time. Except for that one place. (You know who you are.)

After Zac’s years of experience at being a human, he then became a manager. But when he ordered a “sandwich with no mayo” from an employee, he’d instead get a result somewhere between a bag full of tortilla chips and lightly grilled asparagus.

Needless to say, he was shocked. But just like he blamed that one place for ALWAYS putting mayo on his sandwich when he SPECIFICALLY said not to, he blamed his employees for delivering projects that were nowhere near what he (thought he) had asked for.

Zac’s answer to the mayo problem was to stop patronizing that one place. And his answer to his “bad” employee was to fire them and hire another one. That’s exactly what he did — twice, in fact — but when the third employee still couldn’t make the dumb sandwich the right way, he had a realization.

Maybe they weren’t the problem.

Zac had a Come to Jesus, Party of One, and realized that speaking English to humans doesn’t translate to the workplace. He had to learn to speak Manager to employees, and it was like an entirely new language (or at least a parallel-dimension language where people use the same words but they mean completely different things)

Conversational Manager 101
Step 1: Find Your Sword
The first and most important key to speaking Manager is this underlying truth: As a manager, you are always and forever wielding a giant flaming sword. (Learn more about the sword here.)

What does a theoretical sword have to do with communication? Everything. Because if a manager doesn’t realize they have one, they’re constantly swinging it around and terrifying their employees. (Even if you aren’t directly stabbing it at an employee, that shit is distracting.)

So the first step is to acknowledge your sword, know where it is at all times, and be aware of the impact it has on your team.

Step 2: Repetition Is Key
The second key is repetition. As in, ask your employees to repeat back what you just said. Every time. Make it a habit. The good drive-thru places, the ones that give you a sandwich without mayo instead of an elephant tusk with a hint of olive oil, do this as a standard practice.

There are a few ways you can do this exercise with your employees without coming across as an irritated parent. You can say something like:

  • Okay, I want to make sure my instructions were clear. Will you please repeat them back to me in your own words?
  • Okay, that was a lot of information! Just to make sure we’re on the same page, will you let me know what you just heard?
  • Thank you for taking the time to listen to all that. Now, can you let me know the steps you heard me give you?

(Party bonus, this also works when you’re in the employee role. Repeating back what your boss tells you guarantees you’ll deliver what was requested. Just change it up a little bit so it comes from your perspective, something like: “I just want to make sure I’ve got this right …”)

Does this make the conversation 2 or 3 times as long as it could be? Yes. Will it save you hours and hours of rework? Also yes.

Speaking of yes, never accept it as a complete answer. Or no, for that matter. Here’s what happens when you do:

  • Manager: Got it?
  • Employee: Yes.
  • Also employee: (100% doesn’t have it, but is scared to admit it for looking foolish.)

Step 3: Think Before You Speak

Finally, decide the outcome you want from a conversation before you ever open your mouth. This can be as minor as finding out about your employee’s weekend or as major as deciding if this person is the right fit in their current role.

This is Post-it-level important, so write this down and stick it on your monitor:

“Never start a conversation without some idea of where you want it to go.”

While you’re at it, write this down, too:

“We judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their behaviors.”

This one is important because every conversation about behavior is inherently unequal. You’re judging your employee for what they did, and they’re judging themselves by what they intended to do. Many conversations crash and burn on the shores of “I didn’t MEAN for that outcome to occur … well that outcome DID occur … but that wasn’t my INTENT. … I get that you didn’t INTEND it, but the fish is still DEAD. …”

Here’s where we come full circle: Having your employees repeat back instructions to you can prevent this conversation after the fact, because the behavior and intentions will be clear from the outset.

In the next installment, we’ll dig into the details and give you a specific, structured conversation style that you can use to avoid getting stuck in Step 4.

Related content:
Manager Series, Part 1: What No One Ever Told You About Being a Manager
Manager Series, Part 2: How to Write an Employee Performance Review
Manager Series, Part 4: Techniques for Managing Challenging Conversations
Manager Series, Part 5: Reasons to Fire an Employee
Manager Series, Part 6: How to Fire Someone
Manager Series, Part 7: Telling Your Team Someone Was Fired

Every conversation about behavior is inherently unequal. You’re judging your employee for what they did, and they’re judging themselves by what they intended to do.

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