Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Conversations for Accountability

Getting Your Employees Up to Snuff

Dear Crucial Skills,

With recent organizational changes, I acquired additional people reporting to me as their first-line manager. This particular group supports older legacy software products that are slowly becoming obsolete. Our organization is transforming in ways that require employees to learn and use new tools so they can eventually join teams that are developing our new products. All team members have learned the new tools except one older individual. He is content with the status quo, vocalized that he does not want to do anything new, and intentionally does not take training or opportunities when offered.
The problem is that prior managers allowed this behavior to exist and I inherited it. How can I influence this person to change?

Managing Obsolescence

Dear Managing,
Congratulations on your success in helping so many stay prepared for future responsibilities. The fact that you’ve got only one outlier is a credit both to your team’s initiative and your influence.

Now, let’s talk about the “older individual.” I’ll share a variety of thoughts that I hope spur a productive path forward for both of you.

1. Question the question. Is it really a problem that he doesn’t learn the new tools? For example, if the legacy systems will need another year’s support and he intends to retire in a year or so, perhaps he’s making a perfectly rational decision not to invest in new skills. My first challenge is for you to broaden your definition of a good outcome and consider whether his aspirations and the organization’s needs can both be served by keeping him where he is. If not, continue to #2.

2. Diagnose carefully. It’s often the case that ability problems appear to be motivation problems. For example, when I was five years old, I was embarrassed that I didn’t know how to swim. My mother signed me up for swim lessons and I feigned a lack of interest—not because I truly didn’t want to know how to swim, but because I was certain my lack of body fat would make me sink to the bottom of the pool. Could it be that he is interested in new ideas, but worries he couldn’t handle the complexity? If so, you need to find a way to make it safe to surface this issue and develop solutions to the ability problem—or at least his perception that there is an ability problem.

3. Explore natural consequences. Too many managers think it’s their job to motivate people to change. It isn’t. Your job is to help them understand the natural consequences of their choices. For example, you might explain, “You are highly competent at our legacy systems. Our new systems require abracadabra certification. In about eighteen months we will sunset our legacy systems. The only jobs we’ll have available then will require the new certification. There will not be a position you qualify for at that time based on your current skill set.” Having explained the world as you see it, it is his choice to either motivate himself to learn abracadabra—or not. You can surrender the need to manage his choices.

4. Agree on next steps. Let’s say you explore the natural consequences and he says, “Geez, I think I need to get up to speed on abracadabra.” If his past behavior shows that he makes commitments but does not follow through, you must clarify who will do what and by when and how you will follow up. You must also confirm the consequences of noncompliance. For example, you might ask, “Great, so what’s your plan? When will you take the training? When will you be available to take on tasks with abracadabra certification?” Having received his commitment, be sure to add the following: “Let’s talk in three months to confirm that the certification is complete. If it is complete after that time, I will slot you into some new projects. If it is not, I hope you understand that our ability to use you will have a limited life.”

Let me conclude with one final invitation. Make sure you check your own motives. Be sure you are not writing someone off because he is not everything you think he should be. If he is resistant to new skills, but his presence is still a “win-win” for the organization, don’t be myopic and miss that bigger picture.

These are tough calls to make. Management is tough. I wish you the best as you do the right thing for those you serve.


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3 thoughts on “Getting Your Employees Up to Snuff”

  1. Ed Schneider

    As both an older invidual and someone who has managed a few staffs I was very interested in your column. I agree with almost everything you say but have to take exception to your premise in #3. You say ‘Too many managers think it’s their job to motivate people to change. It isn’t.’ I say why not? The major asset of most organizations is the people and managers are responsible for their people. Shouldn’t the manager’s manager hold the manager responsible for how the manager’s people perform and the manager’s role in their performance? I think it shortsighted to say that the manager is not responsible for motivating the person they are managing. For me it’s part of the role of the manager. I am fine with what you advise in #3 – do help them understand the consequence of their decisions. That part makes perfest sense. It’s the caveat you lead with I am questioning. It did make me stop and question my belief. It is challenging, but upon reflection I think it is unnecessary to your point.

  2. Pavan Desai

    Thank you for this post; “Explore natural consequences” gave me a new perspective, especially this sentence: “You can surrender the need to manage his choices.” Appreciate the insightful material.

  3. Glenys Yates

    My sympathies lie with the older person. Computer use is not part of our basic skill set – it is something we acquired in middle age. I’d like to ask who is teaching this “older individual”? If it is a young person, maybe they are just moving too fast and assuming a high level of prior knowledge, just making “older individual” feel inadequate. Get an older person to teach him.. SeniorNet (which I think is a world-wide organisation) teaches in a more relaxed and slower way and has great success with older learners.

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