Dear Crucial Skills,
I work for a Fortune 500 company that sets the bar high for management performance standards, and results are based on numbers and production. Because hourly employees are covered under a local union contract that mediates the actions that are punishable, many feel that their lack of following processes and methods is acceptable.
As a manager, I feel that my hands are tied because I cannot discipline their poor behavior, yet I am subject to discipline and performance reviews as a direct result of my employees’ failure to perform the job as directed. How can I get my employees to care about doing the job right when the union forbids formal discipline or accountability for failing to do so?
Confused and Bewildered
I appreciate the frustration you are experiencing. You are held accountable for results, but you can’t hold your people accountable. When they don’t meet expectations, you are the one who gets in trouble.
I’ve worked in organizations where this kind of frustration got so bad that managers resorted to fistfights. You could say they used crucial altercations instead of crucial conversations in their desperation to get performance back on track. As you can imagine, these slugfests had the opposite effect. They stimulated cycles of retaliation and revenge.
Before I offer specific advice, I’d like to describe your concern in the broadest way possible, because I think you are tapping into a leadership concern that is nearly universal. Here is the concern: As a leader, I’m given a heck of a lot more responsibility and accountability than authority. As a result, leaders are left managing without authority.
The good news is that managing without authority causes leaders to focus on building commitment and engagement, rather than settling for obedience and compliance. This is good news because most jobs demand initiative, judgment, and creativity, and these qualities can’t be mandated; they are the fruits of commitment and engagement. Here are a few steps for managing without authority:
Build Mutual Purpose. Begin by identifying broad goals you and your employees share. When I’m working in union environments, I often ask union reps and union members to write down their goals. Supervisors and managers do the same. Then they compare. They usually find several goals they share. At a broad level, these goals usually include “being competitive,” “an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay,” and “keeping my job.” These principles create enough common ground to get started. They are goals leaders and direct reports can pursue together.
Focus on Two to Three Crucial Moments and Vital Behaviors. Identify the highest-leverage changes your team can make and focus on achieving them. Turn this process into a small-scale experiment that involves your team—or at least the union reps. Your team’s goal is to prove that these small changes produce big improvements that further your common goals.
Here are a few examples of crucial moments and vital behaviors used at a transmission plant:
· I will notice when my machine is not working and shut it down before it produces scrap.
· I will perform basic diagnostic steps before calling maintenance.
· I will take basic actions—clean sensors, replace blades, and reboot—before calling maintenance.
Jointly Remove Barriers to Action. Some employees may not want to act on the vital behaviors your team identifies. Or, they may agree to act on them but then fail to follow through. When employees let you down in these ways, begin by giving them the benefit of the doubt. Assume they have a good reason, and ask them about it. Use the “5-why” technique to learn about the barriers.
For example, employees in the transmission plant didn’t want to clean the sensors before calling maintenance. That surprised us and we asked why. They responded with a lot of frustration and anger. It turned out that the coolant in the machines was black and gooey, and nobody wanted it to ruin their clothes. Our second question was, “Why is the coolant black and gooey?” The answer to that question turned out to be more complicated and solving it saved the company hundreds of thousands of dollars as well as improved the lives of the employees who had to deal with it.
Jointly removing barriers demonstrates good faith—yours and your employees’. It also builds credibility and common ground. However, not every barrier can be removed. You need people to be motivated enough to overcome the routine barriers that make work, work.
Use Natural Consequences to Explain Priorities. Managing without authority means steering clear of your power. You don’t want to threaten to impose consequences—first, because you may not have the authority to follow through, and second, because you don’t want to be the reason the person does or does not comply. You want people to do the right thing because they understand and agree that it’s the right thing to do.
The way you motivate without authority is by explaining the logical reasons for taking an action. You explain the natural consequences—the logical results of taking or not taking the action. At the transmission plant, one of the natural consequences of cleaning the sensors themselves was that it would prevent at least a half hour of down time. The employees already knew this, but weren’t especially motivated by it. They didn’t mind working longer days. In fact, they liked the overtime pay. However, there were other consequences that were more motivating. For example, their department’s productivity was charted against similar departments across the organization and across the world. They were very motivated to show that they were just as productive as their colleagues in Mexico and in China.
I hope these ideas can help you get started. The best managers—even those who have lots of formal power—do their best to manage without authority.
I’d love to hear your suggestions for managing without authority. Share you ideas below.