Become a Better Manager Overnight – Influence, Rather Than Order Employees

For centuries, managers got things done by ordering their subordinates. Today, you need to influence your employees to get work done.

Take a moment to think about it.

Do you notice every day that your employees (as well as your children) are increasingly more resistant to direct orders? And, not only do they now seldom respond immediately but in many cases they actively resist your orders.

Fortunately, I have found a practical way to overcome this growing resistance to orders. Managers need to learn how to influence employees or nudge them in the right direction with a subtle prompt. Managers can influence their employees to act using the following key “influence factors” that drive employee behavior.

Our resistance to “orders” is increasing

This emerging resistance to “a superior” ordering one of their subordinates began to grow at least in part after high-tech firms realized the high economic value resulting from serial innovation. Research at data-driven firms like Google further revealed that serial innovation was maximized by increasing the amount of collaboration between equals. Giving employees freedom maximized their time for collaboration. In fact, one of the purposes of Google’s 20% time approach was to maximize employee freedom by limiting management authority; “It’s a check on imperial managers” (Eric Schmidt).

Of course, worker expectations have changed too. Many parents now order their children less as they strive to be friends with their children. Taken together, these factors now mean that ordering employees in a team environment is no longer the most effective behavioral change option for managers.

As the expectations of workers toward freedom and away from hierarchy continue to grow, I see the “resistance to orders” trend inevitably spreading from high-tech to every age group in almost every industry. In my view, at least until the next major downturn, there’s no value in bemoaning the fact that employees no longer listen to or follow authority like they once did. Managers must learn to delay authoritarian ordering, and instead shift to an “influence first approach.”

Produce better results by adopting an “influence first” approach

If you expect to be an effective manager in a matrix team environment, it’s important to realize that many of the people that “do work” really don’t have to listen to you. A way to visualize that is to begin assuming from today forward that everyone in your organization is a volunteer. And as such, they have multiple choices and one of them is to delay or resist acting in the way that you want them to. I recommend that you adopt an “influence and nudge first” approach which uses “orders” only as a last result.

Under this method, managers assume that employee responses are voluntary. They subtly encourage, convince, coach or sell employees on acting in the way that you want. And without coercion but with the right influence factors, they respond at a much higher rate, much like volunteers and customers do. That’s primarily because they understand why the requested action is necessary and they fully understand the benefits to themselves and others.

Drive employee behavior by highlighting these influence factors

The influence approach that I am recommending is driven exclusively by human managers. Even though behavior scientists are now simultaneously developing “automated nudges” that are created from the data gathered from machine learning. In this article, I am recommending that managers use “influence nudges” that are based on the manager’s own understanding of what drives and motivates each individual employee. I have found that there are five categories covering 20 influence areas that can drive employee behavior without having to use orders.

Drive your employees to act by making sure that you:

Category #1 – Foundation influence actions

  • Explain why the action needs to be taken – Sometimes explaining why is enough. Always start by making sure that your employees fully understand why an action is necessary and the consequences if it is not done right and on time.
  • Show they are making a difference – Harvard research revealed that the #1 employee motivator was making a difference and “connecting with those who benefit from your work.” Reveal the potential big-picture impacts from the action on society, the environment, and their community.
  • Create and follow a motivation profile – You can make your influence efforts more effective if you compile a motivation profile for each employee. This periodically updated profile will reveal which influence factors have the highest impact on getting each individual employee to accept new work.

Category #2 – Reveal the potential benefits

  • Show their personal benefit – Ensure that the employee understands how the action might personally benefit them and their career, in areas like performance metrics, rewards, promotions, visibility, professional development, recognition, etc.
  • Show the benefits to the team – Many employees are also concerned about the success of the team they work in. Make them aware how the needed action will support team goals, improve team results or otherwise directly impact their team or team members.
  • Reveal customer impacts – Most employees care about the firm’s customers. So, make them aware of the potential customer or product impacts from their actions. When it’s realistic, let them know how their work could help the firm and its shareholders.
  • Appeal to their need to be challenged – Many employees are excited about taking on a new challenge. Frame this work as an opportunity to meet an exciting challenge and to test or stretch their capabilities. This may be especially effective when it’s their first chance to lead a team.

Category #3 – Tie rewards and measures to the action

  • Reward them for results – Rewards remain a key motivator. Tie one or more rewards directly to the work. Project completion bonuses are particularly effective in not only getting employees to accept work but also for getting it completed on time and under budget.
  • Offer them something in return – Tie completing the action to something else that the employee considers valuable. Make it a trade or an exchange (quid pro quo).
  • Make it one of their performance metrics – Meeting performance metrics is important for top performers. Make the needed action one of the employee’s (or team’s) goals, KPIs, performance appraisal criteria or bonus criteria.

Category #4 – Modify the work itself

  • Make it a friendly competition – Even though the employee wants to do the work, being bored can affect their performance. Consider turning at least part of the required work into a game or friendly competition. This helps to reduce boredom and to get the competitive juices flowing.
  • Change who they work with – Employees may be more willing to do a task if they get to do it with someone they like. Provide them some input into who they work with or allow them to pick a favorite colleague to work alongside.
  • Let them control how the work is done – Many employees lose at least one level of excitement if they must “do it your way.” Give them the freedom to do things “their way.” They can make choices on how, when, and where the work is done.

Category #5 – Miscellaneous influence factors

  • Make the work assignment a team decision – Make it less of an authoritarian request by showing that the decision to assign the work to the individual was a team decision. Make it clear that everyone wants it done and the team thinks you are the best person to do it.
  • Ask them if they will help – Put your request in the form of a genuine request, “Can you please help?” Alternatively, ask for a favor or make it a polite request or have someone that the employee respects ask them to do it.
  • Show it’s a professional responsibility – Convince them that the action or work is part of their professional or legal responsibility that they are obligated to meet. Appeal to their pride.
  • Convince them to take ownership – Employees are more likely to do work that they feel that they “own.” Convince them to accept ownership so it becomes “their problem.” And, with that ownership, most accept full responsibility to complete the task.
  • Become an inspirational leader – Many employees will gladly accept new work if the request comes from a leader that inspires them. Study the principles of inspirational leadership and try to act in such a way that it inspires others.
  • Hire self-motivated people – When you hire self-motivated people, they need little prodding and they will almost automatically do what you ask. Motivating employees to work is also much cheaper if you hire people that are not motivated by money.

Final thoughts

It’s time to realize that the world of management is changing rapidly. And, that means that both worker and manager expectations will likely continue to change. There will be less hierarchy, less formality and less ordering of subordinates.

In my view, if you want to thrive as a manager in this time of expanded employee freedom, your best option is to adopt an “influence first approach” and save any subordinate ordering only for catastrophic situations where fast precise action is required.

Author’s Note: If this article stimulated your thinking and provided you with actionable tips, follow or connect with me on LinkedIn, subscribe to the ERE Daily, and hear me and others speak at ERE’s Recruiting Conference in October in Washington, D.C.

About Dr John Sullivan

Dr John Sullivan is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high business impact; strategic Talent Management solutions to large corporations.

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