Many leaders feel frustrated by team members who won’t follow instructions. Should the team members just be fired? Well, maybe.
However, many leaders actually contribute to creating team problems without even knowing it. It’s not necessarily a simple case of having bad team members, as convenient as that might seem.
If your team members struggle to follow instructions, ask the questions below and see whether adjusting your approach might yield better results.
Sure, you can fire people. But remember that there are costs to replacing your people that might outweigh the short-term benefits of making a change.
Do Your Team Members Have the Right Skills?
Sometimes when people don’t follow instructions, they aren’t being insubordinate. It may be a simple case of not having the right skills to do the job. In other words, they don’t really know how to carry out your instructions.
Instead, they do it the best way they know how. You might wonder, “Why don’t they just tell me they don’t know how to do the work?”
Well, you’re the boss and sometimes, team members are scared to admit they don’t know or understand. No matter how approachable you feel you are, you are still an authority figure. Some team members may still feel uncomfortable opening up to you.
When you need your team to follow instructions, it’s worth understanding whether your people really have the right level of skill to do the work you need.
Learn More: How to Create a Skills Matrix and Improve Your Team.
A Story of a Skills Mismatch
Early in my career I led a team member who didn’t seem like he was getting the message. I’d give him instructions and when I’d check in with him the results were poor, or he’d missed something completely.
After a few discussions, I discovered that he simply didn’t have the technical skills that some of his colleagues did when it came to the work I was allocating.
Because we were on a fairly tight timeline, there was no real option to provide longer-term training or mentoring. Instead, I managed to reallocate the work and have him working in an area that better suited his skillset.
He was still able to contribute to the team and make a positive difference – just not in the way that I thought when I originally allocated the work.
Are Your Team Members Confident?
Sometimes you’ll need your team members to do work which is a stretch. You might provide some direction and then come back to find that your direction has been ignored, or no action has been taken at all!
As a leader, it’s likely that you have more experience than your team members. You may feel confident because you’ve learned many lessons to get where you are today.
Your team members might not have the same degree of confidence that you do. This lack of confidence can result in tentative behaviour and a lack of action.
You know that the best way to get the work done is to go from A to B to C. But what if that involves talking to some difficult stakeholders or following an unfamiliar process?
Team members who are lacking in confidence may fail to follow instructions because they feel unable to overcome the obstacles they find in their way.
Learn More: Thoughtful Leader Podcast #47: Why Building Your Team’s Confidence Should Be a Priority.
Do Your Team Members Really Understand What You Want or Why It Matters?
Leaders are often busy people. This means we sometimes take shortcuts. Perhaps we don’t include all the important information or we fail to be specific about aspects that are really important to us.
This can result in confusion and a lack of follow through from our team members. After all, if they don’t really understand what you’re asking for, they might just make up the details themselves.
I know in the past I’ve made assumptions about what my team members thought I wanted … which has led to confusion and disappointment!
The second important aspect to consider is the communication of why your instructions matter. There are many ways to complete a task, and something that seems important to you may seem like an unnecessary detail to a team member.
That’s why it’s important to always be clear about which parts of your instructions really matter. When delegating to team members, there are often some mandatory instructions that need to be followed. For example, this might include quality standards, or aspects that are required for safety or compliance purposes.
Without being specific about why your instructions matter, team members may just consider some details to be unnecessary. This can obviously result in poor outcomes when the details really are important.
Learn More: How to Delegate Work to Improve Your Team.
Are There Consequences For Failing to Follow Instructions?
When a team member doesn’t follow instructions, one of the often overlooked aspects is whether there are any consequences for this.
A simple way to understand whether this is a problem is to ask yourself:
“When a team members fails to follow instructions, what happens?”
If the answer is “not much”, then a precedent has been set for the future. If there are no consequences for failing to follow instructions, then why should your team members bother to pay attention?
Applying consequences is daunting for many leaders, because it often involves a degree of confrontation. Telling somebody they have done the wrong thing is never pleasant. We much prefer being able to give praise for a job well done!
However, failing to follow through with consequences means that there is no good reason for a team member to change their behaviour.
I’ve worked with many leaders who grumble and complain when something isn’t done right, and then will take on the work themselves and try to fix it all!
Learn More: Thoughtful Leader Episode #55: The Importance of Consequences for an Effective Workplace.
Actions to Take When Team Members Won’t Follow Instructions
If you’ve asked yourself the questions above and think that there may be an issue, what can you do about it? Well, try the tactics below to see whether you can make a positive change.
1. Provide Training and Additional Support For Team Members Who Lack Skills, Experience or Confidence
If you think your team members are lacking skills, an obvious method to try is to provide training or individual support to build their capabilities.
For team members low in confidence, partnering them up with a more experience team member, providing them with individual support or finding a suitable mentor may give them the lift they need.
You should also ensure that you’re providing the right degree of oversight. Leaders who are often unavailable for team members may find that they fail to meet expectations.
In some cases, I’ve worked with team members who are simply not quite right for the role they have been given.
Adapting their work or role can also be an option to help them contribute to the success of the team.
2. Make Sure Team Members Are Clear About Your Expectations
If you’re finding that team members aren’t following instructions, don’t leave it to chance. Clarify your expectations by being specific about what is required, when you need it and how things need to be done.
Be sure to include the details that are really important to you, along with the reasons why they really matter. It’s easy to become complacent about providing direction to your team, but remember that they don’t really know what’s in your head, unless you make it clear for them.
When trying to clarify your expectations, you should also be aware of the impact that this can have on team motivation. Telling a very experienced and skilled employee exactly how they must complete a task can decrease autonomy and lead to boredom.
As with many aspects of leadership, setting expectations at the right level can be a delicate balancing act.
Learn More: 4 Reasons Why You Can’t Hold People Accountable.
3. Reinforce Clear Consequences for Failing to Follow Instructions
Consequences don’t need to be drastic. You don’t always need to tell somebody you will fire them if they don’t obey you.
Sometimes, it can be as simple as having an honest conversation about the situation. This includes why the work didn’t meet your expectations, along with what needs to be done differently next time. Creating clear actions and following up later is a good way to make sure the message is getting through.
You may also try providing greater oversight so your team member understands that you’re taking notice. If the situation doesn’t improve, then it might be time to link the issues with employee performance evaluations or move towards more formal warnings.
Don’t forget also that rewards are a type of consequence. When people do good work and follow instructions, recognition for a job well done can go a long way.
If you’re struggling with team members who won’t follow instructions, hopefully you can make a simple change to make the difference.
Of course, the problem could be that you have a “bad” team member. However, I find it’s always worth looking at how our leadership could have contributed to the issue before we push the panic button.
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