What Should I Do When My Team Members Don’t Do What I Want?

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If you want to lead successfully, you should behave fairly and be predictable for your team members. If you’ve known me for a while, you know how important it is to me that managers have clear values and live by them.

In addition, as a leader, you should talk to your team members about goals, clearly express your expectations and discuss the vision; explain the “why.” It is your job to get your team members on board.

That’s all well and good, you may be saying now. But how do I behave when I have a team member with whom none of this bears fruit?

“I behave correctly, talk about vision, goals and expectations, talk my head off, so to speak, and my team member still doesn’t do what I expect of him.”

The question you should ask yourself here is:

  • Why are they doing this?
  • Can’t they or won’t they? 

If they can’t, then you need to help them.

If they don’t want to, it could be that they lack the insight to behave appropriately. 

It is your job to make the “why” clear to them.

But perhaps you are sure that your team member can change their behavior but doesn’t want to, even though you have clearly and unambiguously explained the “why” to him several times, and you can also assume that he has understood it. Well, then you must consistently demand compliance with the correct behavior.

Let me give you an example:

Let’s say you are a department manager. You are new to the company. Apparently, it has been common practice in your department not to be punctual for internal meetings. It wasn’t viewed that closely.

If a meeting was scheduled for nine o’clock sharp, the first team members would roll in shortly after nine. By the time everyone was there and had fetched a coffee, 20 minutes had passed, which meant that the meeting would start at 9:20 at the earliest, sometimes as late as half-past nine.

Understandably, you dislike this behavior because it wastes working time. With eight team members, that would be 8 x 20 minutes or more than 2.5 hours of pointless waiting per meeting!

Clearly state your expectations.

This behavior is unacceptable, and you should formulate it in the same way at the next meeting so that you clearly express your expectation to all participants. You also say exactly why you expect this. Namely, because unpunctuality leads to wasted working time and frustration and unreliability for everyone. You, therefore, clearly state:

“From now on, I expect everyone to be on time for the meeting.”

Of course, as the manager, you set a good example. After all, what you expect from your team members, you must also be an example of. So you do. 

From now on, you’re always in the room and on time at 9 a.m. — even overly punctual, so perhaps a few minutes before.

One person is late…

At the next meeting, almost all team members adhere to this new rule. All but one of your team members are in the meeting room at nine o’clock sharp.

Only Vicki arrives 10 minutes late — as always before. She bursts into the meeting that started punctually at 9 o’clock and says:

“Sorry, I’m a bit late.”

How do you behave now? Do you simply let Vicki’s tardiness pass? How you now react to this slight misbehavior shows everyone involved how serious you are and whether you act consistently.

A possible — and wrong — reaction would be:

“Okay, Vicki, please sit down.

We have already started talking about the new sales strategy.

I’ll summarize it again briefly for you…”

Completely wrong. 

This is how you accepted being late. 

  • You accepted Vicki’s flimsy pseudo-excuse.
  • You gave her a brief update on what she missed. 

She doesn’t deserve that — on the contrary!

What do the others think?

That is not consistent. You made it clear in the first meeting what your expectations are and why. But now, when the expectation is not met, you don’t bring it up. 

Now the other team members think:

“Well, showing up on time doesn’t seem to be that important to him. Otherwise, he would have made Vicki understand that. But he didn’t. Next time, I’m sure it won’t be a big deal if I show up two minutes late.”    

What is the right behavior?

To avoid this, your reaction to being late must be completely different.

A sensible alternative would be:

“Vicki, you are not a little late. You are late. You are not on time. I think I made myself clear last time. If our meeting is scheduled for 9 a.m., I expect everyone to show up on time. That includes you. Please be on time next time.”

Clearly name the errant behavior without getting loud or making any accusations.

Talk again about your clear expectation for proper future behavior and then proceed with the meeting — and please, no update for the unexcused tardy.

She’s late again…

You may now be asking:

  • What do I do if Vicki is late again next time? 
  • How do I deal with it? 
  • She is otherwise a good team member.
  • I can’t give her a warning for such a small thing, can I?

That’s right. At this point, this kind of escalation, i.e. a warning, would not be appropriate at all.

Isn’t it interesting that many managers have the feeling that they only have the choice between repeatedly reminding people to please be on time or threatening them with a warning or even dismissal?

There are different levels of escalation

There are a variety of small escalation levels that have the goal of changing the team member’s behavior. However, you need to be aware of these escalation steps and take them consistently.

In the following, I will give you an example of several possible escalation levels for lateness. You will see that there can be many stages before a warning or dismissal has to be issued.

The first stage of escalation:

We have already gone through the first stage of escalation. After being late, you consistently reminded Vicki that you do not accept being late. You were consistent.

The second stage of escalation:

Now, let’s assume Vicki does it again anyway. A week later, everyone is on time, except Vicki. She is again 10 minutes late for the meeting.

So she bursts into your already running meeting. This time she apologizes and says:

“Sorry, I’m late. A customer had just called shortly before. I’m sure you understand.”

How do you react? 

I would make it clear to Vicki that I don’t understand. The meeting starts at nine o’clock. Why does Vicki then answer her phone 5 min beforehand and take the call with the customer?

Why doesn’t she just write down the number and call back an hour later?

It is a question of importance and reliability and of keeping promises. If I commit to a meeting for 9 o’clock, it’s my job to make sure I’m on time. I’d rather be there a little earlier than keep everyone else waiting.

And excuses like “I’m late because the customer called” or because “the light in the stairwell isn’t working” or even because “a bag of rice fell over in China” are not acceptable.

Why is someone late?

There may be a very rare exception — but as a rule, these delays occur because the person did not consider it essential to be on time for the meeting.

And you must not accept that. 

So what might the 2nd escalation stage look like in such a case? Well, this time we could do a more humorous escalation, for example:

“Sorry, I’m late. A customer had just called shortly before. I’m sure you understand…”

“Vicki, no, I don’t understand! You didn’t have to take the call so shortly before the meeting. What I understand is that you are late for our meeting again. That is not acceptable. As I have said many times, when a meeting is scheduled for 9 a.m., I expect everyone — including you — to show up on time. 

From today on, whoever is late for the meeting will always take the minutes. Vicki, I am pleased that you have decided to be the first to take the minutes today. Thank you very much.”

Of course, this is not quite correct. Actually, I should have threatened the consequence in the meeting beforehand. But it’s an attempt to keep the whole thing on a low flame for now and approach it humorously, yet still be consistent and escalate it.

Many team members understand this approach exactly as it is meant. They smile at the above saying, and next time they are on time. Wonderful.

The 3rd stage of escalation:

But it can also be that Vicki does not want to hear the impact. At the next meeting, she is late again. And now? Now it comes to the 3rd escalation stage.

You say in a friendly but very short and concise way:

“Vicki you are late again for our meeting. I would therefore like to speak to you in my office directly after our meeting.”

So the 3rd escalation level is a 4-eye conversation, a feedback conversation. In this conversation, you explain to Vicki once again, very clearly and unemotionally, why it is crucial to be on time and that you expect Vicki to be on time from now on as well.

Make the consequences clear!

The decisive factor in this conversation is that you now make it clear what will happen if she is not punctual in the future. So you show her which 4th escalation level will happen if she is late again.

You may now be thinking: Aha! Now comes the warning as a further escalation. 

No, we have other options. Now you just tell her that the next time she is not on time, there will be a feedback meeting in private this time but with a personal memo.

The 4th stage of escalation:

Uhh, what is this now? Well, if Vicki is late again, then you again arrange a 4-eye conversation with her. You explain to her that she has again not fulfilled your expectation — namely punctual appearance — and you make a conversation note with her about this.

This means that you briefly summarize your conversation and have Vicki sign it. You then place the memo in your desk. 

You tell Vicki that if she comes to the meetings on time for the next 3 months, you will invite her for coffee and then tear up this meeting note in front of her.

But you also tell her that if she is late again, there will be consequences. Because then there is another 4-eye conversation with another conversation note — only that this then officially also moves into the personnel file. That would be the 5th escalation level.

The further escalation levels:

Only the next, i.e., the 6th escalation level, would then correspond to the 1st warning. The 7th escalation level would be the 2nd warning and then, as the 8th level, the dismissal of the team member.

But it will certainly not come to that. And do you know why? Because the team member understands that you act consistently and always escalate one level higher.

She understands that you are serious. At least if she wants to keep her job, she won’t make the mistake of repeatedly failing to meet your expectations over 8 escalation levels. And if she does: Well, then it is also right to part with such a team member!

Does it always have to be 8 escalation levels?

No, of course not. If, for example, you have clearly proven to your accountant that they have embezzled money, then there is only one consequence — namely, immediate dismissal.

With the example of being late, I just wanted to illustrate that you can have various escalation levels if you need them. Any escalation level other than dismissal is only to help the team member adjust their behavior to meet your expectations.

It is not punishment, even if it may sometimes seem that way. Whether and how many escalation levels you actually use depends on the team member and the behavior you want to change and, of course, how far you are willing to go.

Consistency is key!

The key is that you need to be consistent. If you say something is going to happen if the team member misbehaves, it has to happen.

You have three dimensions to influence the behavior of your team members:

  • The first dimension is being a role model. What you expect, you have to exemplify.
  • The second dimension is insight. You talk to your team member about the meaning, about the why. By doing so, you are trying to achieve insight into the behavior you want.
  • In 90% of cases, these two dimensions are sufficient. For the remaining 10% of cases, the third dimension is crucial, and it is called consequence. There are team members who recognize that you, as the manager, are setting an example.

As an example, you as the manager always arrive on time for the meeting. These team members also understand why the behavior you want them to adopt makes sense. They know that not being punctual leads to frustration among those waiting and that unpunctuality costs time and money. 

So, the insight is there. And yet, you may not behave that way. If this is the case, then you need to help these team members change their behavior through consistency.

There are 5 important points in the conversation.

From the 2nd or 3rd escalation level at the latest, you should always address the following five points:

  • What happened?
  • What is the misconduct? What expectation was not met?
  • What are the implications for the team member?
  • What is your expectation regarding future correct behavior?
  • What will happen next time the team member misbehaves?

It is crucial that you, as the manager, think carefully beforehand about what and how many escalation levels you have and are willing to go to if the team member misbehaves again and again.

Write down these escalation levels.

The advantage of this is that you are always in control of the situation because you know in advance how you will respond to misbehavior and what consequences you will address.

If you make the 5 points just mentioned clear to your team member when escalating, you will behave fairly and predictably. Your team member won’t suddenly be surprised by consequences because you’ve made it clear to them in advance what will happen if they misbehave again. It is his choice to behave right or wrong.

Photo iStock

Some further reading:

About the coach​

Kai Boyd has been a leader, trainer and facilitator since 1989. He supports leaders and their teams to work together effectively, trustfully and with ease. This involves each and everyone – in their respective roles and as people. Tailor-made formats and genuine attention enable potential to unfold and synergies to emerge.

The graduate industrial engineer, managing director and former management consultant knows the requirements of his clients from many perspectives. He works systemically, strength- and solution-oriented. Leading international teams as well as work and academic programs in the USA and the UK enable him to always contribute the international perspective.

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