When the Thrill Is Gone: Dealing with Decommitted People

One of the biggest challenges managers face is how to respond when they notice a direct report has decreased motivation or confidence to do a job. We call this decommitment.

For the most part, leaders avoid dealing with decommitment, largely because it is such an emotionally charged issue and they don’t know how. When they do address it, they often make matters worse: They turn the not-engaged into the actively disengaged! It doesn’t occur to many leaders that something they or their organization is doing or failing to do may be the cause of the eroded commitment. Yet evidence suggests that’s often the case.

Lack of feedback, lack of recognition, lack of clear performance expectations, unfair standards, broken promises, being yelled at or blamed, and being overworked and stressed out are just a few reasons people lose their motivation and commitment.

So how do you, an enlightened leader, deal with a decommitted direct report without making matters worse? The most effective way is to catch decommitment early—the first time you see it—before it gets out of control and festers. Then take the following steps to get back on track.

Step 1: Prepare Before You Meet

Before meeting with your direct report, clarify the specific performance or behavior that you want to discuss. Do not attempt to address multiple issues at once. Gather all the facts that support the existence of the decommitment. If it’s a performance issue, quantify the decline in performance. If it’s a behavior issue, limit your observations to what you have seen. Don’t make assumptions or bring in the perceptions of others—these are sure ways to generate defensiveness.

Now identify anything you or the organization might have done to contribute to the decommitment. Have you ever talked to the person about their performance or behavior? Have you made performance expectations clear? Does the person know what a good job looks like? Have you been using the right leadership style? Is the person being rewarded for inappropriate performance or behavior? (Poor behavior in organizations is often rewarded—that is, nobody says anything.) Is the person being punished for good performance or behavior? (People often are punished for good behavior—that is, they do well and someone else gets the credit.) Do policies support the desired performance? For example, is training or time made available to learn needed skills?

Once you have done a thorough job of preparing, you’re ready for Step 2.

Step 2: Schedule a Meeting, State the Meeting’s Purpose, and Set Ground Rules

Scheduling a meeting is vital. It’s important to begin the meeting by stating the meeting’s purpose and setting ground rules to ensure that both of you will be heard in a way that doesn’t arouse defensiveness. For example, you might open the meeting with something like this:

“I want to talk about what I see as a serious issue with your responsiveness to information inquiries. I’d like to set some ground rules about how our discussion proceeds, so that we can both fully share our perspectives. By working together to identify and agree on the issue and its causes, we can set a goal and develop an action plan to resolve it.

“First, I’d like to share my perceptions of the issue—what I’m noticing and what I think may have caused it. I want you to listen but not to respond to what I say, except to ask questions for clarification. Then I want you to restate what I said, so that I know you understand my perspective. When I’m finished, I’d like to hear your side of the story, with the same ground rules. I’ll restate what you said until you know I understand your point of view. Does this seem like a reasonable way to get started?”

Using these ground rules, you should begin to understand each other’s point of view on the issue. Making sure that both of you have been heard is a wonderful way to reduce defensiveness and move toward resolution.

Once you have set ground rules for your meeting, you are ready for Step 3.

Step 3: Work Toward Mutual Agreement and Commit to a Plan

The next step is to identify where there is agreement and disagreement on both the issue and its causes. Your job is to see if enough of a mutual understanding can be reached so that mutual problem solving can go forward. Both of you probably won’t agree on everything—but see if there is enough common ground to work toward a resolution. If not, revisit those things that are getting in the way, and restate your positions to see if understanding and agreement can be reached.

When you think it is possible to go forward, ask, “Are you willing to work with me to get this resolved?”

If you still can’t get a commitment to go forward, you need to use a directing leadership style. Set clear performance expectations and a time frame for achieving them; set clear, specific performance standards and a schedule for tracking performance progress; and state consequences for nonperformance. Understand that this is a last-resort strategy that may resolve the performance issue but not the commitment issue.

When you get a commitment to work together to resolve the issue, it is normal to feel great relief and assume that the issue is resolved. Not so fast.

If you have contributed to the cause of the problem, you need to take steps to correct what has been done. But you may not be in a position to patch things up if it was the organization that created the problem. In this case, a simple acknowledgment of how your direct report has been impacted may be enough to release the negative energy and regain the person’s commitment.

Once you finally get a commitment to work together to resolve the issue, you can go to Step 4 and partner for performance.

Step 4: Partner for Performance

Now you and the direct report need to have a partnering for performance discussion in which you jointly decide the leadership style you will use to provide work direction or coaching. You should set a goal, establish an action plan, and schedule a progress-check meeting. This last step is crucial!

Resolving decommitment issues requires sophisticated interpersonal and performance management skills. Your first try at one of these conversations is not likely to be as productive as you would like. However, if you conduct the conversation in honest good faith, it will reduce the impact of less-than-perfect interpersonal skills and set the foundation for a productive relationship built on commitment and trust.

Don’t Be Afraid to Call an Audible

If there’s one thing leaders can count on, it’s that you can’t count on things to stay the same.  You get a game plan and then all of a sudden, circumstances change—your plan will no longer work. That’s when you’ve got to do what my friend, retired Miami Dolphins coach Don Shula, refers to as “calling an audible”—doing something different to succeed.

One of my favorite stories about calling audibles comes from a seeing eye dog training program in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Two kinds of dogs would get kicked out of this program. One was the completely disobedient dog—the one that would do nothing the master wanted. Surprisingly, the other kind was the completely obedient dog—the one that did whatever the master asked it to.

The program only kept dogs that did whatever the master wanted unless it didn’t make sense. The trainers actually taught these dogs to think—to use judgment! So, if a dog is on a street corner and the master says, “Forward”—but the dog looks and sees a car coming at 60 miles an hour—the dog doesn’t blindly think, “This is a real bummer” as he leads his master right out in front of the car. Ha!

Sometimes leaders need to be like the seeing eye dog staring at the car heading their way at 60 miles per hour. Just because the business plan says to follow Plan A, it might be time to adopt Plan B.

Netflix provides a great example. In 1998—back when Blockbuster was the big name in movie rentals—Netflix started renting out DVDs by mail. But by 2007 the DVD rental model was losing profitability. That’s when Netflix called an audible—they took advantage of new technology and began offering a subscription streaming service.

Netflix is now the global leader in on-demand entertainment. Blockbuster filed for bankruptcy in 2010. Blockbuster either didn’t see the car coming at 60 miles an hour, or they blindly followed a bad plan.

Organizations thrive when decision makers at every level learn to be audible ready. For example, a family with young kids was having dinner at a fine gourmet hotel restaurant in New York City. The kids ordered macaroni and cheese from the children’s menu. When dinner came, the kids played with the macaroni but didn’t each much. The grown-ups tried some and thought it was the greatest gourmet mac-and-cheese they’d ever tasted. When the waiter asked the kids if there was something wrong with their meal, they said, “It’s yucky! It’s not Kraft!”

The next evening when the family appeared at the restaurant, the waiter from the previous night spotted them and came right over to the kids. “I was hoping you would come back. I got Kraft for you.” With that, he went to the kitchen and returned with a box of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese.

With an audible-ready waiter like that, is it any wonder the restaurant was flourishing?

Many organizations today have an organizational chart with everyone in a comfortable box. It might look nice on the wall, but it locks everyone into a fixed game plan and often, fixed rules. Don’t let this happen to you. Plans and procedures are important, so have them in place. But be ready to call an audible when you see that 60-mile-an-hour car heading your way!

 

Memorial Day Remembrances

This past Monday was Memorial Day—a federal holiday in the United States designed for remembering and honoring those who have died in the service of our country.

Memorial Day weekend was always an important time of remembrance for my father, who served in the U.S. Navy. During World War II he led a group of twelve Landing Craft Infantry ships (LCI) in an assault on the Marshall Islands. The LCI’s job was to protect the Marines and the Frogmen (now Seals) during major battles. Tragically, 70 percent of my father’s men were killed or wounded during the assault.

My father retired as a Navy Admiral. He and my mother are buried side by side in Washington, D.C. at Arlington Cemetery—a beautiful place of rest that honors our heroes and their families.

Last year my wife, Margie, and I went on a three-day tour of Normandy, France, with the folks from The National World War II Museum. Normandy is the site of a battle that was the turning point in Europe during World War II. What an emotional experience it was to visit the American Cemetery and Memorial, where more than 10,000 U.S. servicemen who perished in the battle are buried or memorialized. I wish every American could visit Normandy to witness the truth of the phrase “Freedom is not free.”

I hope you can schedule some quiet time this week to reflect on those who gave everything for our freedom. Teach your children and grandchildren the meaning of Memorial Day—and move forward with kindness as you interact with others.

God bless America!

Ken

A Message from an Associate

On my 80th birthday this month, I left the company a morning email message—as I’ve done almost every day for more than 20 years—sharing my thoughts about entering my ninth decade.

Some people have asked me if it’s a burden to come up with a morning message every day. It really isn’t, because it keeps me thinking about learnings I can share and how I can help people. And when I get a message like the one below from our associate, Sarah Caverhill, it’s all worth it.

Dear Ken,

What a wonderful morning message! Your life has given so much to the world and you still have so much to give.  I am amazed at how much positive impact we create for others and how many lives we touch, directly and indirectly.  Every person who participates in one of our courses impacts all the people they lead, and they in turn impact the people they touch.  Such a virtuous cycle!

I believe we are put on paths for a reason and I want you to know how much I value the experience I have had with Blanchard.  I have learned so much from you and you probably don’t realize that. I didn’t grow up with happy parents, although they were good people who had a strong work ethic and valued education. I do appreciate what they taught me. But happiness, joy, and celebration were not part of our household. Then God steered me onto a different path, and I came to Blanchard over 23 years ago. I had so much to learn! I can’t tell you how much your mentoring through morning messages has meant through the years. Here are some of the great things I’ve learned from you.

  1. I’ve learned the value of celebration. Growing up, my family didn’t celebrate much. You have helped me turn my own family into a loving, celebratory, supportive one. I actually taught my parents how to celebrate and appreciate all that life has to offer. In fact, we had a big celebration last month to honor my dad’s 90th birthday!

 

  1. I’ve learned the importance of keeping “I love you’s” up to date.  After we reached adulthood my parents rarely said “I love you” to us. In fact, I can’t think of a single time from teenager-dom on. But after I joined Blanchard, I started saying it every time I talked to them. It was awkward at first because they weren’t used to it. But over time they caught on and it’s now a part of our daily conversations. I recently lost my mother and I’m so grateful that you taught me to keep my “I love you’s” up to date! I know she knew how much I loved her, and I know how much she loved me.  That simple statement put a lot of joy into her later years. And nowadays my dad gets a big grin on his face whenever he sees me and tells me he loves me.  WOW! Who would’ve thought?

 

  1. I also learned from you that life is a very special occasion and not to take it for granted. I focus on showing up well every day that I can!  I don’t want to miss a thing and I want every moment to count. I spend time with my friends and loved ones and cherish every moment. And that includes a lot of Blanchard friends I’ve made over the years. It really is great to work with such talented, loving people.

 

I know there are a lot of other things, but those are my top three.  So, keep on doing what you do so well. We are all blessed to be here celebrating with you, even if virtually!  You will never know exactly how many lives you’ve touched because it’s impossible to count that high. Your legacy is one of love, caring, and respect for all.  You should run for President!

Love to you and Margie as you celebrate,

Sarah

Thank you, Sarah. By sending me this message, you put into action another of my favorite learnings: Catching people doing things right!

Finding Your Significant Purpose

Maybe it’s happened to you: You have a vision of what you want to accomplish. You begin to tackle the job. Suddenly, hours have flown by and you’re astonished by what you’ve achieved.

When work is connected to what we deeply desire, we can tap into energy and creativity we don’t even know we have. But to reach that seemingly effortless productivity, it’s not enough to simply have a vision of what we want to accomplish; our work also must have a purpose that is significant to us.

Jesse Stoner and I have written extensively on the creation of an effective vision, which is comprised of three elements: a significant purpose, a picture of the future, and clear values. Today I’m going to focus on that first element, a significant purpose.

Zeroing In on Your Significant Purpose

An organization can begin to find its significant purpose by answering the question, “What business are we in?” If your first thought was, “We’re in business to make money,” you’re missing the point. As author and speaker Simon Sinek says, “Profit isn’t a purpose.”

A significant purpose is bigger than what your company does. Rather than simply explaining what you do or what products you provide, your significant purpose must answer this question:

“Why?”

Your significant purpose must clarify—from your customer’s point of view—what business you’re really in.

For example, a mattress company with a significant purpose doesn’t simply sell mattresses and make profits; it’s in the business of providing people with a good night’s rest. An insurance company with a significant purpose doesn’t simply sell policies; it’s in the business of giving customers peace of mind.

A couple of real-world examples include Tesla, whose significant purpose isn’t simply to sell cars; it’s “to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy.” Technology Education and Design—otherwise known as TED of TED Talks fame—has a simple yet powerful significant purpose: “Spread Ideas.”

The CEO of outdoor apparel company Patagonia, Rose Marcario, beautifully articulates the concept of a significant purpose. “If you want to retain great people and have a great company, then you have to inspire the people to a greater, bigger purpose than themselves, and for us it’s saving the planet,” she says.

Patagonia’s significant purpose—saving the planet—seems to be working well. Since Marcario took the helm, the company has quadrupled its revenue and profit while setting the standard for sustainable clothing production. The company’s significant purpose overrides the traditional economic model of growth at any cost; Patagonia encourages customers to get their gear repaired rather than buy new things. The company’s purpose also guides decision making: Last year, Patagonia announced it would donate $10 million from the recent tax cuts to grassroots environmental organizations.

A Significant Purpose Must Inspire

The fact that Patagonia is succeeding financially points to a key element of a successful significant purpose: it must inspire people’s excitement and commitment. The key word here is “inspire.” If people are not fired up by your significant purpose, the words you use to describe it—no matter how lofty—won’t matter.

Too many companies make the mistake of having a purpose that merely describes their products and services or promotes a meaningless assortment of cringe-worthy platitudes. If people can’t make a heartfelt connection to the meaning behind the words, your significant purpose will be worthless. But if you work together to find an inspiring purpose, those words will fuel everything your company does.

Don’t be afraid to ask for guidance in developing a significant purpose. Back in 2004, our company helped Petco Park—the newly-built home of the San Diego Padres—to find their “why.” Rather than merely providing customer service to baseball fans, passionate employees rallied around their new significant purpose: “to create Major League memories.”

Did it make a difference? It sure did. People connected to the vision and found all kinds of creative ways to wow their customers. That summer Petco Park got 7,500 unsolicited notes and letters from fans telling stories about how they’d been blown away by the service they’d received.

Now, I call that a grand slam.