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.

Ask Empowering Questions

Most of us—even millennials—have a history of working under guidance and control at school and in our workplaces. Therefore, we tend to think of authority as external rather than internal. The following questions are all too familiar to us:

At school: “What does the teacher want me to do to get good grades?”

At work: “What does my boss want me to do?”

While things are changing, we live and work in a culture predominated by top-down management and hierarchical thinking, so we’re far less likely to ask questions like these:

At school: “What do I want to learn from this class? How will I know I have learned something I can use?”

At work: “What do I need to do to help my company succeed?”

These are empowering questions. President Kennedy made a call for these kinds of questions when he challenged Americans: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”

Empowering questions open the possibility for us to become stronger and more competent. So why don’t we ask them more often?

It gets back to all those hard-earned parenting, teaching, and managing skills we learned from our hierarchical culture. Indeed, we feel it is our responsibility as parents, teachers, or managers to tell people what to do, how to do it, and why it needs to be done. We feel we’d be shirking our responsibilities to ask children, students, or direct reports empowering questions such as these:

“What do you think needs to be done, and why is it important?”

“What do you think your goals should be?”

“How do you think you should go about achieving your goals?”

Many of us are afraid to relinquish control to our direct reports because we’re concerned about outcomes. Yet organizations with a culture of empowerment almost always outperform their hierarchical competitors. Consider the following story from Ritz-Carlton, a company famous for its culture of empowerment.

A loss prevention officer at The Ritz-Carlton, Toronto, was called for the second time to a guest room after receiving a complaint of children playing hockey in the hallway. A typical response might have been to knock on the family’s door and ask them to be quiet. But Ritz-Carlton encourages its employees to think for themselves as they live by the company’s “Gold Standards.” These standards invite empowering questions such as:

  • How can I respond to the expressed and unexpressed wishes and needs of our guests?
  • How can I create unique, memorable, and personal experiences for our guests?

Rather than tell the parents to shush their hallway-hockey-playing kids, the loss prevention officer came up with a creative solution. He enlisted banquet employees to isolate space in one of the meeting rooms and create a hockey rink, using banquet tables as a frame. While the “rink” was being set up, he drove to a local sports store and bought two hockey nets, six sticks, and hockey balls. Finally, he delivered a written note to the family, inviting them to an impromptu hockey match against the Loss Prevention All-Stars.

Needless to say, the family was wowed.

A tight match was played between the Loss Prevention All-Stars and Team Family, with Team Family emerging victorious. The game was recorded on the Loss Prevention in-house cameras and Team Family was sent photos of their epic game.

Double-wow.

My friend Tony Robbins often says, “Successful people ask better questions and as a result, they get better answers.” So, ask yourself some empowering questions, and encourage your people to do the same.

Love is the Answer. What is the Question?

Today I’m finishing up my five-part blog series on the nine elements of love as conceived by Henry Drummond, a 19th century author, in his book The Greatest Thing in the World. Drummond based his nine elements of love on the “love passage” from the Bible—1 Corinthians 13:4-8.

We are on Drummond’s seventh element of love, which is Good Temper:

“Love as good temper restrains the passions and is not exasperated. It corrects a sharpness of temper and sweetens and softens attitudes. Love as good temper is never angry without a cause, and endeavors to confine the passions within proper limits. Anger cannot rest in the heart where love reigns. It is hard to be angry with those we love in good temper, but very easy to drop our resentments and be reconciled.”

Drummond spends more time on this element then any other. Why? Because if you tend to lose your temper and start yelling at people, you will negate all the other elements of love—patience, kindness, generosity, humility, and all the rest. A bad temperament can get you off a loving track easier than anything else. There’s just no place for it if you want to be a loving person. So if you’re somebody who tends to lose your temper, when you feel it coming on, take a walk around the block and come back when you’re ready to deal with the issue in a calm way.

Drummond identified Guilelessness as the eighth element of love this way:

“Love as guilelessness thinks no evil, suspects no ill motive, sees the bright side, and puts the best construction on every action. It is grace for suspicious people. It cherishes no malice; it does not give way to revenge. It is not apt to be jealous and suspicious.

I had never heard the word guilelessness before I read this passage. It’s about always seeing the brighter side of life. My mom always told me, “Ken, don’t let anybody act like they’re better than you but don’t you act like you’re better than anybody else. God did not make junk! There’s a pearl of goodness in everyone. Dig for it and you’ll find it!” My wife, Margie, thinks I’m a guilelessness fanatic because I always see the good in people. One of the things that attracted her to me was that I had a lot of odd friends other people had written off. But I saw the good in them and maybe that brought out the good in them.

Sincerity is the final element of love Drummond talks about:

“Love as sincerity takes no pleasure in doing injury or hurt to others or broadcasting their seeming miscues. It speaks only what is known to be true, necessary, and edifying. It bears no false witness and does not gossip. It rejoices in the truth.”

This element also reminds me of my mother. She rejoiced in the truth. She would tell me, “Never lie. Always tell the truth. Mean what you say and say what you mean.” That’s the way Mom was. She gave it to you straight. She modeled sincerity.

Well, that ends my blog series about love—one of my favorite words and one of my favorite topics. I always say, “Love is the answer! What is the question?” because I believe love is the answer to just about any dilemma human beings can come up with. You can make all the money in the world, get tons of recognition, and have lots of power and status—and yet when you die, as my friend John Ortberg says, “it all goes back in the box.” The only thing that remains is your soul, where you store who you loved and who loved you.

So be sure to practice patience, kindness, generosity, courtesy, humility, unselfishness, good temper, guilelessness, and sincerity. And I’ll add one of Margie’s favorite phrases: Always keep your I love you’s up to date. God bless!

You Don’t Need a Fancy Title To Be a Servant Leader

One of my favorite stories in our recent book, Servant Leadership in Action, comes from James Ferrell of the Arbinger Institute. The leader James writes about doesn’t have a fancy title, but he’s a living example of Robert Greenleaf’s definition of a servant leader as someone who “focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong.”

Who is this servant leader? It’s the man who collects the trash in James’s neighborhood each week.

“Our trash is collected on Friday mornings,” James writes. “One Friday morning, as I heard the garbage truck pull into our cul-de-sac, I realized that I had forgotten to take the bins out.”

Perhaps you can relate to the panic James felt as he threw on some clothes and hustled down the stairs—not to mention the sinking feeling he had when he heard the truck pull away. “A week with no room in our garbage bins!” James thought with a grimace.

But when James looked out the front window, he saw his two bins—and they were empty! He was overwhelmed with a feeling of gratitude for his amazing neighbors.

A few weeks later James bumped into two of those very neighbors: David, who lived across the street, and Randy, who lived around the corner. David was telling a story about how he’d seen the garbage truck driver walking around and picking up trash strewn all over the street. David said he felt badly, because he’d overpacked his bin and it was likely the spilled trash was his.

“So,” David said, “I decided that the next week I’d go out and thank that driver and give him a gift.”

But the next week the truck was early. By the time David rushed out the door, it had already rounded the corner. “The truck was parked in front of Randy’s house,” David continued. “Then I saw the driver wheeling Randy’s two garbage bins down from the side of his house!”

“Wait!” Randy interjected. “The garbage man did that? I thought the neighbors had helped us out.”

As he listened to this story, James had the same reaction. He realized that the driver must have helped with his bins, as well.

“Now,” James writes, “you might think that David, Randy, and I had it made at this point. After all, we wouldn’t even have to take our trash out to the street anymore; the garbage man would do it for us!”

But that’s not how they responded. Instead, the garbage truck driver’s selfless actions motivated James and his neighbors to remember to take out their bins, because they didn’t want to make things harder for the driver. Plus, they took care to leave ample room between the bins, something they’d heard they were supposed to do, but hadn’t bothered with before.

“In a way,” James continues, “our garbage man trained the entire neighborhood to make his life easier. How did he do this? By making our lives easier, which is the essence of what servant leaders do.”

In Leading at a Higher Level, my Blanchard colleagues and I define leadership as the capacity to influence others by unleashing their power and potential to impact the greater good. James Ferrell’s story underscores the point that you don’t need a fancy title to be an effective servant leader.

Greetings from a Servant Leader

“Good morning everyone, this is Ken. It’s a little bit after eight o’clock in San Diego, California….”

That’s an example of the way I begin my morning message that goes out to most of the people in our company every weekday morning. I’ve been doing it for the better part of twenty years now!

When folks outside of the company hear that I send a daily morning message to our people, they usually ask, “How can you think of something new to say every single day?” They think it sounds like a lot of trouble. But I enjoy doing it. Why? Because knowing that people are expecting my daily message compels me every day to think of things I feel lucky about. What did I do yesterday that was interesting? What did I learn? I’ll ask for prayers and love to be sent out when I hear someone is ill or when they lose a loved one. And sometimes it’s about celebration—I’ll congratulate a person or a whole department on something specific they did right, like giving great service to a client or making a big sale.

Sending out a daily message helps me stay in touch with almost everyone in our company at once. I’ve been told it keeps our company culture top of mind for people I don’t get to see very often—those who work in the field or in other parts of the world.

Sending a morning message does as much for me as it does for the people who receive it. I highly recommend it as a great communication tool for any servant leader!