Today I was at Starbucks when I overheard what appeared to be a foreign manager of a consulting firm discussing sales with a Chinese employee. The manager was asking the employee about his recent production. It seemed that the employee quite possibly had not been completely forthright with the manager in his previous communications. As the conversation unfolded, it seemed the employee had not been doing a very good job of finding new clients and expanding the company’s business in the Chinese market. While the manager did an okay job at holding back his anger with the employee’s performance, I feel as though they both left with a bad taste in their mouths, an unsettled plan for moving forward, and will probably be seeing each other again soon. The negative effects from this meeting stem further than just their personal relationship and the employee’s job performance. Given that he is in charge of getting sales leads in China and bringing on new clients, a lack of a clear and actionable plan moving forward puts the company’s future expansion into question. On a much more basic level, it also means they essentially wasted the hour that they spent speaking in Starbucks today, valuable time that the employee could have been working on leads maybe…
So, what went wrong? Well, the important part of the conversation sounded something like this…
Manager (M): So do you have any clients outside of Company X? Employee (E): Umm, I’ve been working really hard to find as many clients as I can. Clearly Company X is our biggest client at the moment, but I obviously also have some other companies that are interested in our product and I’m working on bringing them on board now. Work with Company X is taking a lot of time and …[excuses] M: So…what I’m hearing is you still only have one client? Hmm. Well you said it’s taking a lot of time, how many hours do you put in per week? E: 30 hours M: Okay, that’s probably too much. So, how much time do you put into finding new clients? E: I’d say around 4–5 hours per week? M: WHAT? 4–5 hours per week? That’s ridiculous. That’s way too low. E: But it’s really hard getting them to give you the time of day. I’ve tried reaching out to a lot of companies, but they just don’t seem interested. M: Yes, I know it’s hard, but just because something is hard doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. You are going to have to put in more time. How about reaching out to Company A and Company B? They’re both huge in the Chinese market and should have a need for consulting services like ours. Have you tried reaching out to them? E: No, but I don’t know anyone there and I don’t think they’ll be interested. Don’t you think they already have a consultancy lined up? M: Here’s what you do: Offer them free trial for 2 months and let them see how our product works, then after we impress them they’ll convert to customers. You’re also going to have to stay with them and give them some encouragement along the way to close the deal. E: I’ve offered the 2 month trial to other companies and they still don’t seem interested… M: Well let’s talk about your job…If you’re only working 34–35 hours a week, I’m not sure that the work may be challenging enough for you. I think you need to put in more time. The best way to do that is to find some new clients. What’s your success rate on bringing in clients? E: 20%? M: That can’t be right. Well… like I said, you need to work harder, or we will have to reevaluate your position. Maybe it just doesn’t make sense for us to be in the market here if this is the best we can do.
As you can see, the manager is resorting very quickly to attacking like questions and at the end has even gone so far to begin to threaten the employee’s position and job security. Yes, clearly the employee has some issues and maybe has been exaggerating his performance while in reality slacking off, but I honestly believe that using fear and interrogating the employee on his work is not the way to convince him to work harder.
Spark of Genius
The optimal way for this to be handled would be for the manager to first understand the employee’s situation. While a seemingly daunting task, I think with good listening this can be accomplished with a few simple questions such as:
“Give me an idea of what’s developed since the last time we spoke.”
“What have you found to be the most interesting or satisfying parts of the job?”
“What have you found most frustrating aspects, and how do you think this can be improved?”
I’m certain that this employee is a talented and intelligent individual. Someone chose to hire him at some point, and he’s been left in charge of a very important piece of company strategy. The problem of his work lies not in his incapacity, but his psychological barriers. This becomes more and more clear as he fumbles through wrong answer after wrong answer, and becomes more and more defensive against his manager’s questioning. He clearly lacks confidence in his work, and he’s unmotivated to work harder. Superficial motivation techniques such as threats will not make this situation better. This requires the manager to show HIS true capabilities and dig beneath the defensiveness and lack of confidence to find the root of the problem.
Only through finding the root of the employee’s lack of motivation can he and manager move forward to create a truly actionable plan for how to improve the situation. Understanding what inspires the employee to wake up every morning, and what he would rather quit his job than do are crucial elements of managerial competency. If the manager can find these two elements, he can work with the employee to weave together a plan that combines what has to happen with how the employee wants it to happen. Following this, the employee can work happily and more motivated and the manager can return home satisfied that his employee won’t return to uninspired and careless work anytime soon. Even better, the two will understand each other better, the employee will feel more valued, and the manager will feel more confident and safe.
Understanding your employee’s point of view is crucial to success. Motivating by fear is a sure fire way to have unhappy employees and poor success. This is especially important in the case at hand, where I’m guessing the Australian manager and the Chinese employee don’t share too many interactions. Fear will only motivate the employee for so long and it will be the wrong type of motivation. Just as in sports you play to win and not to avoid losing. Similarly, you work because you believe in the purpose, vision, and goals of the company, not to avoid losing your job.
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