Your Office Coach: Impose some consequences to improve employees' fuzzy memories

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Posted: Sunday, March 9, 2014 12:00 am

Q: The guy who sits behind me never stops talking. In addition to chatting with anyone who comes by, “Austin” constantly asks me questions about his work. This makes it hard to concentrate, since I have to stop whatever I’m doing to address his issues.

Once, when I had an important deadline, I asked Austin to write down his questions so that we could discuss them at the end of the day. He completely ignored my request and continued to interrupt. My supervisor says that Austin has always been a talker and is not likely to change. Is there any way to solve this?

A: While you can’t muzzle Austin, you can certainly reduce his incessant questioning. Although you may not realize it, you are actually encouraging these interruptions by providing immediate answers. You were on the right track with the “keep a list” strategy, so it’s time to reinstate that plan.

For example: “Austin, I’m always glad to answer your questions, but we need to take a different approach. To complete my projects, I have to work without interruption for extended periods. If you will list the questions that come up during the day, we can discuss them at 4 every afternoon. I know this will be an adjustment, but it’s the only way I can get my work done.”

When Austin continues to pester you, as he undoubtedly will, remind him that you will answer all non-urgent questions at the appointed time. He won’t like this, but if you stick to your guns, he will eventually learn to wait.

Q: The legislature in my state recently increased the minimum wage. As a result, a newly hired employee now makes almost as much as I do. My supervisor said that if I gave her a list of my duties and responsibilities, she would try to get me a raise. I provided this summary two months ago. Since that time, my boss has never mentioned the pay increase again. Even though her request had to be approved by the next two levels of management, I don’t think it should take this long. I’d like to know what’s happening, but I’m not sure how to find out.

A: After waiting patiently for two months, you deserve to know where things stand. Although you may be concerned about pestering your boss, asking a respectful question could hardly be considered nagging.

For example: “I wanted to follow up on the pay increase that we discussed a couple of months ago. I believe you sent the request to upper management, so I was wondering whether they had made a decision.”

If this is a large organization where many people hold similar positions, the delay could be caused by an overall revision of the compensation plan. Or perhaps the paperwork is languishing somewhere in the management chain. But regardless of the circumstances, your question is perfectly reasonable, so don’t hesitate to ask.

Q: My employees never remember anything I say. Despite frequent reminders, they continue to ignore standard procedures and well-established rules. When I point out these infractions, they always plead ignorance, even though they’ve been told many times. I have tried numerous methods for improving communication, but nothing seems to work. Verbal instructions are promptly forgotten, and written guidelines are always overlooked. We work in health care, so procedures are important. How do I get these people to listen?

A: Your solutions aren’t working because you’ve defined the problem incorrectly. The real issue here is compliance, not communication. These wayward folks continue to ignore you because you have never imposed any consequences for disregarding rules.

Instead of endlessly repeating familiar expectations, you must clearly describe what will happen the next time someone violates a critical procedure. When one of your employees conveniently “forgets,” you should immediately impose the promised consequence. If you use this approach consistently, I guarantee that memories will improve.

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