5 Reasons why staff fail to improve and what leaders can do about them

5 reasons staff don't improve

I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.

– Thomas A. Edison

As a manager there is nothing more frustrating than investing time, money and emotional energy into developing a staff member and yet still after all this effort and personal attention they fail to improve. Whilst there are many reasons this might have happened, i will cover here 5 frequent causes that every manager should bear in mind and be equipped to steer their staff away from.

Every manager should be aware of common reasons staff fail to improve as without that they will not be able to guide their staff past them.

Reason 1: the staff member doesn’t identify with why they should improve?

For people to invest themselves in creating positive personal change, they must willingly and consciously identify with a reason why it matters to them to personally to do so. The why factor is their lamp which guides them in dark, it is their energy drink which gives them strength to keep moving forward. Our job as managers is to help provide this why.  It is an useless exercise to point out what a staff member needs to improve in but not explain why it matters. It is also equally prone to failure – at least in the longer term – to demand change but not help your staff to realise why that change is beneficial to them. The why factor is the logic that feeds our natural WIIFM (what’s in if for me?) motivation and without it very few staff members will keep pushing themselves over the long haul to create personal change. One must remember all habit change is established over time.

Management TIP I: provide the why and make it personal.

Reason 2: the staff member doesn’t link the change required to their daily actions

Even though romantics would like to think differently, it is not eureka insight itself which creates change but rather the actions that come about because of that moment of enlightenment. Indeed there is little benefit in knowing you need to change, if you don’t work out how you will change and connect that to concrete daily and weekly actions. Gary Keller in his excellent “One Thing” development book stats the way to do this is to ask yourself: “what one thing could i do to create the change i need?” and to keep on doing this until the answer becomes “one thing” that you can do right now. This technique of continuously questioning in order to arrive at the action to be done right now is one way to connect your goal to daily life but what matters here is to recognise that many people fail to improve not because they don’t recognise change is needed but rather because they don’t connect it to concrete action. Therefore our job as a manager is to pinpoint this action if staff can not do it themselves. 

Management TIP II: connect change as resulting from repeated daily actions.

Reason 3: staff fail to time-block in the actions needed to create change.

Even if staff identify with why they should change and connect improvement to a specific set of daily actions, many will still fail because they won’t time-block in these actions so they will happened without fail. We have all experienced what frequently happens with new year resolutions, where we promise to get healthier or to lose weight by going to the gym 3 times a week but by February we have already stopped going. A frequent reason why is we never time-blocked in the set days to go or, if we did, we didn’t react to the unexpected by readjusting our time blocking (the days we plan to go to gym) to the dynamics of our schedule. Professional development often fails to evolve for similar reasons. For example we stop reflecting at the end the day the moment we become too busy but this didn’t have to be case if we had time-blocked in 10 minutes to do so and respected the importance of doing it. If we don’t time-block in the actions needing to be done, inevitably something in our day will knock us of track. As a manager we should get staff to realise how essential time-blocking in development time (the actions needing done to improve) is to actual improvement as without protecting the time you need to do the actions to improve you quite simply will never improve.

Management TIP III: Make sure staff schedule in and time-block development time.

Reason 4: staff don’t turn actions into habit so once early enthusiasm (or pushing from you) dies down they drop it.

Few personal improvements which result from actions we are doing will remain in the long term unless we manage to turn them into success habits. Deciding what actions we need to do requires decision making energy and keeping them up each and everyday takes willpower and we only have so much of both these. This is why it is essential we aim to establish our actions we are doing to improve into a habit or set of them. When something is a habit, we no longer need to use decision making energy or willpower each day to keep them up, we rather do them almost without thinking. Brushing our teeth or putting on clean clothes are two routine habits that nearly all of us do without expending any mental energy. Likewise for more complex and demanding habits, like training for a marathon, many of us reach the moment when going for a training run is no longer a mental effort to do, rather it is part of our routine, part of our sense of being. Improvement in ourselves in work is similar, if for example we are working on goal setting and reflection, we should aim to reach a point when we no longer force ourselves to reflect at the end of the day, we rather just do it automatically without thinking, when we have got there we have established a habit and the benefit of that change, whilst still needing maintenance, is likely to continue because it is now part of us. Great managers therefore keep guiding their staff in their improvement areas until it is part of them, until the habit is so deeply entwined with their sense of self that it will not stop.

Management tip IV: push for staff to fix their improvement via fixed habits.

Reason 5: staff don’t form a continuous relationship with their improvement goal.

It might sound strange to use the expression “relationship with” when referring to ourselves and our goals but it is a real concept. Once we enter into the world of development, we enter into a personal relationship with the improvements we are seeking. They become part of us, part of our story. Improvements can change our personality and develop our character and thus when mastered they become part of us. A relationship with our goals – and the actions required to get them  – is seeing the connection between the action of doing them and the real -change – result it has on us when they have been completed. It is talking to friends, colleagues and mentors about these development goals and synergising the logic of why you must do it with why it matters to you. Your goal becomes your success journey, part of your life story. Staff who let a habit become part of how they define themselves are far more likely to keep it up as it is part of the new and better you. Our role as leaders is to help our staff to embrace this relationship with their goals and accept the new person that results from the change and when this happens the improvement is entrenched and complete change completed.

Management tip V: help staff to form a relationship with their goals.

Great managers understand that their role is much more than just pointing out areas for their staff to improve on, it is rather to guide them along the long and challenging journey of positive personal change. Leaders must help their staff: find the “why”, to connect change to daily actions, to time-block, to form habits and develop a long term relationship with the change itself. When leaders guide their staff in these 5 essential steps, staff will have a far better change of making the improvement the leader was demanding.

Great leaders dont just pinpoint things to improve on, they rather guide staff along their development journey of positive change.

5 steps to personal improvement









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