How many of your employees always come to work a little early, stay a little late, make very good use of their time, use good systems to stay organized, make good decisions, and generally get things done? Most managers I talk to have very few employees that are masters of self-management. More likely, they have direct reports which sometimes come in a little late or leave a little early, take too many breaks; miss deadlines; waste other people’s time; lose track of information; and/or become stymied by decision points.
When employees struggle with self-management
The more an employee struggles with the fundamentals of self-management, the less work that person will get done and the more errors he will make. Of that much, I probably don’t need to convince you. So why do so many managers struggle with managing the self-management fundamentals of their employees?
Managers often ask me, “Do I really have to tell my employees to be on time, stay all day, and not take too many long breaks? I don’t want them to think I’m treating them like children.” And yet, they have employees who sometimes come in late, leave early, and take long breaks, not to mention those who sometimes waste time (their own and others’). Too often, managers let the problems slide until there is a big one or just too many. By then, it might be a big deal: The employee has a demonstrated track record of failure on some basic element of self-management.
It’s tempting just to write off an employee who fails repeatedly on some basic element of self-management. Such failures can make employees appear deficient in their natural ability or basic competency. They might seem lazy, flaky, clueless, disorganized, stupid, or some combination of the above. Those would be character flaws that any manager simply can’t fix. But often, this conclusion is very far from the truth. So many employees fail because they never learned the fundamentals of time management, organization, and problem-solving. When you teach those employees, they tend to get much better, often with considerable gratitude.
When I say this to managers, sometimes they reply, “I’m sorry, but it’s just not my job to teach my employees how to manage themselves. They are adults. They should know how to manage themselves when they walk in the door on day one. If they don’t, it is their responsibility to figure it out, to learn it on the job.” And yet, managers cannot possibly hire 100 percent of employees who are already masters of self-management. Employees who are not already masters of self-management will need guidance, direction, and support to build up their self-management skills on the job. And it matters.
It’s pretty hard to find good examples of organizations that systematically teach self-management and build highly self-managing players as a key component of their workplace culture. One example does come to mind: the military. Over the years, I’ve had the tremendous honor of working for various branches of the United States Armed Forces. People associate the highly regimented military lifestyle with its strict chain of command and rules. Soldiers follow orders. How is that an excellent example of teaching self-management?
The United States Armed Forces are famously effective at teaching leadership. What is less obvious to some is the other side of that equation: Followership. Before anybody learns to lead, first they learn to follow: Follow the highly regimented schedule, procedures, rules, orders, and chain of command. The fact that everybody in the military learns to follow makes it much easier for leaders to lead. It also makes it easier for soldiers to know what to do, when, where, and how.
Here’s something else that’s not so obvious: Self-management does not mean, “Do whatever you want whenever, wherever, and however you want.” There’s no management whatsoever involved in that scenario. Even if it were 100% up to the individual what to do, when, where, and how, he would need to make a schedule and procedures to follow to get anything done. When an employee has a clear schedule and procedures, it’s much easier.
Granted, the military takes an extremely comprehensive approach to teaching self-management. I’m not suggesting that you tell your employees when to wake up and when to go to sleep or address people by rank and salute. In most workplaces, that would be a little bit much.
Four fundamentals of self-management
Focus on the fundamentals. Our research shows that there are four fundamentals of self-management which virtually all managers agree they’d like to see in their direct reports:
- time management
- interpersonal communication
- organizational skills
- basic problem-solving skills
How do you teach employees these fundamentals amid all the work everybody needs to get done? Start with very clear performance standards. Then coach every single person on them in your regular ongoing one-on-ones, as needed.
Coaching on time management does not necessarily mean telling employees when to come to work, when to take breaks, and when to leave. Time management means planning and working to optimize your time and always making sure to make only good use of others’ time. Here’s a great bonus: It turns out that employees usually gain more control over their schedules when they get good at time management. Scheduling flexibility is one of the things employees want and value the most.
Coaching interpersonal communication does not mean you tell employees exactly what to say and what not to say every step of the way. You might need to teach some old-fashioned fundamentals, like good manners. You might need to teach people to err on the side of in-person communication rather than electronic communication and look people in the eye when speaking in person. If you’re doing regular one-on-ones for several weeks, then the structure of your ongoing dialogue should help retrain the employee in more professional communication habits.
Coaching on organizational skills does not necessarily mean that you tell employees exactly how/where/when to do every task, responsibility, and project. Organization means using sound systems to keep track of guidelines, specifications, expectations, timelines, and measurable, concrete actions. Another great bonus: It turns out that when employees get good at using systems to stay organized, they usually gain more discretion in how they do their work.
Coaching on problem-solving does not mean you need to anticipate every problem an individual could face and give him standing orders for every scenario. But you should have standing orders for regularly occurring problems. One more bonus: When employees are well-trained in implementing established solutions to recurring problems, they usually get better and better at extrapolating from those solutions to improvise in the face of unanticipated problems.
You can teach self-management, and it works. All you need to do is build it into your ongoing, highly-engaged, solid leadership. Focus on the fundamentals. Just like every other aspect of performance, build it into your team communications and talk about it regularly in your one-on-one dialogues: Teach it. Require it. Measure it. Reward people when they do it. Hold people to account when they don’t.
Most employees will benefit tremendously from your investment in teaching them the fundamentals and be very grateful for it. Of course, they won’t always be lucky enough to have you as a manager. Suppose you’ve succeeded in teaching just one employee the fundamentals of self-management. In that case, you will have given him skills that will make him more valuable anywhere he goes, no matter what he does, skills that will never become obsolete.