Why Don’t Employees Follow Instructions?


It would be so much easier if they did – or would it?  And…what if they did?  What if people stopped thinking for themselves and left all the thinking to the bosses?  How many bosses would have all the answers; the time on their hands to contemplate and come up with ideas; and enough crystal balls to foreshadow all the decisions required, every day of each week, month and year on a continuous basis?  To be able to issue sufficient instructions to people, Managers would need to be a cross between Superman, Nostradamus an octopus and my mother in law (superwoman herself – no derogation intended)!

Kind of simplistic maybe but as an HR Management Advisor, one issue that comes up regularly for Managers is the very notion that people don’t follow instructions.  For a set of instructions to be conveyed there needs to be a number of steps in the process.

Firstly, an emission of verbal commands, possibly some physical demonstration of a task – remember that more than half of all communication is conveyed via physiology so your body language, the tilt of your head, your pointing finger and tone of voice will all have an impact on how well you convey the instructions.

Then, to make sure that instructions are understood, some method of questioning about comprehension is required.  Play it back, if you like – where the listener paraphrases to the teacher what has been heard and or demonstrates what has just been communicated. And so much can go wrong in this step – right?

Every human on the planet has a different way of creating their reality from the stimuli encountered.  So the communicator and the receiver can seem like aliens to one another when it comes to delivering a message and if you can’t relate to this in a work context, think about the last dysfunctional conversation you had with a family member?

The truth is that you are far better off having employees who can think for themselves and make decisions independently. That way you can remain your mere mortal self and benefit from their ability to make rational decisions and use their ability and authority – providing you allow them to do so! 

Empowering Employees Pays Off

The empowered employee is so much more valuable than the robot because people, that is, the human being part of people rather than the human doing, add life to the workspace; amongst many things they bring ideas and richness to the dynamic and culture of the organisation.  So how do you overcome the communication issue? 

First: There are some obvious elements to communication.  First, use clear and concise communication with specific details where appropriate.  Whenever giving instructions, every possible safety aspect needs due consideration and extra effort taken when communicating issues involving safety and legal compliance.  Try asking questions in place of barking out instructions.  This will engage the listener interactively and cause them to stay attuned just in case another question comes their way.

Second: Relevant and timely communication is important.  Keep to the point of the communication – off track and side issues will lose your audience.  Remember; keep asking questions in place of just telling.  Adults don’t like to be told, they learn best when they find answers for themselves – hence the reason why questions for adults facilitates a better method of learning, empowerment and accountability.

Third:When your communication is intended to inform, use tonality of voice and physiology to convey the message – only 7% of words make up how people receive a message.  If there is good news to convey, let that be conveyed through your body language, tone and inflection and of course the words you choose.

Just as important, if the news is not good, make sure that the delivery is honest and respectful of how it could be received by the listener and importantly, resist any temptation to lighten the subject by putting key words across as part of a comedy line or while smiling while the words are being delivered. 

Use language that speaks the full range of sensory modalities – visual language, auditory language and kinaesthetic or feeling language.  People have various ways of taking in your words and so when you speak all languages, you reach all types of sensory perception creating a deeper level of connection with your audience.

A true Leader will adapt his or her own style to meet the needs of the follower and never simply jump to blaming followers for not receiving their message.  A true Leader will take responsibility for communicating the message including any repercussions of miscommunication.

Finally, when your communication is intended to engage – make it powerful, think about the emotion that you wish to elicit from the listener and be in that very same state of emotion when you speak and through your physiology.  If the message is intended to move people to action for example, to motivate them and connect with a vision, then communicate how you are feeling, what you are seeing and what is in your imagination when you think about the very thing you wish to communicate.

So how do you overcome the problem of employees not following instructions? 

As a Leader, give people a reason to follow your instructions.  When followers are engaged in your vision and have an understanding about their contribution, their work becomes valuable; they become valuable.  As a Leader, rewarding achievement, acknowledging contribution and encouraging more of the same will move you from a transactional manager to a Leader who transforms the performance of an organisation through the efforts and results of its employees.

The most effective leaders will demonstrate qualities such as:

  • The ability to build trust
  • Encouraging innovative thinking
  • The ability to coach
  • Integrity
  • The ability to inspire others
  • Acknowledges and rewards achievements
  • Provides positive recognition

Principal based Leaders demonstrating these behaviours are truly Transformational.

According to David Zietlow’s Group Vice President, Global Coupling Group (an Altra Industrial Motion subsidiary), 2003 to 2008 Transformational Leadership drives core growth and profitability through new culture changes that compels the re emergence of human capital. Innovation, creativity and productivity stem from reenergized and committed associates. This Culture of Leadership creates a strategic vision that can be deployed throughout all levels of the organization.”

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