Over the past 15 years, I’ve had the same conversation with business owners thousands of times.

“What frustrates you most about your business today?”

“Well, [insert name here] didn’t complete his/her project on time, frustrated our best customer, made a gigantic mistake, never listens,” etc.

Dealing with staff is the most challenging aspect of running a small business. They can be unpredictable, emotional, lazy, combative, dishonest or worse. As a business owner, what you really want are mini versions of yourself.

It’s hard to understand why your team, who all seemed so capable in their interviews, can’t behave exactly as you would in their shoes. You would never make all of these mistakes, and you’d certainly care a ton more about exceeding the boss’ expectations.

No matter what anyone tells you, getting the most from your team will never be an easy task. However, you can increase your chances of success (and reduce the amount of stress they cause) by following these straightforward practices.

1. Be Empathetic

Unless there are some serious advances in artificial intelligence, you won’t have a robotic version of yourself anytime soon. As a result, you’ll need to deal with people who are likely going to be very different in many ways, including:

• Education and professional experience

• Communication styles

• Work ethic

• Motivation, etc.

Because of these differences, the best way to influence employee behavior is by making every effort to put yourself in their shoes. Try to imagine how they’re interpreting your leadership approach.

In other words, learn to listen, not just speak. Consider how they’ll interpret your message instead of designing the communication around how it would sound best to you.

Replace thinking “They’ll do what I ask if they want to get paid,” with the question “How do I need to change in order to get the most from my most valuable (and likely most expensive) resource?”

2. Begin With The End

People come to work for a variety of different reasons, and almost all employees have a similar goal in mind: They want more than they have today.

This can mean more money, a promotion, a better office, flexibility, diversified job skills, less time on the road, etc. Regardless, your team wants growth in some way.

The most effective way to improve the performance of your employees is to help them achieve this growth. Before you try another leadership gimmick (e.g., a foosball table in the break room), understand each person’s “why.” Get clear about how they’d like to see their career develop.

Most leaders think they’ve checked this box by tossing out the occasional “Where do you see yourself in five years?” but this question typically leads to vague rambling that uncovers very little that’s meaningful.

My clients ask their employees to carefully consider the following for discussion:

“Fast forward three years, and imagine your career has gone perfectly. What are you doing? How much are you earning? And what are you learning?”

Give your team members a week to collect their thoughts, and encourage them to follow up with any comments or concerns if they aren’t sure how to answer. You’ll be amazed at how much more productive your staff will be once they understand you’re committed to helping them reach career goals and not just solely focused on achieving your business objectives.

3. Set Clear Expectations

Early in my career, I worked for Arthur Andersen, one of the largest consulting firms in the world at the time. During my first annual review, I asked my manager what I needed to do to get a promotion. His response was, “Don’t worry too much about it. I’ll know when you are ready.”

For the next six months, I floundered, never knowing if what I was doing the right thing. Less than 18 months after I started my “dream job,” I quit to try something new.

Every single member of your team wants to do a good job, make you happy and grow their career (or at least make more money). The problem is that despite the best intentions, most leaders rarely set clear expectations, and as a result, their employees have no idea what is necessary to earn a promotion or raise. This often leads to frustration, resentment and losing some of your best people.

To maximize employee motivation, answer the following questions:

1. What is required of each employee to meet their current job responsibilities?

2. What improvements do they need to make in order to achieve their three-year career goals?

These expectations should be clearly documented at an annual review. In addition, you should also review their progress on a regular basis (quarterly, weekly and even daily if necessary).

If you think your employees can read your mind, the simple answer is they can’t. Discipline yourself to set clear expectations, and you’ll be rewarded with productive employees who enjoy their jobs.

4. Practice Accountability

How many times in your career has a supervisor told you that you weren’t doing your job correctly and needed to make significant improvement?

When I ask professionals this question, on average, the answer I receive is less than one.

Either I happen to only associate with the most incredible professionals the world has ever seen, or, more than likely, this is a clear example of managers not caring enough about their employees’ development to hold them accountable.

Unless you have a perfect team (which you don’t), you must have uncomfortable conversations in order to improve and achieve business objectives. Everyone screws up and has blind spots, and it’s our job as leaders to point them out and correct behavior. To lessen the discomfort, consider a few simple rules:

1. Be consistent. Don’t cherry-pick the times when you’re going to point out their flaws.

2. Remind your people that this process is designed to help them improve for both the company and their own professional development.

3. Complete the process by asking them how they think they can improve.

While it’s never easy, building effective teams is the most essential part of running a successful business.

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