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If Your Employees Regularly Fail, the Problem Might Be You

Originally published: 06.01.12 by Michael Feuer

Communicating key elements of a task and checking in will elevate performance.

How many times have you been disappointed because one of your employees didn’t produce as expected? How many times have you chalked it up as a black mark?

When an effort results in disappointment, it causes various degrees of angst on numerous fronts, reducing productivity, leading to more missed deadlines and — even worse — potentially resulting in a costly lost opportunity.

If this is a recurring theme, the problem might actually be you.

The fact is that most mployees want to do it right, and will work diligently at doing what they believe is expected. The best of these employees make the extra effort to take their performance to the next level.

If a project goes south, it’s mandatory that you find out why. Don’t tell your employees to “handle it” without explaining what “it” means. Without the blanks properly filled in, it’s a good bet that the end result will not be pretty.

Define the Task

In order for employees to deliver and excel, they must thoroughly understand what is expected of them on every major new effort. Failures come in all sizes and shapes, but typically there is one common denominator underlying the miss. It usually results from ineffectively communicating the key elements necessary to accomplish the goal.

Secondly, not establishing check- points can allow a project to stray off course.

Finally, the employee must understand the importance of the assignment, and that he or she must ask for help if problems arise. Human nature is to “whistle in the dark” and forge ahead even when there is that nagging sense that all is not right.

Provide Relevant Details

Let’s get down to brass tacks. If you want something done — and done correctly — you must make the effort to ex- plain the task and provide the relevant details. If the people undertaking the work understand the purpose and the expected benefits, they’ll be more de- liberate in producing an appropriate finished product. When your employees understand the goals, it dramatically increases their odds of success. When employees don’t understand why they are being told to do something, it’s unrealistic to expect them to care about how they get it done.

Too frequently, bosses assume employees understand what must be done. And often, employees don’t offer feed- back on the task’s progress because they believe it’s a sign of weakness to report in or to ask questions. So, if you’re not get- ting a sense of a project’s status, you go to them. When you lose touch with the evolution of a significant project, your employees may sense it as a sign that it’s not important to you.

Clearly, not every undertaking re- quires a detailed explanation or a well-documented work plan, but even the simplest task needs to be articulated clearly and requires an answer to this question: Is this a “down and dirty” job, or do you need near perfection? Also you must provide a deadline. If you don’t give one, the employee can’t prioritize work.

The much-quoted statement dating back to the War of 1812 proclaimed, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” Business is tough enough; make sure you’re not the enemy contributing to a failure because you didn’t communicate what needs to be known by all involved so there are no surprises.

The first rule of being a leader is to provide explicit directions to those who must follow you. If the employee fails, you’re not the only one who will be disappointed — the employee will be, too.

Michael Feuer co-founded OfficeMax in 1988, starting with one store and $20,000 of his own money. During a 16-year span, Feuer, as CEO, grew the company to almost 1,000 stores worldwide with annual sales of approximately $5 billion before selling this retail giant for almost $1.5 billion in December 2003. Feuer’s columns appear courtesy of a partnership with Smart Business,, which originally published this column.


About Michael Feuer

Michael Feuer

Michael Feuer is co-founder of the mega office products retail chain OfficeMax, which he started in 1988 with one store and $20,000 of his own money, along with a then-partner and group of private investors. Michael Feuer appears courtesy of a partnership with Smart Business,, which originally published this column.

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