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The THREE simple steps for controlling unruly staff

Updated: Jul 17, 2022

What To Do When You Feel Out Of Control - Warning, this may be a difficult read:

When I go into a new business I am often confronted with the same issue.

“It’s the staff, they won’t do what I tell them”

I always reply in the same way, and it is a very uncomfortable truth.

It’s your fault. You are the problem. You are letting them get away with it.

“But they should respect me, I am the nurse / Senior / Manager / (insert your own title here)”

“They should, but they don’t. And that is only ever your fault.”

“Can I bring them to you and you tell them what to do?”

“You can, but that will not solve the problem, only give a very temporary solution. YOU need to gain control, I cannot do that for you”

I spent over 20 years working in prisons, over 15 as a Manager or Governor.

As you can imagine a prison is a highly charged, highly emotional, and extremely stressful environment. It taught me some very useful lessons along the way

Contrary to popular belief, a prison can only run on the goodwill of the prisoners. Prison staff are outnumbered, and mostly do not have the same moral code as a prisoner. A prisoner may be prepared to do anything to get what they want. A prison officer needs to learn people skills quick!

One piece of advice I received as a young officer, and passed on during my service was this:

Ask Them, Tell Them, Make Them

By following these 3 simple steps consistently you can overcome any unruly staff group. This method gives you a means of escalation, there is always somewhere to go.

Ask Them: Always the first step. Tell them what you need doing and why. Explain the importance of the task. They are much more likely to respond to a request when you ‘ask nicely’. Don’t simply bark orders or instruction. They are a human being, treat them as such.

You have asked and nothing has happened. Your instructions have not been carried out.

Tell Them: Give them a clear and direct order. Don’t mess about. I usually say something like “don’t mistake this for a request”. It is light enough not to be threatening, and clear enough that it leaves the staff member under no illusions. Explain the consequences of non-compliance clearly but essentially, YOU MUST be ready to go to the next step, or this whole exercise is pointless, and you will never have control

You have told them and still nothing has happened.

Make Them: Obviously in a prison this had a very different connotation, but it is surprising how rarely I had to use it. This is all about consequences. You now HAVE to take the necessary step. The staff will get the message really quick, but only if you keep to your word. Whatever it is, do it. This action will obviously depend on what the task was, and how the staff member has behaved before, but there MUST be consequences. Do not be afraid to use disciplinary action. Yes it may take a lot more work in the short term, but this is an area where you are looking for long term change. I promise you it is worth the effort.

Martyn Dawes is a Coach, Social Care Consultant, and Author of The Overwhelmed Manager: What To Do When You Don’t Know What To Do

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