business advice | May 7, 2024 |
My team needs constant oversight to meet my work standards. How do I motivate them to step it up?

Dear Sean,

I’m the bottleneck for everything at my firm. Even when I slow down and try to teach [employees how to do something], I find my team making small mistakes that I need to catch before a client sees them. I don’t think my team feels any consequences for these slipups, and I don’t want to run a firm where my team is afraid of me—or of making mistakes. What tools do I use to hold them more accountable?

Ready to Raise the Bar

Dear Ready,

Last summer, I wrote about the importance of firm culture and of establishing exactly what it is. I also wrote about the “coffee table test,” so that you can own what your culture is and determine who will best defend and enhance it.

Presuming that you understand what your firm culture is and have the right team to support that vision, we can shift the spotlight back to you. If you want the changes you seek, please stop being your employees’ parent or teacher. Parents and teachers accept people—and their performances—as they are, in an effort to create the opportunity for growth. You can’t stop being a parent or teacher as long as you continue to accept an incomplete effort from the child or student. In the same way, if you are always there to clean up the mess of less-than-stellar work, how can you expect your team to want to rise higher than the middling bar you have set for them?

Catching small mistakes might be an indication of your own perfectionism, but far more likely is that you have robbed your employees of their voice and their need and desire to own their work.

Fun fact: Your design firm is not a factory. It solely exists to transform lives. If your employees are not required to stand on their work, to provide their opinions, and to have the freedom to act within the confines of their defined lanes, then you will forever be dissatisfied.

Breaking it down, employees should:

Stand on Their Work
Are your employees willing to stake their jobs on whatever they hand you as complete? Mantras are hokey, but they work. Just ask the U.S. Navy Blue Angels squadron, who greet one another with the mantra “Glad to Be Here” when they debrief after every flight. Create a guiding mantra for your firm, so you will never again be the parent or teacher. If your employees know that they have to do their absolute best, you will sleep at night even if there are mistakes.

Provide Their Opinions
I find it spectacularly awful that in an industry with so many fascinating and talented female professionals, there is still such a pervasive “Do as you are told” mentality. Expedience and efficiency has not and does not excuse this behavior. Nobody is going to die if the couch is not ordered. So, stop with the over- or under-promising nonsense, and get down to making profound promises about your work and keeping them on your terms. That means if it takes a week to provide purchase orders, it takes a week.

However, keeping promises also requires you to ensure your team provides honest answers about getting that work done. It means demanding that they practice using their voice every day, all day. As the owner of your firm, you must do the same to serve your clients. Now you need to demand it of your employees. As much as you are their boss, you also need to be their biggest client. For instance, when your employee is uncertain about the final choice of backsplash tile, they need to offer their opinion first. “We are choosing between the blue and black tiles; I think the blue is the right one. Can you confirm?” If your employees have to use their voices every day, all day, then when they are challenged to do this outside your doors, you will know not only that they can—but that they will shine when they do.

Have Freedom to Act
None of the above matters unless the driving dynamic between you and your team shifts from no to yes. You must give your employees the ability to catch some momentum—the proverbial ball should never be in your court for long. If you expect your team to wait for your green light to move forward, you must prioritize giving them that green light as soon as possible—within the workday, ideally. And if you’re unable to do that, then unless you specifically say no in a defined time frame, the answer should be yes by default. In other words, they are free to keep going.

Will mistakes happen? Of course they will. However, you will be able to live with them because you have expected excellence, required your employees to use their voices to defend and expand firm culture, and allowed them to act with the responsibility that comes with autonomy.

What you have most certainly missed until now is that the value is not in never falling down—it is about the ability to get back up with grace, integrity and resilience. Your clients pay for strength of character as much as they do creative brilliance. Let that be your path forward out of the perfectionist loop you now find yourself in.


Sean Low is the go-to business coach for interior designers. His clients have included Nate Berkus, Sawyer Berson, Vicente Wolf, Barry Dixon, Kevin Isbell and McGrath II. Low earned his law degree from the University of Pennsylvania, and as founder-president of The Business of Being Creative, he has long consulted for design businesses. In his Business Advice column for BOH, he answers designers’ most pressing questions. Have a dilemma? Send us an email—and don’t worry, we can keep your details anonymous.

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