5 Performance Management Myths Every Leader Should Avoid

The North Wind and the Sun is a famous story that are part of the ancient Greek’s collection, Aesop’s Fables.  It begins with the Sun and North Wind arguing over which is stronger.  To resolve the dispute, they agree to a challenge when they see a man walking along a road, wearing a coat.  Whoever can get the man to remove his coat is the stronger of the two.  The North Wind goes first, blowing and howling more intensely with each gust, frustrated that the man holds his coat only tighter against the wind.  Defeated, it’s then the Sun’s chance.  The Sun begins to shine with gentle beams.  The man unfastens the coat, leaving it to hang loosely from his shoulders.  As the beams grow warmer, the man takes off his coat and sits beneath a tree to enjoy the shade.

The moral of this story is “gentleness and kind persuasion win where force and bluster fail”.  Today, more than 2500 years since written, this story also reflects what we know to be true about human behavior.  Our behavior is largely driven by our experiences and how we feel.  While we may under stable or controlled situations show up a certain way, how we act in stressful or even uncomfortable situations can be very different.  So what does this mean for our workplaces?  How can we lead our teams to success knowing the journey of paving any path is uncomfortable and riddled with stressful obstacles?  Unfortunately much of today’s performance management practices are outdated (if not completely contradictory to what we now know about how we work).  Even the terminology used….driving results….corrective action…..performance review…..the term performance management itself….imply a combative or  suspicious relationship between employee and manager.  Much like the North Wind’s approach toward the man with the cloak, we remain convinced that negative reinforcement and punishment yield desired results…despite our failed attempts.  Here are five of the most common performance management myths that continue to blow through and harm our teams.

Myth #5:  The purpose of Performance Improvement Plans (PIPs) is to set clear expectations for a poor performing employee.

Have you ever struggled to meet the expectations of your job?  Did you need someone to put it in writing to recognize your job was in jeopardy?  From a legal and ethical standpoint, setting expectations is important.  From a commonsense standpoint though – it’s ridiculous.  Using a PIP merely to outline expectations for someone to keep his/her job is similar to describing the water to someone who is drowning, believing it will help him swim.  The primary purpose of a PIP is to create and develop a plan for the employee to improve.  A good PIP will include short-term measurable actions that align to longer-term goals essential indicative of progress.  A great PIP will include manager commitments such as a period of more frequent check-ins to reassess progress.  PIPs are a plan for success, and both the manager and the employee should be collaborating on how to save the situation.  And because the point of the plan is to improve, progress is key.  And similar to horseshoes and hand grenades, close a counts.  An employee who performs better although falls slightly short of the goal, should continue to be supported with the PIP process.  We all learn differently and at different speeds.  Performance management is about the trajectory.  So, an employee’s performance that is trending toward success that over time proves to be sustainable is a positive outcome for any PIP.

Myth #4:  Bonuses drive employees to work harder and smarter.

Bonuses, commissions, and incentives are not new concepts.  Perhaps one of the first positive psychology philosophies adopted by workplaces, pay-for-performance aims to encourage certain desired behaviors and results through positive reinforcement.  Research has shown however that the concept of how pay impacts how we work is much more complex.  Not all pay-for-performance plans produce better employee output.  Success of such a plan depends on the level of complexity in priorities within a role (ie, an incentive for quantity will often compromise quality goals), the level of social dynamics among coworkers, and the level of (existing) motivation within the employee-base to do a good job.  When considering how financial incentives improve employee performance, it’s first important to realize employees fail to succeed in their jobs for only one of two reasons, skill or will.  This is not meant to validate or reinforce the unfortunate misconception that struggling employees are either incompetent or lazy.  If anything, this false belief tends to be held and perpetuated by leaders that are underdeveloped or inexperienced. Neither term meant to reflect an employee’s motivations but instead their experience/expertise (skill) and habits (will).  For example, a sales representative that fails to meet her quota each month is either lacking the experience in converting leads to sales (skill) or has failed to adopt the habits of feeding and maintaining a healthy pipeline (will).  While financial incentives like commissions or bonuses may increase an employee’s short-term motivations, they don’t change an employee’s experience or habits.  In short, pay-for-performance plans can be a great reward for employees making significant contributions to the company’s success.  Pay-for-performance is not however an appropriate or effective way to resolve performance issues.  Research shows leaders meeting with employees more frequently, providing constructive feedback and coaching with those struggling is much more effective in improving performance.  Companies cannot simply buy their way out of it.

Myth #3:  Good employees don’t need performance discussions.

Why do top-performers leave your organization?  Performance discussions, for top-performers, serve as a way to retain them.  Given research shows high performers can deliver 400% more productivity than the average performer, your team’s success could drastically improve if this article dispels your belief in this myth alone.  Only 53% of top performing employees feel their managers provide valuable and timely feedback.  Would your team’s performance be different if your best employees were getting feedback on how they can improve?  How many of them would stay if you used frequent performance discussions with high-performers as a way to detect poor job satisfaction or work-related issues?  Weekly 15-minute check-ins, asking employees two questions, 1) what are their priorities for the week, and 2) how can you (their leader) help them, is one of the simplest and most effective habits a leader can adopt.  Not only will these interactions help retain and develop top performing employees, they will also establish a valuable connections, a quality consistent with the #1 driver of high-performing teams, psychological safety.

 

Myth #2:  Poor employee performance is caused by poor training.

Training is often the first, if not only, offering to an under-performing employee.  But rarely is training the actual answer.  Training is intended to teach skills.  Learning to use new technology or how to create and interpret business financials are skills to be gained by training.  More commonly challenging areas where employees fail to perform revolve around habits.  Staying motivated, time management, effective communication, collaboration, and attendance are the top employee performance issues….and none of them have to do with a lack of skills or need for training.  Similar to why we continue to consume junk food, eat too much, stay up too late, hit the snooze button too many times in the morning, or watch too much TV….it’s not because we lack the knowledge that these behaviors are harmful.  We continue to do things in spite of the negative consequences and even harm they produce.  We are habitual creatures.  It’s not something most of us like to admit.  Research shows habits dictate 40% of what we do each day!  If this is the case, wouldn’t it be fair to assume at least 40% of performance issues are simply bad habits?  What would helping an employee to replace bad habits or build new ones look like?  According to James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, willpower is like a muscle, so the key is to start small, increasing over time.  Staying consistent and not succumbing to feelings of overwhelm or hopelessness helps to create sustainable success.  So, start struggling employees with smaller goals.  If an Inside Sales Representative is not hitting their monthly sales goals, you may realize he is failing to maintain a healthy pipeline.  Start with a number of quality calls he should make each day.  Then look to add in how many appointments he should set each week.  Then how many proposals he should submit….then how many new customers….then how much new revenue.  It’s not as black and white as having him listening to sales training videos, and it may take more patience as his manager, but isn’t that the job of a manager….to develop their people?  If this is not a manager’s #1 priority, perhaps the manager could also benefit from replacing or building new habits.

Myth #1:  Poor performing employees are disengaged or lack motivation to succeed.

Have you lost a loved one and returned to work while still grief-stricken?  Or, have you ever been really sick but decided to work rather than go see a doctor or rest?  How was the quality of your work during these times, honestly?  While working today, if you received a call that your house was broken into, it’s highly unlikely you would be very productive should you try to remain working for the rest of the day, without details   We are not robots.  We are complex beings. The same quality in all of us that drives us to do amazing things like create, collaborate with one another, and innovate, is the same quality that makes us susceptible to the natural setbacks and challenges of life.  While someone may LOVE her job, her team, and her boss…..how she shows up to work is not simply a reflection of how she feels about work.  We are a sum of our experiences – ALL OF THEM.  So, an employee that is stressed or fearful about life outside of work will naturally display symptoms of stress and fear at work.  She may seem tired, suffer from pain or headaches, appear more anxious than normal, struggle to focus, withdrawal socially, and seem more irritable or angry.  All well-documented symptoms of chronic stress, regardless of what is causing that stress.  If she is going through a divorce, or recently lost a loved one, is struggling financially, or with raising children…her poor performance may not be about her feelings toward the job at all.  It is the whole person that shows up to work each day.  It is the whole person that we as leaders are coaching when they’re struggling to perform.  While we as leaders may not be able to solve the problems at home, we can and ought to honor life challenges our employees are dealing with outside of the office.  It starts by connecting with our teams.  While many of today’s leaders have been promoted for our problem-solving capabilities.  This is not the skill that makes someone a good leader.  Good leaders support and collaborate with employees to solve problems.  It’s the difference in giving a man a fish versus teaching him how to fish.  So, the first step to collaborating with an employee on improving his performance is to ask him why he’s struggling.  Pull him aside, share your observations, let him know you’re concerned, ask what’s going on and how you can help.  Start this conversation before you come bearing paperwork.  According to a recent study, 62% of working Americans are lonely, meaning they may not have anyone else to talk to about challenges they are facing.  In many cases, employee life obstacles may first appear as performance issues.  If they don’t have a healthy and supportive network of people around them, you might be the only one to ask them this question.  Because we are social creatures, our work is a reflection of how we are feeling.  Just as a sales or customer service representative may struggle to be patient with or listen to customers when they are not feeling well emotionally or physically, a person that builds websites or analyzes financials is likely to make more mistakes or be less productive when emotionally or physically struggling.  As leaders of teams, it is critical we take a whole-person approach to performance management…..not just for the sake of our teams but for humanity.

Senior leaders say the number one weakness of their organizations’ leaders is their ability to have difficult performance discussions with direct reports.  Unfortunately, it’s our society’s belief in many of these myths that have prevented leaders from learning how to navigate these types of employee-discussions.  The longer we pretend these myths are effective only prolongs the pain felt by our businesses, and those that serve them.  So, who will you be in the story of your team’s success and performance?  Will you be the North Wind, blowing with all your might to make them do what you want….only to fail and be left deflated?  Or will you choose a the way of the Sun?

Bringing Value to Employee Reviews

Two men meeting

Are you gearing up for annual employee reviews?  And are you dreading it?  If you’ve answered “yes” to these questions, know you are not alone.  A 2018 WorldatWork survey shows 94% of companies conduct formal employee reviews annually – and a separate study suggests we hate them.  95% of managers surveyed are dissatisfied are with the process and nearly 90% of HR executives feel results are inaccurate.  A Gallup survey shows only 14% of employees feel performance reviews inspire them to improve.  So, if it’s so awful, should we just chuck the review process all together?  No.  Although there is frustration on all sides of the current traditional process, employees who have had a review in the past year are more engaged in their work than employees who haven’t.  Surprisingly, 82% of employees say they value receiving feedback (positive and negative) with 65% of employees wanting more feedback.  So rather than abandoning performance reviews entirely, here are the three ways to elevate your culture and your business by simply fixing what’s broken with our current approach to employee reviews.

1.  Increase the frequency.

Seems counterintuitive right?  Managers, HR professionals, and employees dread them, so do them MORE?  Much of what seems to be broken is that we are only talking about performance once per year.  A Gallup poll shows only 15% of employees working for a manager who does not meet with them regularly are engaged.  Consider this, what if you set an intention on January 1st to lose 15 pounds by December 31st?  Then, come the morning of December 31st you weigh yourself – for the first time since setting the intention nearly a year earlier and you instead gained five pounds.  How would you feel?  How would it have been different had you known in September that you were further away from your goal that in January?  You could’ve chosen to do something about it – but now that you waited the entire year, you’ve really painted yourself into a corner of disappointment.  Waiting to talk about employee performance is the same.  No one works their butts off only to have it all come crashing down when it’s too late.  Frequent, less formal reviews, often referred to as check-ins, allow employees some time for course correction and leaders the opportunity to evaluate employee goals and performance as needs of the business change.  Check-ins also allow for more trust to be established between employees and managers.  Social psychology identifies two types of trust, cognitive – trust based on what you know about someone, and affective – trust based on emotional connection and closeness.  It’s through frequent interaction with another that we develop affective trust in another – so long as both parties act in a trustworthy way of course.

2.  Care

Recently there has been a lot of talk, and some significant research on what makes a good boss.  Top traits include being a good coach, helping employees achieve their professional goals, and caring about employee success & well-being.  A Harvard study of 3,200 employees found employees describing their culture as caring, had higher levels of satisfaction and teamwork, less absenteeism, and better company performance.  What this means from an employee appraisal or check-in standpoint is – performance discussions should serve as a time to either support or recognize an employee depending on how that employee is doing.  Performance reviews – whether formal or informal – are not simply a time to report back performance data.  If an employee isn’t performing, work with the employee to identify why he/she is struggling – and how to fix it!  If an employee is performing above expectations, recognize the employee for a job well done.  Get to know about what is important to employees – what they love and dislike about their work.  Caring about employee success will not only make for more valuable reviews and check-ins but also make for a more open and honest relationship.  What managers did you have that cared about your happiness and success?  How did you choose to show up for them each day?  Our employees are no different.  Start each employee check-in by asking how they are doing.  Did they recently go on vacation?  Is his son graduating high school?  Did she get a new car?  Did she have a big sale?  Is it his busy time of year?  Start each check-in building rapport, reinforcing you care.  “I know you are wanting to spend every minute with your son before he heads off to college, so let’s talk about what you have on your plate and make sure we’re streamlining everything as much as possible to get you out early on Fridays.”  Empathizing with the employee and offering support to get work done in a way that benefits you both is highly effective.

3.  Collaborate on goals

The happiest and most valuable employees are the employees that understand how their work translates to company success.  They get it.  Without this understanding, an employee’s manager is no longer a manager but a babysitter or a person that barks orders.  But leaders are responsible for exposing employees to this mindset, by explaining company initiatives and describing how the employee’s work aligns to those initiatives.  For this reason, effective employee reviews happen when employees and managers collaborate on employee goals.  With a basic understanding of what the company aims to achieve for the month, quarter, year, or whatever timeframe, encourage employees to create their own goals for the period.  Aside from helping employees get more engaged in the business, there are also some psychological benefits.  Research shows that when we create our own goals, the emotional and strategic parts of the brain work together to plan for and envision the goal, turning our attention away from less productive thoughts and events that aren’t aligned to our goals.  When an employee then creates his or her own goal that a leader then reviews and/or tweaks, the employee is more emotionally and mentally committed to the goal that if we as leaders were to just prescribe them goals.  When we encourage employees to create specific challenging goals, studies show these difficult goals will actually lead to higher performance than easy goals (such as “do your best), or no goals at all.  Because mindset is critical to achieving any goal – regardless of it being personal or professional, this step is key to making a valuable performance discussion.

Like any interaction with employees, it’s more valuable to both parties when it’s an exchange, not one-way feedback.  Historically, performance appraisals were one-way discussions in which a manager advises each employee of how well or poorly he/she performed over the year.  Is it any wonder we all dread this process?  By implementing these three simple strategies in your performance management process, you solve for a healthier and more effective feedback loop in which leaders work with employees to achieve success.  More successful companies start with more successful people and feedback paves the way.

Does your performance management process need a boost?  Learn more about our tools from a Culture Engineer.

Giving Thanks: The Power of Employee Recognition

Employee Recognition

Appreciation is a wonderful thing. It makes what is excellent in others belong to us as well. —Voltaire

Have you ever gotten a really good thank you note?  The kind that is so good, you feel you need to send a thank you note for the thank you note?  How likely you are to help that person again?  I am HUGE on thank yous, particularly after I’ve worked hard for someone.  Employee recognition is one of the 10 attributes   I expect a lot of those that report to me and have always put a substantial amount of effort in understanding what makes them feel valued and recognizing them in the way they feel appreciated.  Sometimes it’s through professional development, sometimes through public praise, and others monetary recognition.  So, when I learned about half of leaders participating in a recent survey answered they avoid giving positive feedback (ie saying thank you or good job), I considered why this might be.  I came down to two reasons:  1) leaders are failing to see the value and ROI of employee recognition, or 2) leaders aren’t recognizing employees in a way that resonates.  Fortunately there is a significant amount of research on both topics.  Here we speak to the importance of employee recognition and how to do it.

Benefits of employee recognition and appreciation

Acknowledgment

How do you work when you feel recognized and appreciated versus not?  Chances are, your answer reflects what research has found on this topic.  In a SHRM survey, 48% of participating employees reported that management’s recognition of employee job performance was very important to their job satisfaction.  It’s no surprise then that separate research shows employees who do not feel adequately recognized are twice as likely to say they’ll quit in the next year. Because recognition is one of Culture Engineered’s ten attributes of the employee experience, we too show a significant correlation in most industries and roles between recognition and a positive employee experience.  Part of the reason, I believe, is due to our need as humans to been seen.  We have a desire to belong and part of that belonging is validated when we are acknowledged.  A study out of MIT randomly assigned students into three groups – acknowledged, ignored, shredded.  All students were given the mundane task of reviewing sheets of paper with random sequences of letters, circling pairs of duplicate letters appearing on each page.  Upon completing each page, they would then turn it into a person facilitating the study who, as the name suggests, either acknowledged, ignored, or shredded the page.  Students were paid 50 cents for their first submitted page and asked if they would then complete another page for five cents less, each following page worth 5 cents less than the previously submitted page, until payment was reduced to zero (ie 45 cents, then 40 cents, then 35 cents….5 cents, zero).  Participants were able to quit at any point of their choosing, OR continue until payment for each page was reduced to $0.00.  Which group do you think completed more pages?  The acknowledged group!  Contradictory to predictions made by researchers who anticipated the ignored and shredded groups would outperform the acknowledged group on account of there being such a low risk of cheating in these groups in particular, the acknowledged group outperformed the ignored and shredded groups by nearly 1.5 times.  The only difference?  Acknowledgment by the facilitator as the subject handed in his/her work.  No “thank you”, “good job”, nor did the facilitator even review the page.  Brief eye contact in this case produced a significant result where people were willing to work for the most basic reward – human connection.

Social worth

How do you get an employee engaged in their role?  One of the most frustrating things I hear from leaders is around people “going through the motions” of a job.  A study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology conducted by researchers Adam Grant and Francesca Gino suggests gratitude may be the key to keeping employees engaged in even the jobs most prone to burnout – fundraising.  In the study fundraisers were randomly assigned to one of two groups.  All conditions were the same except the director of annual giving visited the test “gratitude” group, to thank the fundraisers for their work whereas the control group was not met with or “thanked”.  Over the course of a week, the gratitude group, having been thanked by the director, made 50% more calls than the control group having worked without thanks.  Consider those employees you feel have checked out of their jobs and those who approach their day’s work with the desire to succeed.  It’s only fair to assume you express more gratitude with employee working hard to drive your business and company forward.  But which came first – their drive or your words of gratitude?  Could a simple thanks be all the other employee needs to turn it around?

Employee recognition that resonates

Whose thanks matters most?

Historically, the higher rank the person praising you, the higher the perceived value the praise.  As our workplaces and society shift from placing a high value on authority to placing a high value on authenticity however, organizational hierarchy’s importance is not as important as it once was when it comes to employee recognition.  Data shows 24% of employees feel recognition is most memorable when it comes from the CEO, while 28% of employees feels it’s most memorable coming from the employee’s direct manager.  9% indicated peer-recognition is most notable.   If you wish to recognize an employee’s performance, the person recognizing the employee should understand the value of the employee’s contributions, capable of convincingly explaining the importance of the employee’s work.  If it’s recognizing an employee’s tenure or dedication to values, the person recognizing the employee should be a person that works closely with the employee, familiar with his/her journey and character.  Employee recognition is not transactional.  Even a “thank you” will mean more from a person that is sincere.  Have you ever received a certificate with your name misspelled?  Have you had an executive leader congratulate you on a sale you didn’t make?  Being recognized for the wrong thing can sometimes feel worse than not being recognized at all.  So, to avoid this from happening, make sure appreciation and recognition is coming from someone “in the know”.  All leaders should be looking to catch employees doing something right as often as possible.

How often?

How often leaders recognize employees will often depend on how the leader defines recognition.  Do you consider saying “thank you”, recognition?  What about one-on-ones with employees?  Or performance reviews?  According to Gallup’s Chief Scientist, we should praise employees frequently – weekly or even daily.  Similar to my feelings on the superficiality of romantic gestures on Valentine’s Day, recognition seems to resonate less with employees in the traditional and formal annual review where feedback is obligatory.  Instead, making appreciation and praise a part of your commitment to ongoing feedback and harnessing relationships proves to be a more sustainable and effective approach to employee recognition.  If you are not in the habit of regularly recognizing employee performance, create the habit by scheduling time each week to recognize your employees.  If you oversee leaders, make it a part of their weekly reporting that they meet with employees to recognize their work.  You do not need to schedule it in the employee’s work calendar (ie, “Kelly’s employee recognition time”).  Instead schedule the time for yourself, as a leader, to reflect on the good work each of your employees have done in the past week.  Then communicate your appreciate for that good work to that employee.  You will be amazed in just a few weeks how you will grow to be a more grateful leader and your employees will transform into more appreciative contributors.

What to say

Think back to that great “thank you” note you received.  What made it great?  Have you ever received a thank you note that said, thanks for your generous gift.  I have, and I immediately wished I had been less generous!  The best thank yous are specific and timely.  The thank you note you thought of likely thanked you specifically for the gift you gave the person and shared what that gift meant to them.  If you gifted them money – they may have even told you what they used it for.  If you gave them tickets to an event, they may have even included a picture of them at the event having the greatest time ever!  When you choose to say thank you or recognize someone for their great work, generosity, amazing character, it’s important to articulate two things:  the behavior or action you appreciate (specific), and what that behavior or action means to you (value) as an individual or to the department, organization, etc.  Remember the acknowledgment example we talked about earlier?  It’s not enough to say, you do great work or I appreciate your stellar attendance.  Here are some recognition and appreciation examples using the specific and value criteria:

Congratulations on exceeding your goal this month!  Because you hit your goal, we were able to meet our team goal – despite some other team members falling short of their targets.  Thank you for your willingness to give it your all, day in and day out.  You are an inspiration to me as well as the team and we are grateful for the energy and positivity you bring each day. 

Thank you for being such a reliable part of our team.  I know life is demanding of your time and energy; however, your stellar attendance and amazing consistent focus while at work have such a great impact on me and all those around you.  When you commit to something, I never doubt for a minute that you will achieve it.  Thank you for being such a great example of determination and integrity to me an all those around you.

How would you work differently if you were given this feedback?  We all want to be seen and acknowledged.  We all want to be of value.  It’s when we aren’t acknowledged and valued that we stop trying and sometimes apply our energy toward destructive behaviors.  Research shows us the historical practices of micromanaging and manipulating employees does not work.  Employees will not change until we as leaders change.  Will you rise to the challenge?

A punch to the face taught me to fight. Why a culture unafraid of failure always wins.

1996 sparring competition

I was 16 and it was my first real sparring match.  Although I started karate when I was 13, I had braces.  For safety reasons, we weren’t allowed to spar with braces, so my training in sparring was delayed, significantly.  I was three years behind everyone else my age and I was TERRIFIED of being punched in the face.  Thinking back now, I’m not sure if I was more afraid of the pain or crying in front of everyone like a baby.  To make things worse – I’d always been afraid of ending up with a nose like my dad and knew having it broken in a fight would not help my situation.  This was the day I learned how to fight…not because of any tip, trick, move, or skill.  On this day, I was punched square in the nose, hard.  A loss I still reflect on often, this is the day, the pivotal moment, that led me to go onto become the #2 ranked female collegiate fighter in the nation just three years later.

Master Shojiro Koyama,  was very traditional.  He disagreed with the decision to let women compete years before I walked into his dojo and was known to pair up young, petite female students with much larger and stronger male students in sparring exercises.  We were encouraged to challenge one another physically, it was practice after all.  But, we were discouraged from striking with full physical strength.  I was competing by the time I started training with M. Koyama but only in kata.  In class he would coach me in sparring exercises, frustrated by my over-thinking and apparent lack of instinct.  “No thinking!” he shouted at me repeatedly one day, his way of trying to get me out of my own head.  Over and over he would tell me not to flinch and to counter immediately after blocking an attack.  But, all I could do was freeze and close my eyes.  I was scared.  I had never been hit in the face before and was paralyzed by fear at even the thought of it! So, the day I had my braces off I was filled with emotion.  I had braces for FOUR YEARS, so thoughts of eating corn on the cob or biting into the candy apples at the state fair later that year were really exciting.  Realizing I would now need to spar with others who appeared unafraid of a broken nose was terrifying.  I continued to struggle in practice but the true horror set in the day of my first competitive fight.  Her name was Samantha – and she was good.  I knew her from previous competitions and she was a much better and more confident fighter.  I was toast.  I remember the punch coming at my face and I closed my eyes, as I sadly had done EVERY time in practice.  Those I trained with were shouting from the sidelines as Master Koyama had shouted at me in practice, but I didn’t hear them.  All I could do was brace myself for the inevitable punch that was now too far along to block.  Boom!  I knew she hit me because when I opened my eyes, they were watering.  Oddly enough, all that I could think of was not to let the ref see my eyes watering or she, my opponent, would get a point!  Not sure why I thought the blatant strike went unseen by the ref who was just two or three feet away from us. I refused to blink in an effort to prevent the tears from streaming down my face.  But they weren’t tears from crying.  If you’ve ever hit your nose or been hit in the nose, you know what I’m talking about here.  Tears naturally well up in your eyes following such a hit, but there’s no sobbing or lip quivering like the tears that accompany emotional or physical pain.  The ring judge saw the hit and my opponent was awarded the point.  Naturally I lost the fight.  My biggest fear had come true and it wasn’t the life altering event I’d expected!  Although my teacher tried breaking my habit of flinching and freezing for years, my fear of pain and embarrassment was stronger.  And suddenly the fear was gone.  I’ve never flinched or frozen since.

Is this really such a unique story though?  Parents, teachers, co-workers, our friends, family, bosses – we get lots of advice from those around us.  But, how much of it do we take or even listen to?  I didn’t believe my mom about drinking….until I drank too much.  That friend that everyone cautioned me not to trust – I refused to believe it, until she betrayed me.  So many painful lessons that could’ve been prevented had I just listened to the advice I was given.  And I don’t think I’m the only one who has these stories.  So, why is advice only right in hindsight?  There is no better teacher than failure.  Athletes recall every shot they miss, poker players remember the turn that led to losing a hand.  And if you’re gritty, you walk away from that failure assessing and sometimes obsessing over what you need to do to prevent that mistake from happening ever again.  Isn’t this what innovation and improvement is all about?  How much would we achieve if we made failure acceptable?  What would you try today if you didn’t fear the shame of defeat?  According to Harvard Business School Professor of Leadership and Management, Dr. Amy Edmonson, a lot.  Dr. Edmonson has spent decades studying what makes some teams effective and high-performing and others, not.  Ultimately, she discovered better teams actually are more accepting of mistakes.  In 1999 she coined the term psychological safety – the belief that you won’t be punished or judged for making a mistake.  Without this fear of shame, embarrassment, or judgment, people are more comfortable asking questions, open to learning, speaking up, taking risks, and as result, perform better.

It’s counter intuitive and scary, but failure and success are not mutually exclusive.  Part of learning to walk is falling.  We learn the value of money when we are without it.    For individuals and teams, failure can make or break us.  In 1999 I attended a national competition in Denver, Colorado.  I was competing for first place against a woman I’d competed against before.  She grew up training in karate as her father was a well-respected instructor.  She fractured my nose and I quickly countered with a punch to her ribs.  She won the point, taking first place.  I walked away for the second and final time with a loss and a bloody nose.  These are the two fights I still think of more than 20 years later despite sparring hundreds of times in practice and competition.  They’re not memories of regret, they’re not memories of sadness…..I remember them as lessons in the journey of my success.

How To Talk with Employees About Performance Issues

Manager meeting with employee

What is the one thing worse than having an employee fail to meet your expectations?  Talking with that employee about it – that is worse.  It’s uncomfortable. Today one of the most common issues plaguing workplaces is our unwillingness, or in some cases unfamiliarity, of having difficult discussions.  These discussions, when done well however, elevate a business.  When talking about performance issues with employees, there are seven key components that make it an effective conversation.

 

7 Tips to Navigating Employee Performance  Discussions

A Gallup study shows employees are largely dissatisfied with both the amount and accuracy of the feedback they receive from their manager.  While historically performance discussions were limited to annual reviews, recent trends lean toward more frequent conversations such as biweekly or monthly.  Whether annually or biweekly, there are steps every leader should take to ensure it’s a quality conversation.

  1. Determine whether it’s a trend, indicating a performance issue or an isolated incident.

Particularly if you subscribe to less frequent performance discussions, it’s important to address trends differently than isolated incidents.  While isolated incidents can be damaging to companies and frustrating to managers, they do happen, to all of us.  When talking with an employee about an isolated incident focus the discussion on how to avoid the situation from reoccurring.  When discussing trends, work with the employee to identify what skill or knowledge gap is causing the ongoing issue.

  1. Meet privately.

While there may be times you choose to have a third-party present, meetings should take place in a quiet, private setting so as to respect the dignity for the employee.  Performance conversations are humbling.  The two worst things to bring into a performance discussion are a big ego and a chip on your shoulder – and they tend to accompany public shaming.  Leave the praising to public settings.

  1. Express concern.

Sometimes an employee may not recognize the impact her performance issues have on the business.  It’s therefore important to express your observations from a place of concern rather than frustration.  If you really believe a person is intentionally coming to work each day to do a bad job, you have a “will” issue, not a skill issue.

  1. Ask, don’t tell.

You may be an expert on the operational process or role but we as self-aware individuals are the experts of our own thoughts and behaviors.  So even if you believe you know what the employee is struggling with, it’s better to ask the employee why he is struggling rather than diagnose.  If Joe is not meeting sales goals, ask him why.  But keep him honest.  If Joe says he’s just having a tough month and he’s actually having his sixth consecutive tough month, respectfully remind him.  Hold him accountable to his own behavior and self-awareness.

  1. Collaborate on a solution.

Both you as the leader, and the employee should want the same thing – success.  When the employee is successful, you’re one-step closer to a successful company.  Performance discussions often become combative, which makes no sense whatsoever.  A leader doesn’t ask an underperforming employee why she is struggling to corner her.  A leader asks for the employee’s insight to empower her, a critical first step on the path of improvement.  You, as the leader, should push back on phony, surface-level reasons given by the employee such as “just having a bad month”.  This is not to be confrontational, but because you are genuinely interested in helping the employee develop professionally, and overcome challenges contributing to her poor performance.

  1. Get buy-in by asking about concerns.

We all love to have people agree with us – but in situations like performance discussions, it’s a bad sign.  Bad habits and skill gaps do not happen accidentally.  Gaps worsen over time because we dislike or undervalue the importance of overcoming them.  So, because conquering performance issues often requires hard work on the part of the employee (training, practicing, stepping out of his/her comfort zone, etc), it’s only natural that the employee will have some anxiety about the process.  Yes, natural.  A person telling you what you want to hear, a “yes man”, doesn’t bother to consider concerns.  A yes man is simply looking to appease you, putting an end to the conversation.  If the employee doesn’t express concerns, do it for him.  Ask him, in a variety of ways about how he will handle potential setbacks.  If you and the employee decide training will resolve the performance issue, ask what concerns the employee has about adding training to his already heavy workload.  “Do you feel 2-3 hours of training each week is doable given your upcoming projects and deadlines?”  Failing to plan is planning to fail, so work with the employee to resolve conflicts proactively.  This too is an important part of earning an employee’s trust that you, as their leader, care about their success.

  1. Follow up.

So, you have a great discussion, identify what is needed to resolve the issue and the issue seems to resolve itself!  Wrong.  Its the employee who worked to resolve the issue.  I guarantee, no matter who the employee is, she is waiting for you, their leader, to acknowledge it.  The same can be said for when the issue continues although the waiting is coupled with anxiety.  Set a reminder in your phone, calendar, or schedule a meeting to revisit with the employee.  Recognize the employee’s efforts when the issue is resolved.  If the performance issue persists, assess why the solution you and the employee developed failed to resolve the problem.  Without the follow up, regardless of the outcome, the performance discussion you had with the employee is a failure.  She may be a better performer, but without the follow-up, the perception is, you only care about the business, not the individuals within it.  It’s a fair-weather relationship, at best when a leader fails to recognize the collective “employees” as individuals.

Yes, it’s work.  Yes, it would be great if employees just knew how to improve without these awkward interactions.  But, we as people are complex.  Think of someone that took the time to help you to become better.  Was he genuinely concerned about your well-being or were his motives self-serving?  Was she there to celebrate with you when you succeeded?  Relationships take work and, like anything, it’s the things we work on that hold value.  Have the difficult performance discussion today and start holding your people accountable to their greater self.  A good performance discussion reminds us of what we’re capable of becoming.