There was a time in my life when I thought that I could get others to do what I wanted by giving clear expectations and corrective feedback.
It was during my previous career, as a Speech-Language Pathologist. During my clinical training, I had learned from supervisors that if I was clear in my expectations and applied negative consequences when my expectations weren’t met, then I held the key to getting my young clients to do what I needed them to do so that I could help them.
It went a little something like this:
Take 5 turns at a memory game, naming the picture you turn over.
Corrective feedback when expectations not met:
“Uh oh, we keep our hands on the table. Pick which card you want.”
“Uh oh, you need to tell me what you see in the picture.”
“Uh oh, only one card at a time.”
Note the constant use of “uh oh” a gentle way of saying YOU’RE WRONG (insert loud game show sound indicating failure… just like on Family Feud… right… here).
And did this constant reprimanding get my clients to comply? Sure. It mostly did.
Except… when it didn’t.
If you’re a parent of one of these kinds of kids, then you know exactly what I’m talking about.
But I digress…
In a nutshell, this approach essentially brought me two types of responses: compliance or pushing back.
And for those who pushed back, I simply thought that I needed to work harder at being clear in my expectations and applying negative consequences consistently.
A simple formula for behavioural compliance, right?
I supported practices like this at work and I did it at home with my children.
Until one day, I realized that underlying all of this was simply an attempt to control others’ behaviour. And that it didn’t really work.
As I started to shift into providing workshops and consultations within organizations, I began to notice how much telling others what they need to do ultimately breaks trust in adults too. This is true even when it’s said nicely.
We’ve somehow taken these parent (or adult) – child dynamics and applied them to the workplace. What happens when we’re reprimanded by a superior at work is that it takes away our intrinsic motivation to truly want to do what needs to be done. It sends a message to people that they are not capable. It creates resentment and disengagement and eventually, leads to high rates of burnout and turnover.
Instead, if you really want to sustainably improve performance, then the focus needs to shift to finding ways to foster your employees’ ability to connect (or reconnect) with their own authority. This is particularly true if it’s been a long time since someone has viewed them as an equal, competent and trusted partner.
The way we communicate performance expectations matters.
It can make or break how invested employees are in their own performance, and the performance of the team as a whole.
Here are three tips to discuss employee performance without reprimanding that will leave your employees with a sense of authority over their life:
1. Listen first.
If you’re the first one to address which areas of an employee’s performance need improvement, the employee may not feel safe letting you know if they disagree. They may outwardly agree while actually feeling deeply misunderstood, creating resentment and disengagement.
Allowing the employee to share their perspective of their performance first will give you a better sense of whether or not you’re on the same page before you discuss any further.
2. Foster self-reflection skills.
For an employee to be able to independently monitor and improve their own job performance, they need to have excellent self-reflection skills. When we don’t leave space for the employee to reflect on their own performance, without being influenced by our perspective, we end up taking ownership of the employee’s job performance.
3. When providing feedback, avoid using descriptive terms that label the person.
Descriptive words, such as “good/bad”, “driven/lazy”, “motivated/unmotivated”, “organized/disorganized” should be avoided. This is a tough one, as it’s how many North Americans have been socialized to describe performance.
However, at the root of it, whether intentional or not, these black or white terms are basically a way of classifying the person’s performance as “good” or “bad”.
Driven = good, lazy = bad.
Motivated = good, unmotivated = bad
And so on.
These terms presuppose the authority of the leader… and the inferiority of the employee.
No one likes to be told that they are bad. And being told that they’re bad will put the person into a reactive state, where they will either comply out of fear or disengage.
Rather than using polarized descriptive words, such as the examples above, I suggest describing the behaviour that you observe. For example, instead of using “motivated”, you could say “I noticed you took initiative to…”. Instead of calling someone disorganized you could explain “I noticed that you seem to have a hard time coming to meetings with the required documents”.
Describing behaviours that have been observed, instead of labelling characteristics of a person, will open the door to listening and collaboration, rather than defensiveness.
4. View employee performance appraisals as a collaborative process.
In order for truly collaborative discussions about performance issues to occur, your employee must feel safe being vulnerable. As such, it may take awhile until employees truly feel they can open up about why they’re having a difficult time with various skills or tasks. However, once you can get to this point of trust with your employees, you will see them flourish like never before.
Reprimanding employees disconnects them from their own sense of authority and doesn’t motivate anyone to improve their work performance.
Focusing on creating a work environment where people have a sense of agency over their role within the organization will slowly replace the current need to reprimand those who are not meeting performance expectations and leave you with motivated, engaged and high-performing employees.
If you find yourself looking for additional support on how to address employee performance issues collaboratively so as to enhance engagement, take a look at my Giving Feedback that Works workshop. It will provide you with the exact tools needed to reconnect your employees with their authority so that they’re excited about improving their job performance on their own without needing constant support from you.
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