“What do you spend most time on during performance appraisals?” I asked several members of a work team.
One responded. “My boss says he wants to help me get better by pointing out things that I need to improve on.”
Other comments continued along the same vein. But here is the problem. Contrary to popular opinion, focusing employees on their shortcomings actually impairs growth and development.
Negative feedback, according to researchers Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall, apparently triggers the “fight or flight” system in our brains causing us to focus only on survival. That explains why, in response to negative feedback, many employees get defensive and argumentative (fight). Others sulk and say little or nothing (flight.)
Curing weaknesses may get employees to adequate performances but will not likely result in exceptional performances. Managers who say, “I need to get you out of your comfort zone,” are likely to divert your brain power to “How do I survive?” and not to “How can I get better?”
By contrast, feedback that recognizes what employees do well encourages growth by creating mental and emotional openness. This stimulates connections in the brain that result in the ability to do better what you already do well.
“I went home with a headache, a stomach ache, and doubt,” is the way a new employee explained his first day on the job. “I spent half of the day in an onboarding session, but I don’t remember much other than places I can’t park.”
When the new employee got to his work station, the person showing him what to do seemed distracted and impatient.
The expression, “You only get one chance to make a first impression,” certainly applies to an employee’s first day. Unfortunately, most organizations overburden new persons with tediously, boring informational sessions. You may not be able to change that routine; so, when the employee gets to you, make the experience enjoyable.
Treat the person like a welcomed guest; exchange appropriate personal information; explain what you like about working there; show the employee around; and make sure other team members meet and greet.
Although the new hire may have experience, be sure to get a friendly, high performer to teach him how you do the job here. For the first couple of weeks, make it a point to chat frequently, answer questions and offer support.
Melanie said to Layla, her manager, “Don’t tell Josh I said it, but he spends a lot of time on social media. And he blames us for not getting reports to him on time.”
Unfortunately, many members of Layla’s team seemed to be very critical of each other. As a member summed up the situation, “I’ve never seen so much gossip and backbiting. People appear to be friendly, but behind your back they are uncommonly critical.
Petty and immature behavior among team members is serious and should be addressed. Consider these actions that Layla could have taken.
When Melanie complained about Josh, Layla should have said something like. “Have you clearly communicated your concerns directly to Josh? If not, I want you to talk to him.”
Melanie would likely say that she had and it did no good. At that point, Layla should call Josh into the meeting and ask Melanie to explain to Josh her concerns. And Josh would have his turn to respond.
Backbiting among team members is less when members know they will be forced to confront each other with their criticisms.
Two employees from different departments were talking about their new managers.
“I know our new manager is smart and knows computers, but he is very young and pretty green. He has a lot to learn.”
The friend responded, “Our new manager looks young enough to be my grandson but he has fit in really well. Even our long-time employees respect him.”
When managing employees who are older, it is safe to assume that some of the old timers may be resentful and skeptical.
The manager in the first example made an early assessment of changes he wanted to make and he got management’s support. However, when he presented his ideas to his team, many become doubtful and reluctant—he came across as insensitive and impulsive.
The second manager interviewed all his employees and got to know them as individuals. He let his team know that his top priority was to ensure their success and well-being. He asked many questions and when good suggestions emerged, the manager gave proper credit. The youthful manger often used phrases like “What do you think?” and “How can I help with that?”
While young leaders cannot outrace time, they must earn their team’s respect.
“Some of my team members work in the office and some are in the field,” explained Tillford. “People in the field seem to have difficulty understanding my expectations. I often have to send documents back for corrections and updates.”
Tillford further explained that the office and field members were well-trained and, thanks to robust electronic media, he used the same format for communicating to both groups.
I asked, “Do field staff every come to the office? Do you visit them in the field?”
“Field people come in every quarter for our all-hands meetings but I don’t get much one-on-one time with them.”
I said to Tillford that perhaps he should make time for more face-to-face contact, either by periodically visiting field offices or by asking field staff to travel to his office. Because of the cost and inconvenience, Tillford had resisted doing this in the past. However, because he was so frustrated with current performances, he agreed to try it.
Six months later, Tillford reported, “I can’t believe how much our communication has improved. After just a few field visits, our understanding improved dramatically and field team members are performing just as well, maybe even better, than their office counterparts.”
As a peer described Rob, “He’s always kidding around and usually has a joke handy.”
A friend, passing Rob’s work station, noticed that Rob had a 1960’s Playboy-type photo of a model on his computer screen. “I don’t think you should have that photo on your screen,” the friend commented.
“Aah, it just popped up,” Rob said. “I don’t always know where these things come from.”
Others had also noticed questionable images on Rob’s screen but no one spoke about it. A young female employee, who recently joined the team, said to her friend. “I was talking to Rob and I was shocked at the image I saw on his computer.”
Eventually, someone reported Rob to Human Resources. When questioned, Rob’s supervisor said, “I guess I was aware of it, but I didn’t pay much attention. It’s hard to control everything that appears on someone’s computer.”
After investigating, the company found both Rob and his supervisor to be in violation of its sexual harassment policy. “Why discipline me?” the supervisor asked. “I didn’t do anything.”
Supervisors need to know that they may be held accountable for “contributing to a hostile work environment” even if they did not commit the questionable acts.
“I see you got a promotion.”
“Not really. I just have a new title. I’m Project Research Coordinator.”
“You mean you are a still project manager?”
If we have not learned the potential positive impact of job titles, we have not been paying attention to the banking industry. Does the title “Lending Manager” have a different meaning than “Loan Officer?” What about “Vice President of Loans?”
Perceptions surrounding job titles do matter. Some companies have replaced “employee” with “associate.” Other organizations call their employees “Individual Contributors.” Certain ones informally refer to Google employees as “Googlers” and new employees as “Nooglers.”
Companies may also use titles to identify outstanding performance. And there is research that suggests a percentage of employees (Don’t count me among this group.) prefer an enhanced title to a modest pay increase.
For a time, engineering departments have used titles like Engineer I, Engineer II, and Engineer III to bestow status and recognition without having to promote excellent engineers into a management positions.
I have had the honor of holding many titles in my career; and while I do not remember pondering on title images, I do recall feeling a sense of pride upon being officially labeled, “Distinguished Professor of Management.”