How to Clarify Misunderstandings

Are you sometimes surprised by reactions of a team member? Of course, we are. Why? Because we perceive things differently. For example,

Team leader:  (routine reminder) “Can you get me a status report on your project by 12:00 noon on Tuesday?”

Team member:  (frowning) “As I have said, the project is on schedule! I don’t know what you are worried about.”

The leader made a routine reminder without underlying motives. The team member interpreted the reminder to be lack of confidence in meeting the deadline. That is, each party perceived the request differently. When in doubt about another’s perception, consider reporting what you perceived, giving two interpretations, and asking for clarification. For example:

Reporting:  “I understand you are on schedule. Your comment suggests that my question upset you.”

Interpretations:  Did I misunderstand or did it appear that I was doubting your ability?

Clarification:  Can you help me understand?

When another perceives our actions differently than what we intended, the most common reaction is to further explain what we meant. The implication is, although not necessarily intended, the other party misunderstood.

A better approach is to ask the other party to clarify what was received and try to understand.

Five Steps for Dealing With Consistently Low Performers

“I supervise a consistently low performer,” a manager said to me.

“For how long?” I asked.

“Since I assumed leadership.  About ten months ago.  I’ve tried everything.  He is just not reliable.”

“Are you sure the employee has been properly trained?”

“Yes.  I have personally reviewed the training a couple of times.”

Here are five steps for dealing with consistently low performers:

1. Check to see if you can modify the employee’s job tasks.

2. Nag the employee with reminders, checklists and 1:1 status reports.

3. Put the employee on a performance improvement plan.

4. Tolerate the low performance and quit worrying about it.

5. Work with your human resources’ partner to terminate the employee.

When you complete Steps 1-3, you have fulfilled your responsibilities as a leader.  And if the low performance is disruptive to your team’s performance, you should move to Step 5.  The inability to consistently perform tasks in almost all cases is due to lack of talent and not lack of motivation.

Talent is the inherited ability to consistently and to reliably perform tasks and you cannot teach talent. Employees who are ill equipped to perform their job tasks have little or no upside, and you do them no favors by allowing them to remain in their positions.

Rituals Add Meaning to Work

Years ago, a student in one of my classes who worked at Wal-Mart said he had heard Sam Walton was coming to his store.

I said to the student, “I understand that Sam Walton likes to open meetings with a Wal-Mart cheer—Give me a W.  Give me an A.  Give me an L . . . Who is Number one?  THE CUSTOMER ALWAYS.”

“Yes. He does,” the student responded.

“What are you going to do when he leads the cheer?”

“I’m going to shout it!” the student beamed.

After seeing employees in a Korean tennis ball factory begin their day with a cheer, Sam Walton introduced the cheer to Wal-Mart associates in 1975 and the ritual continues.

Kristen Senz, writing in The Harvard Gazette, reports that such team-building rituals can create a shared sense that work is more meaningful and help co-workers bond. Although many see company rituals as silly and avoid partaking, these group activities over time can still add meaning to their work.

To encourage rituals in your workplace, Senz suggests that you first check to see what employees are already be doing—lunching together on Friday, celebrating birthdays, and the like. Find things employees enjoy doing together and encourage them.

Only One in Four Job Switchers Plan to Stay

The answer is, “thirty-six million.”

The question is, “How many employees have quit their jobs in the last nine months?”

Traditionally, the major reason for quitting has been, “I didn’t get along with my supervisor.” However, since the COVID-19 pandemic, according to PEW researchers Parker and Horowitz, the major reasons for the high churn rate have been pay, opportunity, and respect. 

There is no doubt the pandemic caused companies to radically shuffle conventional work routines of their employees.  Some companies laid off employees as their businesses were shut down.  Oher companies quickly learned employees could produce quality work outside of a nine-to-five workday, and they did not have to be onsite to do it. 

As the economy recovered, “help wanted” signs appeared everywhere.  To entice applicants, some companies were quicker to increase wages and approve flexible, remote working.  Like historical accounts of the 1840’s gold rush, employees left in droves to seek these new-found riches and freedoms.

Here is the bad news, according to a Harris Poll survey, only about twenty-five percent of job switchers say they plan to stay.  Before climbing over the fence to a greener pasture, it may be beneficial for you to investigate adjustments your current employer intends to make.      

Put Your Aces in Their Places

“I have eight members on my team and their tasks are different,” a manager said to me. “As we work in a very challenging environment, I require cross training and job rotation for all.”

“So, you wanted to ensure one hundred percent coverage in case you had an unexpected absence?” I asked.


“I think I am about to hear of a disappointment.”

“I am disappointed. Although everyone is very capable and trained, I am not getting reliable performance from all members on all tasks.”

Of course, it is important to have a back up for each task, but it is not realistic to think all team members can perform all tasks reliably. As the Gallup research revealed, even the most basic tasks require some level of talent for consistent performance.

Rather than encouraging promotion or job rotation schemes, the more effective teams assign members to tasks they perform exceptionally well; and they help them grow in those tasks. It is demoralizing to all to insist that a trained member be responsible for tasks they historically perform poorly.

As some have phrased the concept, the more effective leaders “put their aces in their places.”

How to Make Leadership Easier–Favor Team Players When Hiring

(Part 7 of 7)

A member of the selection committee described a job candidate as “outstanding with great technical skills.” 

When another member raised concerns about the candidate’s ability to fit into their team’s culture, the sponsor replied, “I’m aware she may have appeared aloof and a bit arrogant during the interviews, but I think that was just confidence.  Her cognitive test scores are excellent.”

Some members described another candidate as very good technically with a reputation for superior team skills. A member said of the candidate, “She is known for bringing disparate team members together and completing complex projects ahead of schedule.”

While the selection team valued both candidates as top prospects, the debate centered on whether to favor the candidate who had an edge in technical skills or the one who may have been a more effective team player. 

While fifty-three percent of participants in my workshops recommend the candidate with the technical edge, seventy-seven percent say most of their employee problems center around lack of team skills.

Be aware, employees are on their very best behavior during selection processes.  When two or more candidates possess the necessary technical skills for job performance, I favor selecting the candidate with the better team skills.

How to Make Leadership Easier–Appraise More Frequently

(Part 6 of 7)

“Performance appraisals are due next week,” a manager lamented.  “Frankly, I’d rather have a root canal.”

More than seventy percent of managers in surveys say they do not like their appraisal process.  Most employees report their performance reviews to be stressful with little helpful feedback.

Many companies have eliminated traditional, annual appraisals because they judged their processes to be of little value and may have been harmful.

Still, managers have an obligation to hold up a mirror and give honest performance feedback to their employees.  Consider the following suggestions for adding value to appraisals while inducing less stress on yourself and team members.

One, quit complaining about your process and appraisal form.  No process/form is perfect.

Two, meet 1:1 with your direct reports monthly to list and discuss last month’s successes and next month’s expectations.  Honestly, report what you like and dislike about each person’s performance.

Three, never argue about your assessment.  Rather, when a person disagrees, respond with something like, “I have a professional responsibility to give you my honest feedback.  I understand you disagree. Please write a note for the file explaining your position.”

Four, encourage growth by developing employees’ strengths; investments in weaknesses provide little return.