The path of least resistance is often avoidance. As a result, many managers look the other way and sweep things under the rug rather than address them head on. It’s one thing to hold tough conversations with your employees about their performance, conduct or reliability (attendance); it’s another to ease into “safe” conversations that help them feel more at ease in delivering constructive feedback to you, their boss. Either way, it’s not as hard as you think to step up and manage, especially if you appeal to an employee’s best interests, which helps in setting expectations surrounding accountability while allowing staffers to find their own way of solving problems and rendering solutions.
Following are three approaches that set employees up to become more forthcoming and transparent about their job performance, conduct and commitment level to the organization. Try these to establish clear ground rules while making it safe for employees to demonstrate “vulnerability” in the healthiest sense by recognizing their own shortcomings while contributing to their own and their team’s improvements.
Employee coaching questions
The leader-as-coach model posits that great leaders ask important questions at critical junctures in the employment relationship. Such questions are intended to help people build self-confidence and a greater sense of self-awareness, preparing them for broader responsibilities and heightened job performance. They’re designed to build employee trust and engagement, and often sound like this:
- On a scale from 1 to 10 (with 10 being highest), how do you feel you’re performing in the broader areas of productivity, quality, reliability, customer care, accountability, agility, safety and creativity?
- What score would you guess I’d assign relative to your self-score and why?
- Do you believe you’re able to do your very best work every day with peace of mind?
- What do you need from me in terms of structure, direction and feedback, in addition to resources, to take your performance to the next level?
- Where can you and I partner to make things better for the team? What “missed opportunities” are you aware of that will build a stronger sense of teamwork and camaraderie?
- What should I consider changing about my own leadership or communication style that will help you and the team excel in your roles even more?
Establishing trust takes time and patience, but making it safe for employees to volunteer information about their own challenges, areas for improvement and need for greater (or at least different) supervision from you is always a great place to start.
Frame constructive input to the employee’s benefit
Coaching also depends on your ability to frame challenges in the employee’s best interests. If employees sense that making a change can benefit them directly over the long term, they’ll be much more likely to assume responsibility for making that change. Your conversation might open like this:
“Michelle, they say that the most important decisions about your career will be made when you’re not in the room. That’s the same for you and me as it is for everyone else. There’s something that may be missing awareness that could potentially hold you back in your career over the long term, and I’d like to support you with that, if I have your permission to share.” [Yes]
“At times, it appears that you can come across to me or your peers as combative and confrontational. You can also come across as moody and somewhat unpredictable, leaving people feeling like they’re walking on eggshells around you, trying to fathom how you’re feeling at any given moment. That’s a workplace disruption issue that can impede teamwork and communication, which is why I’m addressing it with you now.
“I’m not saying this to hurt your feelings, embarrass you or appear to judge you in any way. It’s simply how things appear to me from my vantage point from time to time. It’s also what some of your peers have shared with me. Can you think of any reason why I or others might have that perception? I’m asking because I’d like to support you in turning this around. I want to make sure you can influence what’s being said about you in that proverbial room at some point in the future when you’re not there to defend yourself. I can make it safe and have your back to turn this around now so that it never plagues you in the future.”
Hold employees accountable for their “perception management”
Speaking of perceptions that employees may inadvertently create in their manager’s and co-workers’ eyes, it’s important to state that you hold employees accountable for their own perception management. In other words, regardless of their intent or even their defense that others are being overly sensitive, your expectations remain firm, like in the following example.
“I have to hold you accountable for your own perception management, or the perception you create in others’ eyes, regardless of your intentions. This meeting isn’t about your co-workers’ being overly sensitive; it’s about your demonstrating role-model leadership and developing a reputation as a selfless leader who goes out of her way to help others succeed, feel more self-confident in their work and benefit from your years of experience. You’re responsible for creating a friendly and inclusive work environment, just like I am and everyone else is.
“I’m here to help you raise your level of self-awareness in this regard, but whether you accept my help, my expectations remain the same regarding your communication style and relationship with other members of the team. Please give this some thought and follow up with me by the end of the week to let me know how you feel about this guidance I’m offering and how I might be able to support you best to turn around this perception problem that’s been created over time.”
Expect some people to take you up on your offer immediately. Others may need a few nights to sleep on it; still others may not accept your olive branch or feel they need any help in this regard. Either way, you’ll have created an excellent record for intervening in this challenging situation and resetting your employee’s expectations appropriately. Michelle’s failure to demonstrate immediate and sustained improvement in her behavior may then result in further disciplinary action if need be.
All in all, these healthy, nonjudgmental approaches to employee turnarounds will benefit you, your company and, most of all, the employee on the receiving end of your message, because of their constructive, objective and selfless nature.