Giving feedback on under-performance can be tricky at the best of times, but giving feedback on unwanted behaviour can be very awkward because it is often difficult to put into words. This means that many managers tolerate it and damage the morale of their teams.
So, how do you get someone who is often brusque and surly with colleagues to acknowledge it and change their behaviour? How do you get a manager who is neglecting their staff, by not conducting Appraisals or Job Chats, to recognise the importance of these vital conversations? You need some clear reference points to use as a basis for explaining what you want and emphasising what’s most important.
Discovering what is most important
Let’s take an example of Emma, a competent Trainer and Facilitator. She is due to run a pilot Time Management Workshop for a new and potentially very big client with a lot of follow up work. A combination of factors means that she’s running late but there is just enough time to get set up and prepared for the Workshop.
However, just as she’s approaching the client’s premises an elderly lady on the other side of the road falls and cuts her forehead quite badly. Emma is a qualified first-aider and it looks like the lady will need some help, she may even have concussion, but if Emma stops she’ll be late for her client and it is not good to arrive late for a new client especially when delivering a training course on Time Management!
So, Emma has a dilemma, a values conflict. It’s important to her to make a good first impression and to demonstrate that she can ‘walk the talk’ when it comes to effective time management, but it is also important to her to help others, especially when they are hurt and her first aid skills will make a difference and may even prevent more serious injury or harm.
What should Emma do?
It’s interesting to explore how your answer is dictated by your ‘Values’ – what you think is most important in a specific context. What you decide she should do next is actually based on your personal hierarchy of values; an often below-conscious process that we use to guide our behaviour in any given context.
Let’s look at how Emma could develop or damage her credibility and levels of trust with her new client, how she will maintain congruence and personal effectiveness . . . or not.
If Emma attends to the injured lady but is worrying and distracted about what the client will think about her poor punctuality, she will be conflicted and will not be as helpful and caring as she intended to be. This will cause her frustration, and when she arrives late she will be stressed because of what she thinks the client may be thinking. Her agitated state will probably prevent her from delivering a good session . . . and she may lose the client.
However, if Emma ignores the lady and gets to the client on time to set up, she may still have a conflict because she is distracted by all the ‘What if’s’ about the lady and that she should have, at least, checked that she was OK. This will mean she is not concentrating on the Workshop and will come across as distant and not fully engaged with the participants . . . and she may lose the client.
Let’s just say that Emma is clear about her Values of ‘Helping others’, ‘Providing great learning experiences’ and ‘Taking a realistic and pragmatic approach to what she trains’. The fact that ‘Helping others ‘ is very high on her list of values means it encompasses helping them physically if injured and helping them understand the principles of managing time effectively. She is quickly able to see that this incident will make a great example of how values dictate our behaviour and how having a conflict can damage our congruence and our power to engage with, and influence others. She knows that this incident will provide a perfect real-life example.
So she calls ahead to explain that the group are in for a very special learning experience and that while they are waiting for her to arrive they need to write a list of the ten things that are most important to them and put them in order with the most important at the top. When she arrives Emma is calm and confident about the incident and how she can incorporate it into the Workshop. The participants are highly engaged with her energy and passion for the material. They feel she is very genuine. They have a great learning experience and she gets excellent feedback with no mention of the late start. She will probably win the contract for more Training.
Agreeing what is most important
Whenever we are feeling upset it is because our values are being neglected, whenever we feel good it is because our values are being respected. The trouble is most of us don’t even consciously know what our values are. By acknowledging them we can become much clearer about why we are feeling the way we do, and choose the most appropriate and constructive response – rather than just getting angry which prevents us from being rational. This sounds easy but it requires some conscious effort to think about our thinking.
I do a lot of work with senior teams and their values. One of the exercises I do with them is to get each person in the team to list what is most important to them about working in the senior team. The most interesting aspect of facilitating the exercise is teasing out all the different meanings that people often have for common values like Professionalism, Communication, Support or Teamwork and more abstract values like Trust, Respect and Honesty. It is not unusual for three or four people to put up the same word but to have a very different meaning for it. Facilitating a discussion about it can be very powerful for everyone in the room. The discussion often gets heated when the team start to put the list of values into a hierarchy because people’s personal values start to come to the surface. It is very powerful, when the team decide on what they consider to be most important in order to work together to achieve the business objectives. However, it all becomes meaningless if there is no accountability.
Addressing unwanted behaviour
When a team or business has a clear and agreed set of values they need to be explained to everyone in the business in very practical terms, and senior managers need to demonstrate their alignment with the values in their day to day behaviour. People need constant reminding about how the values can be used to influence behaviour and Managers, including Directors, need to be held to account if they don’t set a good example. This is where real leadership shows up . . . or not!
I was recently facilitating a workshop with a large group of managers about the principles of setting clear expectations and giving objective feedback. It was interesting to see the managers recognise the importance of some fundamental things like clear targets or Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) and unambiguous outcome based Job Descriptions so they could use them as objective reference points.
However, the piece that most managers got stuck on was setting a SMART objective or standard for improving someone’s ‘poor attitude’. They struggled to find the right words to be specific, measurable and objective. While they were often clear about what they didn’t want, they actually struggled to define what they actually wanted.
For example, one manager was complaining about 2 members of a team who are always bickering and ‘just can’t seem to get along’, and when I asked her what she wanted instead she found it difficult to put it into specific, measureable and objective terms. Another manager was complaining about supervisors being impatient and dismissive of junior staff, but was unable to come up with a clear statement of what he wanted.
The solution was actually readily available but the Managers did not see it . . . yet. It’s about defining behaviour – don’t focus on ‘Attitude’ – just the specific behaviours you can observe. There needs to be a conversation with the member of staff about what is important to the business in terms of behaviour, and how their behaviour is not aligned to it. The business had recently developed a very comprehensive set of Values and it was interesting to point out how all the behavioural issues mentioned by the managers, could be addressed very effectively by having a conversation about the values and what they mean, especially in the examples of team working, and developing junior staff.
A clear set of agreed values can be a very rich resource for managers who know how to use them properly. But if there are no consequences for people who don’t demonstrate the required behaviours they become meaningless.
Food for thought
– How are you addressing the unwanted behaviour in your business or team?
– If you have an agreed set of Values are you using them effectively? Are you discussing them on a regular basis, especially when there are problems?
– If you don’t have an agreed set of Values, you may want to explore the exercise mentioned above: You can get the exercise from our ‘Useful Resources’ page, just click on this link and go to the ‘Templates’ tab, then scroll to the very bottom and download the ‘Values Exercise (Indv & Team)’.
– For a good overview of how to give feedback in a way that it can be heard, see my previous Blog on the subject.
– Beware of telling people what you ‘don’t want’, because the latest research in brain science now proves that the more you give people negative instructions the less likely you are to get what you do want. (For more on this see the blog ‘Are you giving negative instructions?’)
If you have any questions or comments about any of the above don’t hesitate to contact me.
Remember . . . Stay Curious!
With best regards