Management by Coaching
By Kimberly Paterson, CEC
PERFORMANCE FEEDBACK THAT GETS RESULTS
Why your message may not be getting through and how to fix it
It was Friday afternoon, and Max had one more item on his “to-do” list before heading off for a long weekend. This was the task he’d been dreading all week—yet another conversation with Kyle about all the people he was upsetting on his service team and in marketing. Kyle was a challenge. He was an outstanding producer and well-connected in the community. Year after year, he was number one in new business. His clients loved him but his agency colleagues couldn’t stand him. Staff constantly complained that he was arrogant and disrespectful, and that he used his number-one producer status as justification for why his submissions should get priority service.
The mindset you bring sets the tone for the discussion. Positive emotions, like optimism, hope, and confidence, are contagious. So are negative ones, like frustration, anger and anxiety.
The past few weeks had been extremely tense; marketing had had it with Kyle, and his submissions were going to the bottom of the pile. Kyle was furious with marketing because they missed a critical date on a quote he needed.
The need for Kyle to improve relationships with the internal staff was not a new conversation topic. Despite Max’s feedback on numerous occasions, there had been no change in Kyle’s behavior. Unwilling to let the agency’s top producer go, Max was out of ideas and patience.
How performance feedback typically works
In coaching leaders, one of the most common challenges is finding effective ways to address performance improvement issues. In my experience, leaders typically use one of two approaches.
The first is the direct approach, which sounds something like this:
“Kyle, you’ve got to figure out how to get along better with the marketing department and your assistants. We’ve talked about this before but I’m still getting complaints. Sue’s threatened to quit because of the disrespectful way you talked to her, and the marketing department is upset because you went behind their back directly to the company because they weren’t moving fast enough.”
The drawback of this approach is that Kyle feels attacked. His brain experiences criticism of his behavior as a threat. His “fight or flight” system triggers, putting him in survival mode and overriding other parts of his brain that allow him to think rationally about the input he’s receiving. He responds defensively, arguing that a big account was at stake. He’s so busy defending his actions that he doesn’t hear a word being said. Max warns that the behavior needs to stop and that Kyle and his colleagues need to sit down together and work this out. Kyle grudgingly nods, signaling he understands. Things get better for a couple of weeks but then they’re right back to where they were.
The second approach is gentler and often referred to as the “sandwich.” The sandwich begins with a compliment, followed by a bit of criticism, followed by another nice compliment. Here’s how it works:
“Kyle, you’re our absolute best salesperson. Nobody comes close to your new business numbers. You’ve got to do a better job working with the missions. I’m telling you this because you’re such a good salesperson, and I want to see you achieve full potential here.”
The problem with the sandwich approach is it leaves Kyle with the message, “I’m really good. They need me; I’m the best salesperson they have.” That’s because people typically don’t remember what’s in the middle. Psychology calls this the “series position effect.” We remember what’s said at the beginning and the end. When the performance issue that needs to be addressed is buried in the middle, recipients fail to hear the message that they really do need to change.
A more effective approach
The good news for leaders is there is an increasing body of evidence on the kind of feedback that gets the best results.
Build trust. What many leaders miss is the role trust and intention play in effective feedback. Without a firm foundation of trust and a track record of genuine caring about the employee, crucial conversations about performance are far less likely to succeed.
Begin building trust with the employee from day one. The more your employees trust you, the more willing they will be to listen. When employees believe that you truly care about them and have their best interest at heart, the more likely they will be to act on your advice.
Harness the power of PEA. Researchers have identified two psycho-physiological states around which learning behavior is organized: Positive Emotional Attractor (PEA) and Negative Emotional Attractor (NEA). PEA taps into our ideal self. It has an uplifting, positive effect that increases motivation, effort, optimism, flexibility, creative thinking, resilience, and other adaptive behaviors. NEA taps into our feelings of inadequacy and others’ expectations of us. It is mood dampening and tends to trigger guilt and anxiety and make us less driven to reach goals.
The research shows that both states play a critical role in behavioral change but people who experience greater PEA relative to NEA are more likely to sustain meaningful change. Use NEA when necessary but use it sparingly. Sharpen your skills at using PEA as an integral part of your professional development process.
Here is an example of shifting from NEA to PEA driven feedback:
NEA: You need to fix your relationship with marketing.
PEA: You’re a master at building client relationships. How can you apply your talent for connecting with people to the team in marketing?
The second approach reinforces Kyle’s self-image as a great salesperson rather than focusing on what’s wrong with him. This relaxes him and opens him up to listening. By drawing on skills he believes he has, he will be more confident and comfortable in addressing what’s been a challenging relationship.
Focus on the forward action. When the topic is improving performance, most managers come to the discussion armed with specific examples of where the employee has gone wrong or failed to demonstrate the desired behavior. The problem with this approach is that they are acts that happened in the past. The employee can’t change what happened, and that’s an uncomfortable feeling. When they fear they may have lost esteem in your eyes, that fear can be so potent that it feels like a threat to one’s survival. Survival mode isn’t a conducive environment for a productive conversation about change.
Be direct and clear about what needs to change. Don’t soft-pedal it. If asked, provide a relevant example to illustrate your point and answer any questions. Don’t let the discussion stay in negative mode by dwelling on or debating the past. Quickly shift the energy of the conversation to what needs to happen going forward and collaborating with the employee about a mutually agreeable course of action.
Change the mindset. The goal of any performance improvement discussion needs to be learning. Avoid the so-called constructive criticism (code for negative feedback), which puts the receiver on defense and seldom feels constructive.
Instead, adopt a learning mindset. Use what didn’t work or isn’t working as an opportunity—not to point out someone’s weaknesses or establish blame, but to reflect on lessons learned and how the experience can be used wisely moving forward.
Teach a growth mindset that emphasizes that a person’s talents are not “fixed” and that they can be developed through hard work, good strategies, and support from others. When people are taught a growth mindset, they become more aware of opportunities for self-improvement, more willing to embrace challenges, and more likely to persist when they confront obstacles.
Find the motivator. Adults do not change unless they choose to do so. As many leaders can attest to, mandated changes don’t stick. It’s why you see people improve right after a performance improvement discussion and then revert to their old behavior.
Adults need to be inspired in order to change. That means understanding what they care about, helping them see a vision of a better future if they change, and supporting them through the process.
Consider the environment, not just the individual. When we analyze people, we tend to overestimate the effect of a person’s disposition and capabilities and underestimate the impact of the specific conditions under which that person is operating. This well-documented phenomenon is known as the fundamental attribution error.
In Kyle’s case, there were operational issues causing his frustrations and fueling his negative behavior. His assistant was covering another producer, whose service person was out on maternity leave. Service was slower, and Kyle had received several complaints from clients. Marketing was also struggling to stay up to speed. The agency had recently hired two inexperienced producers and it was leading to a lot of wheel spinning for marketing.
There was no doubt Kyle needed to work on his behavior but there were real issues the agency needed to deal with to calm tensions.
The role you play in the dynamic
If you’re feeling like your message isn’t getting through, take a hard look at the role you may be playing. The mindset you bring sets the tone for the discussion. Positive emotions, like optimism, hope, and confidence, are contagious. So are negative ones, like frustration, anger, and anxiety. Attention to strengths and how a person can build on them stimulates learning; attention to weaknesses smothers it.
When you stay focused on making the conversation about learning and the opportunity for growth—rather than fixing the person or the person’s bad behavior—it becomes a far more comfortable and productive experience for everyone.
Kimberly Paterson, Certified Executive Coach and Master Energy Leadership Coach, is President of CIM (www.cim-co.com), CIM works with organizations and individuals to maximize performance through positive lasting behavioral change. Her clients are property & casualty insurance companies, agencies, and brokers. She can be reached at email@example.com. Follow Kimberly on www.linkedin.com/in/kimberly-paterson and twitter.com/CIMChangeMinds.