Deal with Employee Failure -- the SAFE Way

Have you ever worked for someone who seems to notice every small error you make (and points it out), but almost never says anything when you are successful?  We call this leadership style “The Persecutor” and we see it a lot in both industry and parenting.  We have learned by talking with Persecutors that they are trying to motivate people to improve by holding them accountable for their results, but the exact opposite actually occurs because of the way they do it. Employees become demotivated because there is no balance between positive and negative feedback, and because they feel disrespected in the process.  People need both correction (what we call “Redirection") for failure and positive feedback for success.  So how can you avoid persecution and create the results that you need?  We suggest that you use the following redirection guidelines when correcting performance.

  • Remain calm.  Emotions such as frustration and anger only make us less effective in thinking and communicating.  Most of the time those emotions are the result of a “guess” about why the person failed.  Avoid guesses and you will have much more control over your emotions.
  • Conduct the session in private.  One of your primary objectives is to reduce defensiveness so that you can get the employee to help you examine the reason(s) behind the failure and develop a “fix” for the future.  Calling someone out in public almost always leads to defensiveness, so make every effort to find a private location for this discussion.
  • Eliminate interruptions and distractions.  Gaining the full attention of the employee is critical for an effective conversation.  Make sure that you control as many distractions as possible and you will get much better attention from your employee.
  • Point out positive aspects of performance first, followed by identification of the inadequate performance.  Typically the employee will have had some success that you want to continue in the future.  Positive feedback helps to strengthen those behaviors, so take this opportunity to create repeated success with positive feedback.  Then point out the specific result, action, lack of action, etc. that you have identified as failure.  Avoid ambiguous terms such as bad attitude, unmotivated, etc.
  • Follow the SAFE* approach to giving feedback.
    • Step Up:  When you see failure, say something, but say it with respect.  If you don’t step up, then the things that have led to this failure will continue to create failure in the future and if you say it the wrong way (disrespectfully) you will create defensiveness and less desire for improvement going forward.
    • Ask:  Learn the real reason for the failure.  Was it motivation, ability, pressure, lack of support, etc?  Evaluate the total context that led to the failure before you come up with a plan for improvement.
    • Find a Fix:  Find a fix for the real reason for the failure.  Work with the employee to determine a way to create success in the future.  Don’t create the plan yourself, but rather create it in concert with the employee when possible.  This brings more ownership and more motivation for improvement.
    • Ensure the Fix:  Keep an eye on improvement and give feedback accordingly.  If the “fix” works and you observe success, then give positive feedback to strengthen performance.  If you observe failure, then work your way through the SAFE approach again until you find the real reason for failure and the right fix going forward.
*SAFE Skills are a component of The RAD Group’s PerformanceCOMPASSTM training.

Incentives as a Motivational Tool

Many organizations use both monetary and non-monetary incentives to increase performance.  What do good incentive programs look like and are they really useful?  First of all, when we talk about incentives, we are talking about the application of something desired by the employee that increases the likelihood that they will perform at a higher level.  The objective is to motivate the employee to perform a task/skill for which they are already competent at a faster, more frequent or more reliable level than they have been doing.  Incentives, as defined here are not used to teach, but rather to motivate behavior.  Good incentive programs have three primary characteristics that lead to success. 1.  The behavior required for success is clearly understood.  People can only be expected to achieve a result in a particular manner if they understand the standard against which they are being measured.  I remember once I told my then 10-year old son to “clean up his mess” after a group of his friends had been at our house for a party.  When I came back to evaluate his work, I couldn’t see anything different than before.  When I questioned him about his “failure”, he said he did “clean up his mess”; all that other mess was made by his friends.  I obviously had not defined the standard against which I was measuring his performance.

2.  The measure of success is quantifiable and achievable.   The result must be quantitative so that it can be precisely measured.  Qualitative measures (e.g. high quality) are too ambiguous and leave room for differences of opinion.  Leaving no soda cans or chip bags in the family room after you have cleaned up your mess would have allowed me to have a defendable measure of my sons success in the cleaning task.

3.  The incentive is something that is desired by the employees and is clearly tied to success. The incentive that is applied should be something that is seen as worth the effort by employees (or children, as the case may be).  If it is not, then it will not serve as a motivator and cannot be expected to improve results.  Money is not always required as an incentive.  In the example with my son, I told him that as soon as he met our agreed upon standard he could go outside and play basketball with his friends.  That non-monetary incentive increased the quantity of items that he picked up and the speed at which he did it.  Make sure that you have accurately determined the desirousness of your incentives.

4 Steps for Successful Career Coaching

Career development is a personal responsibility, but really good supervisors understand that they can help by being a career coach to their employees.  Here are four keys to being an effective career coach. 1.  Help the employee identify career goals.  Career success requires both ability and motivation.  Help the employee identify strengths and interests as the starting point to defining career goals.  It is not the role of a career coach to judge the appropriateness of the employee’s career goals, but it is appropriate to help the employee explore the consequences of moving along a particular career path relative to strengths and interests.

2.  Help the employee identify developmental needs.  Once a career goal has been identified, help the person assess the requirements for success and determine the requisite knowledge, skills, experience, etc.  Help the person honestly evaluate their current level of readiness and what must be done to move forward and to achieve their career goals. 3.  Help the employee discover barriers to development and develop plans to overcome those barriers.  An honest evaluation of barriers to personal development is essential to the development of a career plan.  Many times the employee is unaware of those barriers and needs another person to ask questions that lead to discovery.  Once barriers have been identified, a realistic plan of action needs to be developed.  This is the responsibility of the individual, but, again, asking relevant questions and appropriately challenging assumptions is an important part of planning. 4.  Hold the employee accountable for implementing plans.  This does not mean punishment for failure.  Here accountability is really tied to the “giving account” part of accountability.  The career coach should be there to ask questions about plan schedule and accomplishment and provide encouragement and feedback as appropriate.

The role of a career coach is that of “helper”.  They facilitate development, not dictate it.

A Best Boss Cares about the Success of Others & Is Honest and Trustworthy

We are now nearing the halfway point of a 12-month series describing the 20 Characteristics of a “Best Boss.” To recap, so far we have examined how a “Best Boss:

#1 -- is a good communicator

#2 -- holds himself and others accountable for results

#3 -- enables success, and

#4 -- motivates others.

This month we are tackling two topics that are integrally tied to one another:

#5 -- cares about the success of others, and

#6 -- is honest and trustworthy.

Supervisors are paid to get results through the efforts of other people so it seems obvious that a supervisor would care about the success of others. The fact that this is so obvious is why it is also so critical that we examine success and trust together.

Plenty of the supervisors that wouldn’t be described as “best bosses” think they care about the success of their employees. The problem is that they care about the success for all the wrong reasons -- and for the benefit of the wrong person -- themselves.

In order to fully understand this month’s characteristics, we will first need to examine what we mean by the success of others and then look closely at how honesty and trust in the process distinguish a boss from a “Best Boss”.

Cares About the Success of Others

In our April newsletter we discussed how best bosses “enable success” by leveraging their understanding of how Motivation and Ability create successful performance.

Caring about the success of others is an all together different issue than purposefully creating the conditions for successful performance of specific tasks.

Obviously career success is related to daily performance, but the “Best Boss” characteristic we are describing this month is best understood in the broader context of an employee’s long term career growth --something that requires a plan and effective execution of that plan.

This requires that the supervisor serve as a “coach” rather than as a “boss”, so let’s look at the role of a coach in career planning.

The Role of Coach in Career Planning

Coaching is a relationship in which one person directs the personal/professional development of another by providing instruction and ensuring that the other effectively follows that instruction.

Coaches are responsible for:

  • Helping the other person identify areas to develop
  • Discovering barriers to the other person’s personal/professional development
  • Providing instructions for the other person that lead to progressive development
  • Holding the other person accountable to following those instructions

In other words, in career planning the coach helps the person identify career goals, identify areas that must be developed to realize those goals, identify barriers to those goals and helps develop plans to overcome those barriers, and then holds the other person accountable for the accomplishment of those plans.

In order to meaningfully execute these activities, the coach must be:

  • a skilled communicator (February newsletter)
  • a skilled enabler (April newsletter)
  • a motivator (May newsletter)
  • effective at holding the other person accountable (March newsletter)

While all of these skills are important to successful coaching, the one factor that is absolutely required is “Trust”. This leads us to the second Best Boss characteristic that we will discuss this month.

Is Honest and Trustworthy

The person being coached in the development and execution of a career plan bears responsibility as well. They must:

  • Explain personal/professional challenges and aspirations to the coach
  • Genuinely entertain the coach’s suggestions about ways to improve professionally
  • Follow the coach’s instructions

The potential improvement derived from the coaching relationship is directly related to the degree to which the person being coached fully gives themselves to this process. Here is where trust comes in.

To see this more clearly, ask a few questions from the perspective of the one being coached.

  1. How can I allow myself to be vulnerable enough to share my aspirations?
  2. How can I expose my professional weakness without tarnishing my image?
  3. How can I know that this energy and time I am expending is truly for my benefit?

The answer to all of these questions is clearly trust. As a boss or as a coach, it is something that is earned over time and is based on three critical factors.

Shared Purpose

Both parties must be interested in achieving the same thing in the relationship, and believe that the other person shares that same purpose. This is true whether you are talking about a supervisor/employee relationship or a coach/coachee relationship. If either party thinks that the other is not interested in or actively helping with the achievement of a common purpose then trust is diminished.

Mutual Respect

Each person must respect, and believe he/she is respected by, the other person. One of the primary ways that respect is demonstrated is by taking the time to listen to each other in an attempt to completely understand before giving advice.

Additionally, any perception of condescension from the coach will drastically undermine the willingness of the coachee to be vulnerable and share the existence of shortcomings or obstacles that reside below the surface.

Confidence and Confidentiality

This is the willingness and ability to confide in each other and depend on the candid, truthful feedback from the other. Failure to maintain confidentiality is a sure way to diminish confidence and trust in a relationship and is very difficult to overcome.

Best Boss Bottom Line

Best Bosses understand the critical need for employee trust as a basis for maintaining a position of influence in both supervisory and coaching relationships. Unfortunately for some, trust cannot be purchased and the factors that lead to trust cannot be faked. In order to impact long-term employee performance, the way only a Best Boss can, you must genuinely care about the success of others -- for the sake of others. Only then will employees see that it is safe to open up to the process of being coached and allow you both to reap the rewards of their efforts.

Building Effective Relationships Through Mentoring & Coaching

In our last blog we discussed the importance of building relationship with employees so that you can more effectively motivate them to perform.  Now let’s talk about how to build that relationship.  

Supervisors play two basic roles with employees: Mentor and Coach.  So what is the difference?

Mentoring is a relationship in which one person facilitates the development of another by sharing knowledge, perspectives and insights from past experiences.  This is accomplished by helping the person being mentored recognize areas to improve, discover barriers to improvement, provide guidance by sharing knowledge, perspectives and insights from past experience, and helping the person adapt perspectives and insights to his or her specific circumstances.

Coaching is a relationship in which one person directs the personal/professional development of another by providing instruction and ensuring that the other effectively follows that instruction.  This is done by helping the person being coached identify areas to develop, discovering barriers to development, providing instructions for development and holding the other person accountable to following those instructions.

Both of these roles are based on trust through shared purpose and mutual respect.  As trust grows, the relationship grows and as the relationship grows, influence and the ability to motivate increases.  Best bosses know when and how to build relationships by mentoring and coaching.

4 Meaningful Ways to Give Positive Feedback

Positive feedback strengthens performance and increases the likelihood of repeated success.  Really effective supervisors use more positive feedback than they do negative feedback.  Here are four ways to use positive feedback successfully.

1. Give positive feedback in front of peers, but make sure that it is done in a manner that is not embarrassing to the person.

2. Explain “why” you are pleased with their performance. Make sure the person understands the relationship between their performance and the success of the team when possible.

3. Place a “letter of commendation” in the person’s personnel file and make sure that the individual has a copy of the letter.

4. Note their successes as part of their performance review so that the person can see the connection between specific successes and your evaluation of overall performance.

A Best Boss Enables Success

In this series, we are looking at the list of Top 20 “Best Boss” Characteristics. So far we have seen that a Best Boss: #1 -- Is a Good Communicator

#2 -- Holds Himself and Others Accountable for Results.

Now let’s examine #3 -- A “Best Boss” Enables Success.

Defining Success

To understand how a Best Boss enables or creates the conditions for success, we must first describe what we mean by success. For our purpose, success and failure are measures of performance against clearly communicated expectations or standards.

This means we will need to look closely at what drives performance and how best to give feedback that will sustain excellent performance or make necessary improvement more likely.

Performance = Motivation + Ability

Ability and motivation are inextricably tied together and are both required for success. Best Bosses understand that:

Ability contributes to motivation through increased confidence Intrinsic (internal) motivation increases as self esteem (confidence) grows.

The Role of Motivation

Confident employees are more likely to show initiative and to achieve desired results, so what should a Best Boss do to build confidence in his or her employees?

First off, recognize these two steps for building self esteem:

Successful accomplishment of something meaningful to the individual Recognition for that accomplishment from a significant person. Bosses are significant to employees, so Best Bosses “engineer” situations that allow employees to be challenged (meaningful) but successful (accomplishment) and then follow that accomplishment with appropriate positive feedback (recognition by a significant person).

The Role of Ability

Delegation and training are tied directly to ability. Best bosses know the skill (ability) level of each employee and either provide...

Appropriate delegation to those who are able, or Training (usually on-the-job) for those who need more development. Best Bosses are constantly looking for new opportunities to provide meaningful challenges to employees, but are also aware that employees need success for development of self esteem and the motivation that comes with it. They use delegation and training to create an environment that enables success.

The Contribution of Feedback

After delegating or training, Best Bosses follow-up with the employee to ensure that the plan is continuing to work. The feedback the employee receives in that moment is going to impact their immediate performance and also their future performance.

Feedback for Meeting or Exceeding Expectations

If performance meets or exceeds expectations, Best Bosses give appropriate, positive feedback (a form of extrinsic motivation) to increase the chances that the same good performance will occur again in the future.

Feedback for Not Meeting Expectations

If performance is below expectations, Best Bosses re-direct to get performance back on track and reduce the chances of failure in the future.

Best bosses never set employees up for failure, but when failure occurs, they use it as an opportunity to evaluate what caused the failure without immediately blaming the person for the failure.

Best bosses don’t assume that failure is always the result of poor motivation, but take the time to look for other factors such as knowledge, skill, support, pressure from others, etc. Once they find the real reason behind the failure, they work with (re-direct) the employee to develop a plan for eliminating the failure in the future.

Best Boss Bottom Line

The work place is not a feel-good, kids’ sports league where everyone gets a trophy for showing up. In reality, success and failure in the performance of our jobs have real consequences. That is why Best Bosses are intentional about creating the conditions where their employees can be successful. They understand how motivation and ability impact performance and they use appropriate feedback to influence future performance.

3 Keys to Building Confident Employees

Most supervisors want employees who are willing to show appropriate initiative in their work - employees who do things without having to be told to do them.  How many of you would like for your children to clean their room without being told?  OK, maybe that is a little far fetched, but you get the idea.  We know from a lot of research over the past 50-years that people with confidence are much more willing to take initiative.  With this in mind, really good supervisors do everything they can to instill confidence in their employees.  So how do they do it? There are three essentials to building confident employees (and children): 

1.  Evaluate strengths and weaknesses

2.  “Engineer Opportunities for Success” based on those strengths and weaknesses  

3.  Acknowledge success to increase confidence

First, you have to honestly evaluate what each employee is really good at and where they could use some improvement.  Second, “engineer opportunities for success” primarily for the areas needing improvement, but also for the areas that are already strengths.  Remember, while we can learn from failure, confidence is built primarily on successes.  Finally, “acknowledge the success”.  People need positive feedback from important people in their lives, and as a supervisor or parent, you are significant.  Be a confidence builder and you will find that things get done faster and with less of your effort.