In a recent blog, I wrote about when dissembling might be appropriate.[i] So, little Johnny will not make it to the Majors: no need to crush his spirits at the same time. There is honesty, and then there are blunt and tactless put-downs. Professional football coaches seem to enjoy this approach. Political ads take this negativity to the extreme. In the short run, negativity works.[ii] But, in the longer run, I wonder. This blog is about the balance between accentuating the positive and holding people accountable.
- The Miracle Worker (Adapt to the Student)
Ann Sullivan rescued Helen Keller from her isolated world. But, first, Sullivan had to rescue herself. Suffering from an ailment that left her own sight impaired, in the 1880’s, Sullivan attended Boston’s Perkins Institution for the Blind, where she eventually yielded to the goodwill, but not the authority, of her teachers. Sullivan used this same approach with Keller, grinding down Helen’s barricades of fear, loneliness and frustration with empathy, compassion and a firm hand. “This understanding [from her time in the Perkins Institution] allowed Sullivan to do what others had failed to do for Helen: empathize with her student without letting [Helen] to get away with whatever [Helen] wished to do.”[iii] In many ways, Sullivan was a miracle worker – but in at least one important way, she was very pedestrian and normal: Sullivan changed her approach to fit Keller rather than the reverse while, at the same time, holding Keller accountable to learn and behave.
- “He Just Fired Me. He’s the Best Boss Ever.” (Set and Meet Expectations)
Many years ago, one of my clients, a website development company, had an IT manager who every employee revered, even those he had just fired. Notwithstanding a 50% annual turnover, in every exit interview, the departing employee praised the manager. At first, I thought it was an anomaly, but when the 3rd exit interviewee said the same thing, I decided to poll all of his then current employees. To a person, they said the same thing: “He set expectations. When we met expectations, we got rewarded; when we failed, we were warned and then, if necessary, let go.” Without anger or rancor, this manager told his employees how they should act, held them accountable when they did not, rewarded them with pre-determined bennies when they did. Both sides – the performers and the non-performances – enjoyed the predictability. It is not kindness to let people off the hook; it is kindness to hold them accountable in a calm and measured way.
- Don’t pick the prickly pear by the paw (Be Receptive if You Are On the Receiving End)
Many years ago, I endured a writing class where we had to audit each other’s work. I considered it a waste of my time – maybe the professions knew how to write, but my classmates and I didn’t know jack: that’s why we were taking the class! But I digress. As in every class, we had a problem student: Her. She was a prickly pear who snipped and sniped whenever we gave feedback. Pretty soon, no one wanted to touch her papers because who had the time or emotional energy to deal with Her. If your style is to constantly antagonize others and jump on their valid criticisms, you will be quickly become isolated and on your own. A desert island is a lonely place.
- Do Not Kill the Messenger (Encourage Employees to Present Bad News)
Many employees avoid delivering bad news, even if doing so might save lives. See, for example, the recent debacle at GM.[iv] Unfortunately, GM is not the only culture which discourages disclosing bad news. It is hard to deliver bad news; I get that. Business leaders too often confuse bad news with the messenger, exasperating the problem. Yes, the messenger might be the problem – “Mom, I flunked a test” – but if Mom or Dad screams at the child for failure, how often do you think that child will volunteer such information again? Rarely, if ever, which will only leads to deeper scholastic problems. The same is true in corporate America. An employee should be rewarded for presenting uncomfortable truths. We shouldn’t need laws to protect whistle blowers, but we do. Shame on us.
- Each long journey begins with a single step (Reward Approximating Behavior)
It is impossible for a 2nd grader to learn calculus. Ok, maybe not impossible, but in 2nd grade my kids could barely do subtraction; calculus was a non-starter. Accordingly, math curriculums are step-by-step pedagogies with numerous reward points (homework, quizzes, tests) all along the way. By the time high school rolls around, no one is getting rewarded anymore for subtraction. Similarly, corporate America should encourage and reward each step which comes closer to or approximates the desired behavior, eventually only rewarding the final desired behavior. Look, for example, to NASA in the 1960s. Each major milestone made headlines. By the final lunar landing, it was ho-hum 5th page news. Celebrate each significant improvement towards the desired result and stop lambasting your employees for not reaching the moon on the very first Mercury flight.
Short term yelling, firestorms and guilt trips do work, but only in the short term. The emotional and intellectual energy need on both sides is ever escalating as the parties habituate and the law of diminishing returns kicks in. While these risks may also exist on the positive affirmation side, they have not been seriously explored like the darker side has: I think we will be surprised how long positive reinforcements last. If you are playing for the longer term and/or want to lay a solid business foundation, I would recommend the following:
- Adapting your management style to your employee’s needs, using different styles on different employees
- Set clear expectations; reward good behavior; appropriately sanction poor ones
- When receiving criticism, put down your ego and open your ears
- Encourage employees to point out when the Emperor has no clothes, and
- Reward approximating behavior
Brett R. Keenan is a Business Coach and Retained CFO/General Counsel for Small Businesses. Based in Chicago IL, BRKeenan & Associates has helped numerous large and small companies with Finance, Law, Operations and Strategy since 1999.
©BRKeenan & Associates, LLC. November 2014