When we think of performance reviews or giving an employee feedback on how they are doing their job, we typically think of the difficult conversation when someone isn’t performing. When we say to ourselves “I have to go talk to John about how he’s doing his job” it’s usually because something has happened that needs to be addressed. We are humans, we tend to want to be nice to people, to avoid arguments or difficult situations so we don’t look forward to these conversations.
But providing employee feedback isn’t just the corrective type, we often provide positive feedback, recognition on a job well-done, pointing out what is working well or even give out rewards and recognition for above and beyond (employee of the month, etc.) We could benefit from improving the everyday, specific, focused positive feedback on how an employee is doing their job. In order to do that, we need to have very clean expectations on what a “good job” looks like; what tasks make up the job and how to perform them well.
Let’s be honest with ourselves, how often does new hire orientation include a solid description of what is expected of you in terms of performance, what good looks like vs. not so good? We usually have the basics of the job, shadow someone and ask a lot of questions. We learn by doing.
Score a goal, do well, good luck… penalty flag
There is a lot of value in the “learn by doing” approach. However, without clear expectations at the start, it’s very much like teaching someone how to play a team sport by handing them the ball, telling them they have to score a goal and then let them loose on the field. They have no idea what the rules are or how to play the game, they watch their teammates and use their own experience and common sense. In this scenario, you’ll hear a whistle, see a yellow flag or a yellow card within a few seconds of playing. Learning how to do something by getting a vague set of instructions and then feedback when what we’re doing isn’t right is frustrating. Sure that person will learn how to play the sport, after 50 penalties (“right, can’t do that, don’t do it next time, try something else”) but how does that work for morale or learning quickly?
People usually want to do a good job and perform well (I won’t say “all” or “everyone” because there are always outliers). Most people take pride in their work and aren’t motivated solely by the paycheck; they derive a great deal of satisfaction at the end of the workday by looking back and feeling that they’ve done a great job. We may not all have a well-defined career path and vision of where we see ourselves in five years, however we do know that whatever we are doing, we want to do it well, be recognized for it and improve.
Without intending to, we teach our employees how to do the job through trial and error. It’s like we’re saying “I’m not really sure what good looks like, but I know what bad looks like so I’ll let you know when that happens and how to avoid it in the future”.
This is Behavioral Psychology 101 and Parenting 101
Most of you have heard of positive reinforcement, operant conditioning, and/or applied behavior analysis. The theory of behavioral psychology is that behaviors are learned and there are different ways to encourage behaviors and discourage behaviors; when you reward behaviors, they will happen more often.
For those of you who are, or were, parents of young children, you probably went through a phase of telling your child to “be nice” and then realized how ridiculous and useless that was. There are a plethora of parenting websites, many that are really good, that explain the importance of being specific, of saying the exact behaviors we expect of the child when we say “be nice”. It’s basic, good parenting 101 and I’m sure you’ve read it, seen it, practiced it and talked about with others.
I must admit my first child probably learned to say “up please” as her first word (she said it all together like one word “upeas”) because I got tired of this toddler standing in front of me with her hands up grunting and whining.
We prompt our kids to say “please” before we hand them something they want and then they start saying it on their own. How many of you have uttered the phrase “when you use your whiny voice, I can’t hear you, please use your big kid voice and tell me what you want”. If you are chuckling to yourself at your computer, welcome to the club.
We learned early on as parents that we let our kids know what we expect of them, what “put away your toys” or “clean your room” really means, they are more likely to do it. And then when we recognize and praise them doing it well, or doing a little of it without being nagged, they will do it even more. We learn how rewarding the good stuff, praising it and providing guidance on what else is considered the good stuff, we reduce how much yelling and nagging we do.
As adults, we need to know what those desirable behaviors are first (ex. Explain what a “good job” looks like with specific examples, tasks, outcomes, etc.) and then we want the feedback to fine-tune. Don’t let the feedback be the way I find out what is expected of me at work.
You don’t realize how often we managers give vague job expectations; what it entails, what you are supposed to do day-to-day, what a task performed well looks like and how to get there if you don’t know how to do it well. As a result, employees find out they are doing it wrong, are punished/reprimanded and learn what good/successful looks like because they failed and got chewed out (their perspective, not necessarily how the manager feels the conversation went).
Remember earlier when we talked about how typical managers avoid difficult conversations, that we dread having to give feedback to employees when they have made a mistake or done something wrong? Yet that’s when we have to give the feedback so that’s when we schedule the meeting or ask them to “come into my office, we need to talk, close the door please”. We’ve inadvertently set up our own negative, perpetuating cycle.
I’m not saying put your employees in a Skinner Box or treat them like toddlers, but just like we talked about a few months ago, we can all benefit from clearly articulated expectations and positive reinforcement. Most people love hearing when they’ve done a good job, and specifically what it is they did that was so good so we can remember it for next time. Otherwise we’re just a rat in a cage pushing a lever and when the reward comes (food pellet) we extrapolate what we did to cause that reward and try to replicate it (with varying degrees of success).
Next time you have a new hire and you’re explaining how to do the job (or next time your manager is explaining a task to you), pay close attention to the expectations being articulated. Do both parties really know what is expected? Do we need to ask more questions? Sometimes clear expectations can make all the difference.