Last week I presented to a group of dairy farmers. And by ‘dairy farmers’, I mean a group of business leaders whose businesses just happened to be dairy farms. I rarely meet people who are so professional AND passionate AND successful. The presentation went well. Laughs occurred where they were supposed to and some where they weren’t, yet it turned out for the best. Questions and comments afterwards indicated that they got a lot of value out of it and it would make a difference to them. One guy asked me a curly question though.
It wasn’t a negative question and he precursored it with all the things you’d expect an experienced and positive manager of people to say. He clearly had bought into employee engagement’s value to his business, along with goal setting and performance management (done the right way!) and feedback and so forth. He knew what a KPI was and he wasn’t afraid to use it. His question was, “What can I do about Sleepy?”
To be honest, it is a question I hear a lot in various forms. Almost all supervisors and managers I meet (and potential supervisors and managers) aren’t too worried about most people. They worry about negative or angry people. They worry about conflict. I’m sure I did too back in the day. Funny thing though, is that they’re relatively easy to deal with. Negative non-performers are obvious and a problem that you’re motivated to deal with. If it is 3-strikes-and-you’re-out level of serious then there’s a fairly prescribed path to follow in law and HR policy. I think the tough ones are like ‘Sleepy.’ Often not obvious, not a squeaky wheel demanding immediate attention yet potentially quite a drain on productivity down the line. There are clues like absenteeism, reduced participation and so forth but a pretty obvious clue is that they have a nickname like ‘Sleepy.’
Sleepy wasn’t avoiding work or doing it below expected standards. The farmer saw him as lacking drive, initiative, repeating mistakes, being ‘blinkered’ and generally operating to the letter of the law.
Sleepy had an actual name but his nickname was Sleepy. I wondered if it might be that quirky nicknaming thing where you do the opposite like calling a redhead ‘Bluey.’ Nope.
I asked my usual range of triage questions of my farmer. What have you done so far? What’s worked? What hasn’t? Tell me about ‘Sleepy.’ Have there been times you have seen him motivated? What caused that state?
My farmer didn’t tag Sleepy as a problem child. Quite the reverse, he was an above-average performer but my farmer was frustrated because he knew Sleepy was capable of so much more and the farmer wanted to move him towards that ‘so much more’, partly to improve results at his own farm but also for the sake of Sleepy himself.
I’ll ask you all the same question. What can we do about the Sleepys (Sleepies?) of this world? I’m giving it some thought and my next few blog entries will tackle aspects of my answer. I’ll probably start by thinking back to when I was that guy.
Leaders, managers, supervisors – all those who are charged with the responsibility of producing improved results through other people – are constantly on the look-out for ways to provide behaviour reinforcement to those people. Why? Because, for their entire careers, that’s what they’ve been taught is the smart thing to do. Maybe they’ve even had some experience of it working. Carrots and sticks, positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, punishment and extinction (look it up.) It sounds plausible – reward the behaviours we want more of and disincentify those we want less, or none, of. Antecedent, behaviour and consequence. To this approach, in general terms I say, “Yeah Nah.”
Christopher Shea recently blogged briefly in the Wall Street Journal about rewards – gifts for staff for performances rendered. It’s interesting. It references a German economist’s study of the relative effectiveness of little cash rewards versus little equivalent gifty rewards. The moral of the story and it’s hard to argue with this = it’s the thought that counts. Check it out.
If you’re in a leadership role & you’re seriously considering slapping a $7 coffee mug on someone’s desk for “doing a bang-up job and just being a real trooper”, then maybe you should stop reading blogs about leadership and start reading fortunes in chicken entrails? That way you might be awakened to the possible future consequences of such a dog-treat approach to motivating people. If it’s the thought that counts (and it is) then give the thought via ongoing, sincere, specific, esteem-building, behaviour-based and timely feedback. Put the $7 in a jar. Soon enough, it’ll add up to a morning tea team soiree which is probably more effective than individual tokens which may do more harm than good.
Interesting as it was, that study was even more so after some recent reading I’ve been doing on the lie that is behavioral reinforcement in the workplace. Employees are grown-up human beings not kids or dogs. Chucking them a treat is supposed to reinforce ongoing performance improvement? I think that is true sometimes and people in robotic linear task-oriented jobs may well respond to these if they are done well.
Neverthless, if you have ordered 144 coffee mugs printed with the slogan, ‘You don’t have to be mired in 19th century management thinking to work here but it helps’ you may as well distribute them to your team – assuming they haven’t left for better jobs at the performing seals’ circus.
I’m a member of the Global Speakers federation group on LinkedIn. A discussion got started asking the question, “How To Offer Feedback Without Hurting People?” Well, that got me thinking. I’m always working with diverse ranges of people. Most are leaders of sorts with a genuine desire to develop. They are there willingly, often proactively getting themselves booked and there. They’d be disappointed, even angry, if they didn’t get feedback as without it, that arena where we don’t know ourselves but others do remains invisible to us.
However, I still do work with groups that are there because they have to be – the boss made them. Not quite ordered to attend by the courts but the next best (worst) thing attitude-wise for new trainers starting out, or at least they might think it is. (It isn’t.)
Marlene and Stephen from the LinkedIn group were right on in making the first step getting permission from the intended recipient of the feedback. That said, even if they don’t want feedback, they may still need feedback and if it’s your role to provide it, you still should. At least you know from seeking permission what their likely response could be and you can work around it.
For most standard training situations, most people are there to learn and open to feedback. We should have framed feedback early on as an essential component in our ongoing personal and professional development and if we did that well, then no worries. I generally use a format of STOP, START, CONTINUE which covers the whole corrective:supportive ratio requirements. (Yes, I use terms like ‘corrective’ and ‘supportive’ rather than ‘bad’ and ‘good’ or even ‘negative’ and ‘positive’. To me feedback is just information, using judgemental labels like positive and negative doesn’t help. They’ll add their own emotions to it.) Ideally, I’d try and get people to assess their own performance first against predefined and objective standards. Did they demonstrate the skill rather than did I think what they did was right or wrong.
Kind of an oldie but I like the simple B.E.S.T when it comes to feedback, on the job or in training or in life generally – describe a Behaviour, take their self Esteem into account, be Specific and make it Timely.
Feedback falling on deaf ears needs a witty saying like that tree that falls in the empty forest. I worked with a guy once who claimed to have had 20 years of retail experience but from his performance and attitude, we could all see that he’d actually had one year of retail experience twenty times….