From a Behavioral Science Lens
The following are some takeaways from the amazing course Conversations that Drive Performance. Through this course, I was able to understand what is really driving most performance management conversations, how to improve these conversations, and how to ultimately solve the problem. For a more in-depth explanation, take the course.
If you have ever managed people, you have had to shape behavior. According to Behavior Science, this is done through reinforcement and punishment.
Reinforcement is any stimulus that will increase the likelihood of a behavior occurring in the future.
Punishment is any stimulus that will decrease the likelihood of a behavior happening in the future.
These contingencies are at play in our every day lives. However, there is a little more to it. There can be positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement. Likewise, there can be positive punishment and negative punishment. I know what you are thinking. Positive punishment? No, this is not a mistake and I am not being ironic. To put it simply, positive means you are adding something to the environment and negative means you are removing something from the environment. See, not so bad.
As a manager, you have probably had to call a meeting to deliver feedback to an employee that was negative(bad). Perhaps they were performing below standards. Is this punishment? From the lens of Behavior Science, no it is not. More than likely, for both the manager and the employee, the reinforcer is the meeting coming to an end. This is otherwise known as negative reinforcement.
Performance management meetings can be stressful for both the manager and the employee. These meetings are often avoided or escaped by either party. In this context, avoid meaning the meeting never happens, maybe the manager reschedules it, and escapes meaning that the meeting happens, but perhaps the employee or the manager says whatever they have to in order to reach the conclusion of the meeting. These escape and avoidant behaviors fail to produce a meaningful conversation. In turn, this will not lead to the desired behavior change and will likely result in more uncomfortable conversations in the future.
One solution is to utilize the Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). According to Association for Contextual Behavior Science ACT is
a unique empirically based psychological intervention that uses acceptance and mindfulness strategies, together with commitment and behavior change strategies, to increase psychological flexibility. Psychological flexibility means contacting the present moment fully as a conscious human being, and based on what the situation affords, changing or persisting in behavior in the service of chosen values.
It is suggested that you, the manager, should set aside some time before your dreaded meeting to consider your values. This may seem trivial, but according to past research, reflecting on values can significantly reduce your stress levels.
In fact, another study found that focusing on values resulted in a higher tolerance to discomfort, in which the participants received an electric shock.
With that said, at the very least, reflecting on your values can help you tolerate an uncomfortable conversation with your employees, as well as reduce your levels of stress before the meeting. I would say it is well worth your time.
You might be wondering, how do I reflect on my values? It is recommended that you answer the following four questions. The only requirement is that you answer from your heart.
Now it is time for you to meet with your employee. Here are your next steps.
1. Communicate what the problem is by referring solely to the facts.
2. Tell them what you envision them moving towards by referring back to your values.
Try to go toward something positive instead of trying to go away from something negative.
3. Have them repeat what they heard back to you. Try something like: “I just talked at you a lot. I truly want to make sure you understand. What did you get from our conversation so far?”
4. Thank them for sticking it out with you. Step 3 can be awkward or annoying for the employee, but it is essential to make sure they heard what they needed to hear and are not adding unnecessary relations to your statements. As relational beings, we tend to do this. That being said, do step 3 and 4 despite it being awkward.
5. Get to the root of the problem. Ask them what they think their performance problem is. Now is your turn to listen. Listen for solutions, actions, or skills they can improve upon. If something cannot be changed, ask questions about how or why and see if you can enable the employee to direct it to something that can be changed. For example, let’s say the employee says “ I have too much work to do”. You would want to ask questions about how they are doing their work and help them find more efficient ways to get their work done.
6. Solving the problem. Summarize the problem by repeating what you heard back to them. This could lead to them elaborating on the problem, which is good. You want them to dig deep. After the problem has been stated clearly, ask what actions they can take or not take to solve the problem. Ask how they can change their environment to be more successful. Your goal is to lead them to the solution to their own problem and empower them to self manage. This is also the time to offer solutions or guidance if they are having difficulty coming up with solutions.
7. Thank them for their willingness and participation. After a viable solution has been determined, tell them how much you appreciate them coming to the meeting and their willingness to grow. Reinforce the behavior you want to see!
One last thing to mention, these steps are by no means a rigid set of orders. They are meant to be fluid and provide guidance, but ultimately you must do what is best for you, your employee, and the organization. I hope you will consider leading with your values to help manage behaviors going forward. I know I will.
A special thanks to Behavior Science in the 21st Century for providing us with the content for this blog post.