Enabling Versus Empowering in the Workplace

Do you have employees who are poor performers or who don’t get along with others who have been in your organization for too long?  Why?

There is no reason why an employer should continue to tolerate employees who continually produce substandard work, exhibit unsatisfactory attendance, or who behave badly as a general rule.  Yet, most employers have at least a few of these employees.  The sad fact is that employers have no one to blame but themselves.  Even in the public sector, where employees are entitled to “due process” before they are fired or demoted, it is very do-able to address the performance and behavior issues and terminate an unproductive or badly behaved employee.

The issue for most organizations is co-dependent managers, who would rather be liked than to hold employees accountable.  Another word for it is “enabling”.  Enabling is behavior that insidiously encourages the “bad” employee to continue being bad.  It’s the same dynamic between loved ones and an addict, which prevents the addict from addressing her addiction –like allowing drug use in your home or giving the alcoholic money for rent because she used the rent money to buy booze.  If you are “walking on eggshells” around an employee in your organization and avoiding a necessary conversation about unmet expectations, chances are, you are part of an enabling dynamic.

Enabling is behavior that prevents or interferes with holding the employee accountable to acquire new competencies.  It keeps her stuck in her unproductive performance and poor behavior.  Enabling keeps the employee believing she has no power or control over her life events, her work, and her self-efficacy.  The result is that the manager becomes complicit in reinforcing old or mal-adaptive behavior such as procrastination or passivity by not expecting more.  In short, a co-dependent manager is silently communicating that the “bad” employee is not capable of changing and is not capable of taking responsibility for her performance or her actions.

What does this look like?  Looking the other way when the employee mistreats a customer or co-worker.  Talking yourself out of addressing an issue as you pretend “it isn’t that bad”.  Giving the employee adequate performance reviews, so you don’t have to justify your observations of inadequate performance.

By avoiding any negative impact to herself, the manager who enables a “bad” employee is forgetting her duty to the organization that relies on productivity to succeed and to the rest of the employees who are meeting company expectations.

Why would a manager allow an employee to continually fail?  Simple. The reaction the manager will get from an underperformer when addressing work issues is not going to be pleasant.  Like the addict or alcoholic, the enabled employee will most likely have an emotional outburst that deflects the attention away from herself as she points the finger at others, including at the manager.  Not a comfortable place to be.  In short, it’s just easier to tolerate the substandard employee and hope it doesn’t get any worse than it already is.

The healthier way of dealing with the substandard employee is to expect more of her by empowering her.  But this takes guts, an acknowledgment that it’s your job as a manager to do this, and a belief that it is better to respected than to be liked.

Empowering is behavior that expects the employee to acquire new competencies for better performance.  It increases the employee’s sense of control or power over a situation, and encourages the learning of new coping abilities to replace maladaptive behavior.

What does empowering look like?  Good old-fashioned management:  1)Talk to the employee about what you are experiencing, giving her a chance to explain; 2) Restate your expectation for what acceptable work product or behavior looks like; 3) Offer or require training if appropriate for the issue at hand; 4)  If applicable to the situation, ask the employee for options for how she can do things differently to achieve the results you expect; 4) Follow up and follow through with the employee to make sure the necessary changes are taking place; 5) If the necessary changes do not occur, start summarizing your conversations about performance or behavior with the employee in writing, and escalate the formality of the written summaries from a warning to reprimands to a letter of suspension or termination as warranted and according to your company policy.

My best advice:  If you think you might have enabling tendencies, don’t seek a promotion to a management position.

Leadership: Celebrity Versus Character

With the Hollywood awards season upon us, the idea of “celebrity” gives me pause regarding my work with organizational leaders.  “You get fame. You create celebrity. There’s a difference,” notes Dr. Chris Bell author of American Idolatry: Celebrity, Commodity and Reality Television.  What is celebrity?  Celebrity is the conscious promotion of oneself.  And in American society we increasingly reward those who strive to be noticed and on display with media coverage and multi-million dollar deals.   It’s enough to make me stop watching “Entertainment Tonight” – well, almost.  But I have to admit that we consumers of celebrity gossip are creating this appetite for all things superficially juicy.

You most likely have met the “celebrity” leader in an organization at some point in your work career.  Well-liked . . . friendly . . . attractive . . . can make you believe that she agrees with everything you say . . .  that she is on your side on every issue.  Until you learn she makes everyone else feel that way, too.  How can she be all things to all people and agree with everyone on everything?  Easy.  She doesn’t have a sense of the value of her true self and seeks to feel worthwhile and accepted by creating an attractive image and/or convincing the world that she is something other than what she truly is.  A true chameleon, she is a master at adaptation . . . a true embodiment of Darwin’s notion of survival of the fittest.  There is definitely talent here, and we call it politics.  But those who survive in politics typically are those who have a talent for promoting and preserving only themselves.

Think of Jefferson and Adams.  To me Thomas Jefferson, while a brilliant man, tended towards the “celebrity” side of the leadership spectrum.  Quite charming and affable, Jefferson pretended that he had nothing to do with scurrilous rumors about Adams, a man he counted as a friend, which he paid to have printed during the election of 1800.  But Jefferson’s quest for the Presidency was more important to him than his friendship with Adams, and they went for 10 years without speaking to one another due to Jefferson’s self-interest in defeating his friend.

In contrast, John Adams existed more toward the “character” side of the continuum (perhaps to an extreme).  When the British soldiers, accused of killing Bostonians in what became known as the Boston Massacre, needed a lawyer, John Adams took the case.  Not because he was a Loyalist and certainly not because he stood to personally profit (he lost business because of it), but because he believed that everyone was entitled to legal defense.  He put his own interests aside to stand for a deeply held principle, defended the soldiers, and won the case.  Perhaps to a fault, Adams routinely put principle before his own self-interest and even lost the election of 1800 in part because he truly believed the unpopular Alien and Sedition Acts were in the best interest of the American people even if they were not in his personal interest of getting re-elected.

While politics is a part of every group, how prevalent should it be in an organization?  Not that prevalent, I say, because most organizations purport to have a mission about something other than individual self-promotion and self-preservation.  Self-preservation and self-promotion become distracters and, ultimately, attributes of individuals you can’t trust.  To me, trustworthiness is the very foundation of leadership.

So, those with what Iacocca describes as “character” are the leaders I admire and are those I try to emulate.  To me “character” is having an alignment of values and purpose that is apparent to others on a consistent basis.  You can predict what an individual with character will do next because their actions are in tune with what they claim to stand for.   An individual with “character” is focused on the greater good, and not simply on what is in it for herself.

Delivering Performance Feedback without Performance Evaluation Forms

feedbackI often rail against the typical, formulaic performance evaluation.  So, if typical performance evaluation forms aren’t effective for communicating a manager’s desired performance from employees, then what is?

Simple . . . a little something I like to call, “communication”.  ssuming you did a decent job of hiring a qualified, sane person for the job.)

I’m a big proponent of the adage a la Oprah that when “people know better, they do better”.  And for employees to know what “better” looks like, managers have to talk to them.  In turn, for managers to talk to employees, managers can’t be conflict avoidant (see December 2010 blog entry , “3 Reasons Why Being a “Nice” Manager is “Mean””).  So here are some tips for giving performance feedback to your employees:

Focus on an employee’s strengths.

If possible, assign employees to work on tasks and projects that will utilize their strengths.  They still must be able to perform the essential job functions, but when there’s a choice steer them to what they do best.

Communicate clear expectations to employees.

One of the biggest misconceptions managers have is that the employee SHOULD know what to do and how to do it.  Or that the employee interpreted the boss’s directions exactly how the boss intended them.  Wrong.  That’s why we have managers to make sure everyone’s on the same page.

Talk to employees about their work daily, weekly, and monthly.

It’s a manager’s job to talk to employees about their work, whether things are going well or whether there are problems. To do this, meet with employees at the outset of a new project to clarify your expectations and to get their input; check in with the employee regularly on an on-going basis to see if changes are required; and after the work has been done debrief with the employee to help reflect on what went right, what didn’t turn out so well, and what might be done in the future to achieve the best possible outcome.

Put your observations about an employee’s work in writing.

Whether an employee excels at the work or whether the employee’s work is shoddy, have a conversation with the employee about their work and put your observations in writing (give a copy to the employee).  Letters of commendation, letters of warning, and letters of reprimand should also be placed in the employee’s personnel file.

By following these actions, managers are able to create performance feedback that is more effective, timely, and believable than using the typical pre-fab performance evaluation form.

Want help planning out what to say to an employee about their performance? Get my Conversation Planner.

3 Reasons Why Being a “Nice” Manager is “Mean”

Have you been “putting up with” a certain employee’s bad conduct or poor performance for a while now in an effort to avoid conflict and be “nice”?

It never ceases to amaze me how often managers avoid addressing issues with employees, as though bring up an employee’s poor conduct or performance would be “mean”.  Guess what? That’s a manager’s job. when you are avoiding an issue with an employee, it tells me (1) you have limiting beliefs that are holding you back, and/or (2) you don’t know how to set expectations or correct an employee in a professional and respectful way.

In reality, avoiding conflict in order to be “nice” or likable is actually “mean”. It creates an enabling, co-dependent relationship that isn’t good for anyone.

You are being “mean” when you don’t address employee issues because you are:

  1. Preventing the employees’s acquisition of new competencies, instead of providing feedback that will help them grow
  2. Reducing the employee’s sense of self-efficacy and control over their work, instead of empowering them, and
  3. Reinforcing old or maladaptive behaviors, instead of encouraging new coping strategies or behaviors.

When you address issues timely and appropriately through healthy conflict and confrontation,  your company, department, work group, business unit, or team will operate much more cohesively. They will become more aware of their strengths and weaknesses and more likely exhibit the behaviors required to work together effectively. However, when you don’t approach conflict in the context of your responsibilities, your workplace becomes coated with the waxy buildup of poor performance and conduct that fuels unvoiced concerns, resentments, passive aggressive behavior, disengaged employees, and gossip.

Reflect on how well you are addressing issues rather than avoiding them. Are you really being “nice” or “mean”?

Want support for planning out tough conversations, so they are more likely to stay on topic and on track? Get my Conversation Planner today.

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The Myth of the Performance Evaluation as an Effective Management Tool

performance evaluationLet’s stop pretending. Performance evaluations don’t work. But organizations do them anyway because they think that if they don’t do them, they won’t . . . . well, I’m not sure what organizations think will happen if they stop doing performance evaluations. Maybe they think won’t look like they are “managing” employees. Well, here’s a news flash: performance evaluations don’ t help you manage employees, and by using them, organizations are dodging the real problem: conflict avoidant managers.

The standard performance evaluation usually has a grade-card-like section that rates an employee’s ability to do aspects of the job or to exhibit the organization’s expected behavior. Seriously? NOW, you’re grading the employee’s abilities in these areas? Wrong. The time to grade the person was BEFORE you hired him . . . during the selection process. Grading the person’s abilities AFTER you hired him is a bit late. If the person made it through your selection process and landed a job he can’t do well or at all, you don’t need a performance evaluation tool: you need ways to assist you in hiring hire better. At this point, you’re really grading how well your selection process worked.

Also, research shows that it’s really difficult for an employee to turn ability deficits into strengths. So what do we think we’re going to accomplish by filling out a grade card on each year? Not a lot. Oh sure, you need to document poor performance to justify remediation or eventual termination, but you can do that in timely memos or letters created after each conversation a manager has with the employee about deficit performance.

You see, the real reason organizations create and use forms called performance evaluations is that managers are conflict avoidant. Managers cross their fingers hoping maybe the form will do the managing for them. But the forms don’t do the manager’s work. And that leads to the heart of the matter. Because even if managers have a handy form to communicate their perception of an employee’s performance quality and ability, they don’t do it! They often avoid the tough news anyway!

In my HR career, almost 100% of the time I found that each performance evaluation form in an employee’s file showed at least an acceptable if not downright stellar performance. Why? Because most supervisors don’t want to ruffle feathers or rock the boat by subjecting themselves to the negativity that might occur when bad news is delivered to a poor performer. Conflict avoidance.

Well, in my book, any manager, who hires the wrong person and doesn’t take timely steps to address performance issues when they occur, ought to experience a little negativity. The issue isn’t about the employee’s performance level or the fact that the company doesn’t use a performance evaluation form.

So, whatever shall we do without the performance evaluation? Trade all the time and money used to create, distribute, complete, file and store annual performance evaluations for management training on how to hire the right person in the first place. Oh, and use a hiring managers’ track records of hiring sub-par employees as feedback when talking to THEM about their performance.