By Bruce Tulgan
Nobody likes confrontations, especially when it’s a confrontation with an employee you manage. Difficult conversations only seem to make things worse, resulting in hurt feelings or maybe even broken trust. Sometimes, if a resolution can’t be found, you even have to fire the employee in question. And that means yet another, even more difficult, confrontation. It makes sense that managers would want to avoid these consequences, and instead let small problems slide, in an effort to keep things moving and to keep everyone on good terms.
This is a very common symptom of undermanagement. Performance problems are avoided until they can no longer be ignored. But the irony is that small performance problems will always occur in the natural course of business, and if small problems are avoided until they become big problems, then a confrontation is inevitable! In their effort to avoid confrontation, managers guarantee it.
When receiving feedback on performance is a rare occurrence, reserved only for those special occasions when there is a big problem, performance coaching inherently becomes a negative experience for everyone. But when managers practice the fundamentals and engage in regular, ongoing, one-on-one conversations with direct reports, then they have a natural venue in which to provide feedback, whether it is good, bad, or neutral.
Your employees shouldn’t dread the moments you stop by to speak with them about their performance. I always say, management should be good news! The only way to make that a reality is to turn every small problem into an opportunity for improvement. And the only way to stay on top of every small problem is to engage in ongoing high-structure, high-substance conversations with employees.
Many leaders are afraid that if they focus on every small problem they will be accused of micromanaging. If a small problem occurs that is not likely to recur, doesn’t it do more harm than good to focus on it? It only does more harm than good if you focus on small problems to the exclusion of other important details – including small successes! And of course, you can never know for certain that a small problem won’t recur in the future.
If you are talking with employees about the details of their performance on a regular basis one-on-one, then talking about small problems – whatever they may be – should be something you do as a matter of course. Solving small problems should be part of your ongoing dialogue with that employee. If this is a new aspect of your management style, then there will likely be a period of adjustment for everyone. Employees may wonder why their performance was fine before, but is now no longer sufficient.
Be transparent. Let them know that you are adjusting your own standards as a leader, and that in this context, nitpicking is a good thing. It sends the message that high performance is the only option, that details matter, and that you are paying close attention. Not to mention it will help your employees become better at their own work, and that will have huge benefits for them over time.
This is not about perfectionism. Perfectionism is the disabling fear of completing a task, dressed up in the pursuit of an illusory quality standard. Zeroing in on small problems is about constant improvement.
In the course of regular guidance and direction, addressing one small problem after another is what ongoing continuous performance improvement actually looks like. Constant evaluation and feedback help you revise and adjust your direction. In turn, the employee revises and adjusts their performance.
When you diagnose a performance problem, the key is to immediately start focusing on concrete solutions. Describe their performance, don’t name it. Tell the employee what you are observing, specifically and in no uncertain terms, and then describe the performance you would like to see instead. Through this slow, steady progress, you help employees revise and adjust so they can keep practicing and fine-tuning. That is the heart of coaching-style management.