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Stop managing failure, give performance enhancing feedback…

Working with managers across a wide section of industries and sizes, one of the most common question I hear is: “What is the best way to deal with poor performers?” I now recognise this somewhat negative question as a human impulse that surfaces every time we feel threatened, uncertain or frustrated; our brains are just naturally tuned to be alert for what’s wrong with the situation in front of us.  This is a fundamentally human trait that helps us brace ourselves for a quick reaction: freeze, fight or flee.

I truly believe that managers are asking the wrong question, what they really want to know is “What is the best way to enable people to perform at their best?”.

Addressing poor performance is indeed difficult and sometimes necessary, yet there is much more potential in developing individual performance and it is this practice that managers should be focusing on.

Individuals perform at their best if they have 3 key ingredients:

1. They need to be motivated to perform.

2. They need to be confident in their ability to perform.

3. They need an opportunity to use their abilities for something that matters.

What I have found is that most managers are either uncomfortable, afraid or unskilled in providing  feedback that will get the best from their people.

The reasons are many: some managers strongly believe that “constructive criticism” is all that’s needed to help an individual to change, others don’t spend enough time observing their people behaviours with the exception of when performance go wrong. Some managers simply feel uncomfortable pinpointing negative traits and loose their people affiliation.

It doesn’t have to be that way! We know from sports that confidence in one’s own abilities is the single most critical attitude in delivering top performance.

We also know from studies in positive psychology and emotional intelligence that for individuals to build confidence they need 5 successes to compensate for each failure.

It seems obvious then that to enable individual performance, managers must reframe the situation from pointing out what’s wrong to reinforce what works.

Of course managers must also be careful not to turn performance-enhancing feedback into the empty doling out of niceties and endless compliments that sound contrived and hold no value.


So how can you get the best from your people? Here are 3 key steps to provide individuals with feedback that will really make a difference to their performance.

1) Provide for specific appreciations. The key words here are “Specific” and “Appreciation”, it is critical to observe individuals behaviours and explain in great detail how such behaviours have contributed to critical objectives and have generate positive outcomes. This step is necessary to build individual confidence and more importantly to reinforce positive behaviours.

2) Use the word “and” to connect sentences. This aspect of feedback is critical as it speaks directly to our neuronal centres. Most often we follow a nice positive feedback with a “but”. This construction is however so common that when we hear too many compliments we are naturally inclined to listen for the “but”. Conversely the conjunction “and” allows the following sentence to build upon the appreciations. “And” reframes what comes next from criticism to confidence.

3) Give a performance boost. This is the most crucial step, while in step 1 and 2 we have laid the foundations to build confidence to perform, step 3 points that confidence in the right direction with laser like precision by:

a. Providing 1 or 2 very specific suggestions that will greatly improve the individual performance.

b. Providing 1 or 2 tried and tested alternative behaviours that will generate even better outcomes.

c. Reinforcing the demonstrated behaviours and confidence by describing the potential outcome they will lead to.

In all three cases it is important to be extremely specific about why each suggestion and behaviour is important and effective and how does it lead to the final outcome.

The key therefore to getting the very best from our people resides in building confidence by reinforcing positive behaviours and directing individual strengths and abilities towards positive outcomes that will benefit both the individuals and our organisations.

Fabio Grassi is Executive Learning Director at IMI. He is a specialist in the development of team performance, collaboration and motivation. His approach involves the facilitation of tailored workshops aimed at the achievement of specific business outcomes. He is passionate about the development of ethical leadership through executive coaching. e-mail Fabio Grassi or call on +353 87 9183282


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