Business Leaders: Here’s A Simple Communication Strategy to Improve Employee Performance

In a recent leadership workshop participants were asked to share all the things their peers, subordinates and bosses do that drive them crazy and make their jobs more difficult. Two full flip-chart pages were filled.

Next, the same group of participants was asked to identify the things they wish they would do instead. There was dead silence for what seemed liked an eternity.

It seems to be human nature to focus on the things we don’t want, the undesirable behaviors that we wish others would refrain from engaging in.

Parents are notorious for using this communication style when attempting to obtain behavior changes from their children, and many end up stressed and frustrated by their lack of success.

Instead, parents and business leaders must focus on and consistently ask for the specific desirable behavior they would prefer to occur.

Although leading employees in a business or non-profit is not ‘parenting,’ when trying to influence the behaviors of direct reports and subordinates, it is still vital to focus on desirable outcomes. This includes both focus on goals for the organization and even more importantly focusing on desirable behaviors of our team members.

Most people can articulate quickly and clearly the behaviors that drive them crazy. The behaviors they wish their co-workers, bosses, significant others or children would stop doing. There seems to be no end to the list of these undesirable behaviors.

There are three problems with this approach.

  1. It focuses everyone’s energy on the behavior that is undesirable and wherever your focus goes, that thing grows.
  1. It lacks specificity and asks the person being told what “not to do” to mind-read and guess as to the specific desirable action(s). For the individual it’s a trial and error approach until they figure out through environmental feedback the acceptable behavior.
  1. There is no positive reinforcement when an employee does engage in the desirable behavior so it can be repeated. Many leaders wrongly believe that if someone is doing things right they don’t need to comment since the individual is doing things correctly. They assume they only need to address and correct undesirable behavior so that’s where the focus and comments go. This can be a very demoralizing approach for the subordinate.

Whenever providing feedback to request a change in behavior to achieve greater, more positive results, it is vital to communicate with a focus on the new, desirable behaviors and actions.

Here is a three-step exercise to help you transform any list of undesirable behavior into the preferred desirable behavior:

  1. On a sheet of paper draw a line straight down the center of the page, making two columns. Label the left column “Undesirable Behaviors.” Label the right column “Desirable Behaviors.”
  1. In the left column write a list of the things that you wish people would stop doing, all the undesirable behaviors that drive you crazy.
  1. In right hand column write the alternative desirable behavior you would prefer to have people engage in. Ask yourself “what do I wish they would do instead?” There must be at least one alternative desirable behavior for each undesirable in the left hand column.

When you focus on desirable behavior it gives you something measureable. It is easier to judge if the desirable behavior was fulfilled. Trying to prove a negative, that something you didn’t want to happen didn’t happen, is much more challenging, it’s subjective and can be open to debate.

Additionally, catch people doing things right. Make specific comments regarding what you liked about the actions an employee took to complete a project or task. Tell them you’d like to see more of that type of behavior. This will reinforce positive behavior and make it more likely it will be repeated.

Failure to focus on desirable behaviors when communicating is just one of “The 7 Deadly Sins of Organizational Leadership Communication.” If you or other leaders in your organization are struggling to get greater results from your personnel at any level, the problem can be just one of two things, either habits of communication or how performance is managed throughout the organization.

© 2010 – 2015, Skip Weisman. All rights reserved.