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SUPERVISORS AND MANAGERS: 5 Essential Skills for Employee Course Correction

lisa 1.1webAs you may know from my last blog, I just finished designing a workshop on going from crisis management to control management.  When we operate in crisis mode and an employee comes to us with a problem, we are quick to give the solution. The employee goes on his/her merry way and fixes the problem. A little bit later, the next one comes with another problem and so on. If the situation warrants immediate and quick decisions (i.e. is truly a crisis situation), this may be the best method of handling the problem. However, if it becomes the standard operating procedure, then you are establishing a pattern that not only limits your ability to be successful as a manager, but does little to develop your staff as well.

For example, let’s say Jon, our manager, has an employee that it having trouble meeting deadlines. Jon has a monthly meeting with this employee and finds that, yet again, she has missed a deadline on a project. By coincidence, Jon has just recently put to practice new project management software. He loves it; it’s helping him tremendously keep track of all his tasks. So, Jon eagerly suggests to the employee that he could purchase this project management software for her and set it up and that this should help her to keep better track of all her deadlines. She says, “okay” and Jon makes all the arrangements. What do you think happened? The next meeting comes and yet again, she missed the new deadline and comments, “I am having trouble with the software. It was a good idea, but I don’t have the time to put into understanding how to use it. It works for you, but not for me. Actually, it took more time away from my project and that’s why I didn’t meet my deadlines this month.”

If you want to transfer the accountability and responsibility for outcomes and build problem solving skills, you will need to adopt a new management strategy that requires a different set of skills. These coaching skills include: connecting, clarifying and reflecting, pathfinding, reinforcing and redirecting.

Connecting involves devoting your time and attention to talking with employees to find what they are working on, what’s giving them trouble etc. and asking good questions about employee work load and job issues. Connecting also requires you to practice attentive listening. Rather than being in the driver’s seat of the conversation, perhaps formulating in your own head what you’ll say next, here you are providing your uninterrupted attention to the employee. Based on the situation, this can be done very quickly or more formally in your office or some other place free of interruptions.  Remember it is important to be fully present during this discussion and be prepared to devote your attention and time to listening to the employee. In our situation above, Jon, our manager, needed to connect with his employee to find out what was happening with the project and what was causing her to be late in meeting deadlines.

If you tend to be impatient when you don’t hear the answer right away, your employees could be accustomed to keeping quiet and you will answer your own question and give direction. Remember: silence is okay. Telling the employee, “take your time and gather your thoughts; there’s no rush;” will let the employee know that you are expecting a response to your question. Then wait for it.

If you practice “Connecting” on a regular basis with employees, you will begin to gather some really good information about employee needs, their problems and concerns, and areas for improvement. You will also go a long way towards building trust and good interpersonal relationships with your staff. After all, surveys tell us that the most important relationship for employee satisfaction in the workplace is the relationship with their immediate supervisor.

Clarifying and Reflecting.  Clarifying and Reflecting involve asking the right questions to help the employee gain understanding of what occurred.  Reflect by saying, “What I heard you say is…. Or so, you’re suggesting…. or I hear you say the problem is…” Get to the root cause of the problem by asking, “what do you think might have caused this to occur?’ From your connecting conversation and your knowledge/experience, you may have a very good idea of what happened and why, but your goal here is to help the employee understand the problem and why it has occurred.  Jon’s goal is to help Claire uncover the core reasons behind the missed deadlines so that she can brainstorm better solutions that solve the problem and get her back on track. If, in the connecting conversation, Jon learns that Claire really doesn’t see a problem with missing deadlines, then he needs to create a discrepancy in that belief system that moves her to understanding why meeting deadlines is important to the success of the project and her job performance.

Pathfinding. This next skill involves transferring the accountability for solving the problem from you to the employee. Your goal is to help the employee identify options and choices for course correction, not for you to provide the answers. You can ask, “What are some solutions you see? Have you thought about any ideas for how to fix this problem? Or have you ever dealt with a similar problem in the past?” If you feel as if the employee is really stuck and having a hard time, ask: “May I offer a suggestion?” Wait for permission and then offer some ideas – more than one so that the employee has to discuss the pros and cons with you for the different solutions and choose one. Now it becomes the employee’s responsibility to put into the place the solutions to get back on track. If Jon had waited to suggest his new project management software, Claire may have been more committed to using it or he may have learned that this was not the best solution for the problem. In any case, the responsibility for finding the solution and accountability for its success rests with Claire, not Jon.

So, we have a game plan; we are done, right? Not exactly. In order to encourage the employee to continue to move in this positive direction and make sure the new course correction was successful, we need to provide follow up.

Reinforcing.  For positive, forward movement, it’s important to provide reinforcement in the form of praise and recognition. Although much can be said around these elements, there are a few tips to remember:

  • Praise as closely to the event as possible.
  • Be specific in reinforcing the exact behavior you want to see continue to occur; know the facts and where possible, witness it yourself.
  • Make sure the form of the praise is appropriate to the person. You may love “public” praise in front of others, but have an employee who hates being singled out. Having that person stand up in an employee meeting might be the worst punishment, not praise, and only encourage them to never do something that wonderful again!
  • Offer genuine and sincere praise. Praise when you mean it; over praise or praise for no accomplishment at all just makes your praise ineffective and phony.
  • Encourage the person to “keep it up.”

If Jon learned that Claire was struggling with her belief system around meeting deadlines and that deep down, she actually believes that she can never meet deadlines, he’ll need to purposefully reinforce the new belief system and the resulting good behaviors. He may, at different points, challenge her old belief system and remind her that she is now consistently meeting deadlines.

Redirecting.  If the first solution didn’t result in a positive outcome, we need to follow up immediately to address the problem again and work on solutions. This may mean taking responsibility for not giving the employee the right direction in the first place (knowing that the idea won’t work and saying nothing) or going over the task again to make sure it is understood.  Start from the beginning and work it through again. Don’t forget the belief-behavior connection; if you are seeing the same behavior over and over again and you know that the expectations were clear and the employee has the skill to do the right behavior, check on the beliefs around the situation. Those beliefs may need to change in order for the employee to be successful at the task.

Often, it is hard to slow down and commit time to this type of skill building. It does require changing focus from the short-term to the long-term and faith that the investment made today will better tomorrow. In what ways do you focus your efforts on the long-term and what are strategies for finding that time today?




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