Are We De-Motivating Our Employees?


October 2003

Are We De-Motivating Our Employees?

CIDMIconNewsletter Bill Hackos, Vice President, Comtech Services, Inc.

If all of your subordinates are wonderful, strong performers, there’s no need to read this book. If you have a subordinate who needs to be fired, there’s also no need to read this book. The Set-Up-To-Fail Syndrome: How Good Managers Cause Great People to Fail, by Jean
Francois Manzoni and Jean-Louis Barsoux (Harvard Business School Press 2002) should be a must-read for all managers who are grappling with the problem of how to improve the work of their weaker performers, people who meet the minimum requirements for their jobs but don’t seem to be working up to their potential.

It’s happened to all of us. Some of our people are just not working up to par. They seem to make more mistakes than our stronger performing employees. They don’t ask for help and sometimes even seem to be avoiding us. We’ve tried giving them feedback so they can learn, but that hasn’t helped. We’ve even begun to micromanage them because they just can’t seem to get their act together. We can’t understand their problem because they had good resumes and references when we hired them. They did a good job when they first started, but now they seem to be weaker and weaker performers. We are unhappy; they are unhappy; and finally, despite all of our efforts, some of them have quit.

Manzoni and Barsoux’s thesis is that many times the scenario described above is unconsciously caused by managers, with the cooperation of the very people we are trying to help.

People perform better both physically and mentally if they perceive that they are superior. The authors describe several studies in which people are divided into groups The only difference between these groups is that one group has been informed that they are superior or better than average. In both mental and physical tests, the group that thinks it’s superior turns in a better performance. Likewise, a group that is told it is weak performs poorly. The authors’ contention is that we unconsciously lead our strong performers to believe they are superior, thus reinforcing their self-esteem. At the same time, we unconsciously lower the self-esteem of our weaker performers through our lowered expectations, our efforts to help, and our tendency to micromanage them. Weaker performers reinforce their manager’s opinion of them because they begin to think they are weak performers, become hesitant to make their own decisions, and avoid communicating with their manager. Their manager then tries to give even more help and more micromanagement, creating a vicious downward spiral that may eventually lead to failure.

The authors point out that this cycle of expectations may start because of one miscommunication, mistake, or even a problem not under the control of either the manager or the employee. One incident may make the difference between a successful manager-employee relationship and a destructive downward spiral leading to failure.

Each employee failure is a great expense to our company as well as an emotional cost to our employee and ourself. What can we do to keep this from happening? Generally, a new employee starts off with a “honeymoon,” during which expectations are high and no negative incidents have yet occurred. Manzoni and Barsoux give us a number of things we can do to begin a good foundation with a new employee.

  • Frame the relationship. Too many times we follow a hands-off policy toward new employees. We don’t want to come across as micromanaging, and we want the employees to feel free to develop their own jobs. The authors disagree. It is important to frame the relationship up front. This is the time to set expectations and behavioral limits. Early on, employees will not take the manager’s guidance, involvement, and feedback negatively the way they would if it were imposed after a negative incident.
  • Invest in the development of relationships. It’s important for managers to build personal relationships with new employees soon after they’ve been hired. We need to get to know them. We must show our employees that we respect them as people as well as subordinates. Then, in the event of weak performance, they will be able to take feedback positively if they know we are concerned with specific performance but still respect them as people.
  • Resist crude labeling of people. Don’t label your employees in simplistic ways. Few employees are either weak or strong. Most have strong areas as well as weak areas. If you understand the strengths and weaknesses, you will be able to tailor assignments to the strengths of all of your employees.
  • Monitor your own evaluations. Don’t assume that your first impression or the judgments you make after an incident are automatically valid. Question your evaluations of people. Look for evidence that confirms or refutes your evaluations. Are there alternate interpretations of incidents? Are you biased in some way? Have you observed good behavior that may balance bad behavior?
  • Intervene early; ask rather than tell. If you perceive a problem, it is important to intervene early, before the problem becomes worse. Rather than give feedback, which may be perceived in a negative way by your employee, ask questions. Give your employee a chance to give his or her take on what the problem is. You may be surprised to learn that the feedback you would have given is inappropriate to the problem.
  • Get subordinates to jointly own the boss-subordinate relationship. The relationship between managers and subordinates is inherently unequal. Managers can fire subordinates. Subordinates have little authority over managers. That does not mean that it is inappropriate for subordinates to give input to their managers. As a manager, you should encourage a two-way communication with your employees. This is a measure of respect, and your employees may be able to tell you something that will improve your relationship.

After the initial phase of employment, the relationship between the manager and employee must continue. The authors describe what they call the “Twin Pillars.”

  • The Upward Pillar: Subordinates feel confident to report problems and ask for help. In a good working environment, even your weaker performing employees are not afraid to tell you about bad news. As a manager, you must respond to bad news in a positive way to encourage your employees to ask for help. When discussing bad news with an employee, it’s important to focus the discussion on process rather than people. Emphasize the future. At the end of the discussion, summarize what was learned from the problem. It’s important not to reduce the autonomy of the employee reporting the problem. As a manager you may get involved, but responsibility for fixing the problem should remain with the employee.
  • The Downward Pillar: Subordinates do not feel threatened by their manager’s feedback. You have already established a personal relationship with each of your employees. When you give them feedback about their performance, they understand that you are not criticizing them as people. They are willing to understand and act on your concerns.

Suppose you already have a problem with your relationship with an employee. Is there anything you can do to reverse the downward spiral? The authors say yes, but it is difficult. Manzoni and Barsoux suggest a six-step process for the manager to intervene in a deteriorating relationship. They suggest that a personal conference be conducted with the employee in a troubled relationship.

  • Plan a discussion with the employee. First, you should think through the problem. It’s important that you separate fact from emotion. Could part of the problem be caused by you? Don’t plan a meeting until you have confidence that you understand the nature of the problem with your employee. Then, invite the employee to meet with you in a few days at a neutral location (not your office!). Explain to your employee what you plan to discuss. Let the employee know that you want to help him or her to improve performance, that the discussion will not be one sided, and that you welcome any suggestions about how you may change your behavior toward him or her. The conversation must be two sided.
  • Come to an agreement on the problem related to weak performance. During the discussion, both of you should come to an agreement about the nature of the weak performance. Be sure to back up your case with facts and data. Do not use emotional terms to describe the problem.
  • Come to an understanding of what might be the cause of the performance problem. After you and the employee have agreed on the nature of the problem, you should both come to an agreement about the cause. Is the cause due to some temporary situation, possibly a personal problem? Could it be related to your behavior to the employee? Be prepared to genuinely listen to your employee.
  • Agree on what can be done to move forward. Come to an agreement on what action items both of you can take to improve the employee’s performance. Specify a time period during which these actions will be completed. Develop a contract for moving forward.
  • Agree on more open communication for the future. One meeting is unlikely to solve problems of weak performance. You and the employee should agree to carry on two-way communication to prevent problems in the future.
  • Follow through on the contract as part of the ongoing process. It is important that you hold the employee to the contract that was agreed upon. At the end of the contract period, both you and the employee should agree about whether or not the contract objectives have been met. Hopefully, at the end of the contract period the employee will have achieved a stronger level of performance. However, it may very well be that after this process, you and your employee may agree that his or her skills might be better used elsewhere.

The authors are not confident that this six-step process can always turn around a downward spiral of performance, but with the high cost of hiring and training a replacement, it is worth a try.

This book held my interest throughout. Lots of effort was spent defining the problems before methods for resolving the problems were suggested. I was able to recognize many mistakes in my own management style as a result of reading this book. I know that I’ll do my best to keep the set-up-to-fail syndrome away from my organization in the future. CIDMIconNewsletter

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