One of the greatest challenges faced by many leaders is an organizational climate that supports a “go along to get along” culture rather than a continuous improvement environment. We all have a story about a poorly performing employee who got passed on to us because a previous supervisor found it easier to transfer him than to take the steps necessary to improve his performance.
Performance improvement begins with a willingness to communicate directly, honestly and courageously with an employee who needs feedback. The problem, for many of us, is that direct and honest feedback feels bad. It’s a lot easier to speak up only when we have something nice to say, and never risk confrontation or hurt feelings.
Kim Scott, a corporate coach whose resume includes stints at Apple University and Google, has offered up a useful model she calls “radical candor.” The two axes of this four quadrant model measure a supervisor’s propensity for caring personally, and for challenging directly; or what Scott calls “giving a darn” and “being willing to upset people.” What takes the sting out of being willing to upset people is having a high score on the give a darn axis.
Consider the case of Monica, a career employee with 25 years of experience as a contracting specialist for her agency. Earlier in her career, Monica had been an extremely high performing employee. Her contracts were flawless and her output was above average. Over the years, however, Monica had become bored with her job. A succession of supervisors had passed her over for promotions or lateral moves because they valued her experience and performance so highly they didn’t want to lose her. Gradually, almost without anyone knowing, Monica’s performance began to slide. Her attention to detail suffered, and her contracts along with it. Her most recent supervisor, George, was baffled by the contradiction between Monica’s reputation and the quality of her current work, but he felt it would be impolite to challenge her long-standing record of superior performance, so he ignored it.
The problem is that George is doing a terrible disservice to Monica. Now, not only has she been passed over for promotion by previous supervisors, but she is heading toward being unfit even for her current position, and George is letting it happen. What George needs to do is show, over time, that he cares about Monica’s well-being, job satisfaction and career trajectory; and at the same time, begin to be completely candid about the fact that her work is no longer up to standard.
How do you show that you care? By asking genuine questions about the employee’s personal and professional goals; “having her back” on important issues; and making yourself consistently available for discussion and support. Once Monica can trust that George has her best interests at heart, she will be ready to hear that her performance is no longer what it once was.
It’s time for us to stop thinking in binary terms about being nice versus challenging performance. You can do both at the same time. And as a supervisor, it’s your job.