Jul 03, 2017

Low Performers: Punishment or Support?

When you manage or lead people, you know to expect that things won’t always be sunshine and roses. Your role requires you to lead, motivate, and inspire to get the results your company wants. Your role also requires you to be involved when people aren’t performing well.

In my experience, most managers and leaders have been taught to enforce consequences upon low or non-performing people. This “training” is usually from two main sources; parents and bosses. Think about it; when you give a low-performing person a consequence for their inaction, doesn’t it feel like the punishment you received from your parents? If you didn’t follow your father’s direction, you got the frown, chastised, and made to feel inadequate. If your mother told you not to do something and you did it anyway, you got the stern talking to and some sort of punishment.

You no doubt had bosses who acted similarly. I had one of my co-workers who performed very well and was promoted to a management position. The moment he received the news of his promotion, he immediately went into “Boss” mode. I overheard him talking with a former co-worker and now direct report. He was giving the “heads will roll” speech even before he officially began the position. He was doing what he knew, what he had been taught, by his parents and his bosses.

These same managers and leaders sometimes receive professional training. Unfortunately, most training that deals with the issue of low-performing and non-performing employees isn’t much better than what we received from our parents and bosses. They have “The Method” to deal with low-performance; 1) state what was expected, 2) state what was done, 3) tell them the behavior expected in the future.

Depending on the intention of the boss when this is done, it can feel like punishment or support. Most make it feel like punishment. Most bosses have the intent of creating fear. “If your performance doesn’t improve quickly, then you’ll be looking for a new job” is either said explicitly or implied. Why is it that parents and bosses feel the need to create fear, a very negative emotion, to get the results they want?

When they get upset with an employee, the manager or leader is coming from a place of fear; fear that someone or something isn’t going according to plan and that they have no control of the situation. Fear they will be made to look bad to their boss. Fear that their paycheck is being negatively influenced by someone who works for them. So, they react by trying to regain control of the situation with more fear. As the saying goes, “stuff” rolls downhill. And one of the most common – and most damaging – ways to create more fear is by punishing their people. The thinking is that this will turn around the person’s performance. Honestly, though, how often does it really work? Here’s what really happens:

Punishment creates and/or exacerbates the disconnection that may already exist between the manager/leader and the low-performing person. The person already knows they aren’t performing well. They’re already beating themselves up. Their spouse may already be beating them up because their paycheck isn’t what it could be. Their co-workers are probably beating them up because their the “low man on the totem pole”. The last thing a low-performer needs is the to be beat up even more. When they are, it pushes the manager’s/leader’s relationship with them even further apart. Which, in turn, makes the manager/leader feel even less in control and more frustrated. (See my post The Stress of Under-Performing here on LinkedIn)

Punishment makes the individual feel even more alone and more misunderstood. And when punishment is used repeatedly, there can be a serious break in trust. Even if the person continues working for the manager/leader, there will be a massive psychological divide. Because the person is being punished, they will put up a wall to protect themselves from enduring more pain, creating an emotional disconnection. Respect and trust are replaced with dread and fear. They begin to dissociate themselves from their manager/leader, their position, and the company. They polish their resume and begin their job search. It becomes like riding two horses at the same time, with one foot on each, they’re drifting apart, and neither one is being done well.

What is a leader or manager to do? What is the alternative to punishment? How do you express your disappointment and ensure that your low-performing people learn from their poor performance? It comes down to one key ingredient – Positive Intent. I don’t mean “put your troubles in a bubble and let them float away” type thinking. I talking about having the intent to help their people perform well and committing to a strategy and the resources to make it a reality.

There is evidence-based research that shows taking a positive approach outperforms taking a negative, fear-based, approach. Research on the way dolphins are trained offers us insights. Dolphins are showing propensity for higher IQ and definitely have a higher EQ (Emotional Intelligence) than humans. They are highly social, but if something happens that dissociates them, they can fall into a deep frustration.

This research has shown that when a trainer wants a dolphin to step out of that frustration and perform for them and uses force and anger, the dolphin feels that negative energy and retreats even further. However, when the trainer remains positive and supportive – I.E., taking an entire bucket of fish and dumping it on the head of the dolphin – the dolphin becomes so overwhelmed with joy that it breaks out of its depressive, dissociated state.

And when the dolphin begins to perform the way the trainer wants, the trainer immediately reinforces the desired behavior. They never punish; only reinforce. And, during times when there is nothing to reinforce, the trainer only seeks to create a little spark that ultimately guides the dolphin in the right direction.

Humans are more complex and citing this research is simply meant to open your eyes to see that there is always a choice of how to approach a problem.

Are you a parent? Take toilet-training as another example. Should you punish your child when he or she doesn’t use the toilet correctly? Or, do you reward and reinforce the good behavior? Any modern parenting handbook would recommend the latter. It goes even further; sometimes you reward even attempts or intentions of good behavior, right? If little Sally was on her way to the bathroom and didn’t quite make it, would you punish her because she didn’t make it, or reward her for trying? If you waited for perfect behavior to give a reward, you’d be waiting a very long time. So, you reward their effort, even if it doesn’t result in the desired outcome.

Positive Intention is all about creating an opening in the relationship. When a manager/leader takes the lead, and shows that they’re positive, supportive, and have the intention of helping low-performing people succeed, then they will see their low-performers’ fear dissipate and their potential emerge. Seeing this, the manager’s/leader’s fear of being out-of-control will dissipate, too. The starting point to building a high-performing person will be the agreement that no one has the intention of being mediocre or low-performing. From there, the possibilities are endless!

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+++++++++++++++About Dr. Edward Lewellen++++++++++++++++

Dr. Edward Lewellen is an expert in creating methodologies for people to learn to use their mind; their beliefs, thoughts, and behaviors, and put them back in control of their lives and become top-producers. He is a Master Executive Coach, leadership and sales expert, and keynote speaker for some of the largest global organizations.

Author of The 90-Second Mind Manager