We all know a version of the tale where a child brings home a report card filled with As and one lone B. Beaming with pride he of she hands the card to a parent and receives the following response: “what happened with this B”? The really sad part of this tale is that all of us probably know someone — perhaps ourselves — that had this happen to them and often as a child, and the scars still hurt.
As a manager, I have heard my fair share of this same tale from subordinates whose boss just never seems to be satisfied. In a recent conversation, for example, a subordinate told me how proud they were about regularly exceeding a numerically measured weekly production goal. Yet in a recent performance review, the subordinate told me, the boss chose not praise, but rather to question why that goal wasn’t being met on a daily basis as well. It did not seem to matter, the subordinate said, that they were a highly productive member of the team, nor did the boss seem particularly interested in trying to understand why some days were necessarily dedicated to numerous non-measured work tasks.
Was this subordinate angry? YES. Frustrated? YES. Did the subordinate feel that exceeding a mandated weekly goal was simply an irrelevant, unappreciated fact? YES. Was the subordinate thinking there might be a better place to work? QUITE POSSIBLY. Was this subordinate motivated to approach tomorrow’s work challenges with passion, initiative, and creativity? I DOUBT IT.
Now, in fairness, I have no idea what this subordinate’s boss actually thought about the performance nor what impression he wished to convey. Perhaps he had some motivational intent. All I know is that as far as this subordinate is concerned, they now doubt any level of performance is ever going to be good enough for this boss.
Providing performance feedback is a daily element of any managers job. Some of the performance-related behavior of your subordinates will warrant high praise and some will require constructive criticism. Regardless of the feedback’s content, the pieces you control are HOW and against WHAT BACKDROP your feedback is delivered.
In considering the how and the backdrop, it is wise to begin by keeping our human nature in mind. Praise, affirmation, and recognition for what we do well and for our accomplishments from our authority figures, loved ones, and respected others is a powerful motivator and strong encouragement for repeat performances. The best managers, accordingly, try never to miss opportunities to recognize and affirm the accomplishments — big and small — of their subordinates. Over time the message the subordinate receives is that, in general, their performance is appreciated and valued, and that many things they do are good enough to satisfy the boss.
Consider what might have been the outcome in the situation I mentioned above had the boss begun his performance review by praising his subordinates goal-surpassing efforts and status as one of the units most productive employees. He might then have broached the daily performance issue by asking what part of the units daily routine currently gets in the way of a goal-directed focus, perhaps suggesting a willingness to eliminate any unnecessary busy work. Do any of us believe the impact on our subordinate would have been the same?
And while we are speaking about human nature, remember from your own experience as a performance review recipient that one lone criticism — even one buried in a final paragraph — seems to have a proportionately greater impact upon us than a long laundry list of praise. It’s often the thing we will remember, while many nuggets of praise fade from memory.
The best managers intuitively understand the power and positive effect of recognition on their subordinates. They realize that generally what they see in most subordinate performance is good enough and that frequently 80 % is infinitely better than the time wasted seeking absolute perfection.
Thus the best managers create a relational backdrop with their subordinates — based upon consistent recognition of their efforts and accomplishments — that builds trust in a manager’s positive intentions, communicates the manager’s concern for the subordinates success, and suggests the manager’s willingness to participate in achieving that success. Against this positive backdrop, occasions where negative feedback and constructive criticism must be delivered are much easier for a subordinate to accept. We all know we aren’t perfect but we simply don’t want to constantly hear only about our flaws.
Above all, the best managers never leave their subordinates asking whether anything is ever good enough.