Leadership Lessons

October 31, 2017

Responding to Mustangs

Employees are going to make mistakes. A supervisor’s reaction to those mistakes teachable moments separates the most memorable and impactful leaders from the most memorable and scorned leaders. A manager's good intentions can be executed poorly as they navigate between micromanagement and building engagement and trust. We will explore three approaches and the potential mistakes we make as leaders when correcting an employee: 1) avoiding accountability altogether 2) annihilating the employee’s drive with aggressiveness 3) empowering the employee with appreciation.

Avoiding Accountability
Leaders who avoid correcting their employees do so in a variety of ways, but two common practices are evasion and passive aggressiveness. One can ignore the event or behavior altogether, hoping for the employee to self-correct, quit, or take action that clearly requires termination. This is obviously the least preferred method because it reflects a supervisor who cares more about the obstacle to the conversation than their employee's development and achieving a more desirable outcome for all. At worst, they believe that is the best that particular employee can perform; at best, it is self-preservation for the manager. Fear, pride, and inexperience are all obstacles that must be overcome to hold employees accountable. Feedback and performance management are an expectation of the supervisor, not a suggested best practice. Leaders cannot allow passive aggressiveness in the form of humor, sarcasm, or a combination of the two, to prevent them from delivering the full weight of a hard conversation. Check out more on accountability through feedback here.

Though it appears to leaders as harmless, information requests could be annihilating your employee's future initiative. Annihilation is a very strong work but it works well with the alliteration… stay with me. There are two common practices that can annihilate an employee's drive and creativity: addressing the issue disproportionately and failing to hear the employee's perspective. Leaders are often visionaries whom can see outcomes based on early indicators. This is a great quality to have; however, leaders cannot assume everyone thinks as they do. Overcorrecting a 'problem' which, at its root, is merely a misunderstanding or miscommunication can create a feeling of misappropriated discipline. For example, addressing a single issue as if the employee has already committed to a pattern of inappropriate action will be annoying at best, frustrating and disheartening at worst. Part of the solution is gaining the employee's perspective on the event.

The assumptions a leader makes about an employee's intentions or actions could be just as devastating as the employee's initial mistake. As the saying goes, 'two wrongs do not make a right.' Offering unhelpful suggestions based on assumptions can stifle future initiatives. A leader's desire for contentment, closure, or counsel should not override the responsibility to create the best learning environment for the employee. The leader thinks they are being helpful, while the employee determines the risk is not worth this hassle. A leader that creates space for the employee to share their perspective can prevent this easily. By asking questions first, a leader offers the employee a chance to provide context, cultivates a learning environment for both employee and supervisor, and the conversation feels more developmental than correctional. Depending on the questions you ask, an employee may actually come to your realization on their own. When an employee is not provided adequate space to disclose their viewpoint, they feel obligated to do so while being corrected. This only leads to more miscommunication and more confusion. The employee does not feel heard, the leader interprets their response as defensive, and neither walk away with a mutual understanding. Which leads to our third approach – appreciation.

First, appreciate your employee’s efforts, intent, and existence, and then offer corrective action at the appropriate time. This can be done by knowing what you really want, acknowledging the employee's efforts first, seeking clarification through questions, and delivering a clear message. We have already discussed how to communicate clearly with the STAR method and gain a mutual understanding by asking questions here.

Ensure you really understand what you want from your employee, for your relationship, and for the workplace. If you haven't already done so, spend a few moments self-assessing, reflecting, and identifying how you will clearly communicate what you really want. If you are unclear about what you want, you cannot expect the employee to interpret your desires for you. Conversely, if you are clear but unable to communicate those expectations consistently, you cannot expect the employee to feel encouraged and empowered from your conversation. Refer back to the STAR method for communicating clear messaging.

In the beginning of the conversation, acknowledge their initiative with a thank you. This may be painful depending on the actual circumstances; however, take the time to realize they have acted to make themselves or the organization better. They may have wasted resources, disrupted the cultural flow, or upset important people, but they did so moving forwards not backwards. As a leader, you would probably prefer to supervise a bunch of mustangs, which you have to pull on the reigns every now and then, than a bunch of mules, which you have kick constantly to get anything done.

As you transition to delivering feedback, make it known, "I would like to provide some feedback on…" or "Let me summarize what we've discussed so far…" At this point there should be a mutual understanding of the situation, task, action, and result. Now, utilize the STAR-AR method to deliver objective, short, and easy-to-understand feedback. “AR” stands for alternative action and alternative result. After you have established what you really want, communicate the alternative action that will lead to an alternative result based on the suggested changes in behavior or attitude. Even better, enlist the employee to become a think-partner with you. Ask them to develop their own ideas of alternative actions that will lead to an alternative results.

Much of a leader’s influence is determined by how they respond to “failure,” including their own. However, when an employee fails, leaders must be aware of how their reaction actually inflames the issue through avoidance altogether or annihilates an employee's innovation and drive. A leader must realize what they really want. Understand the obstacles that prevent you from holding difficult conversations and overcome them. Finally, acknowledge the employee’s effort, inquire into their perspective, and communicate clearly when appropriate. The STAR-AR method will help ensure mutual respect, increase mutual understanding, and address issues proportionately. Instead of unintentionally restricting creativity, collaboration, and discretionary effort, leaders can inspire, influence, and develop employees. Do not turn your mustangs into mules through unintended mistakes of your own; rather, through intentional sacrifice, engagement, and empowerment, harness those mustangs’ energy through appropriate channels.

Each month, the HR Center for Learning and Leadership spotlights an excerpt from a leadership publication. Recommendations for future leadership lessons may be submitted to BaylorCompass_