I didn't do it

So you’re a parent and your daughter has left the milk out for the third time that week … the milk is spoiled, you are annoyed.  But when approached, you hear those famous two words we have all heard as a parent … “Wasn’t me!”   In other words, I don’t understand why you are accusing me of something I DIDN’T DO.    Then ensues the frequent debate between mother/child as to why the action that occurred was not his/her fault.  Once this dialogue begins, you as the parent quickly lose control of the intent of your message … to change behavior!

Perhaps that is because as parents, we all naturally lead with compliance rather than cooperation.  We want our children to admit that they have done wrong and then not do it again!  However, if we approach our children with a request for cooperation first, we will see more success in changing their behavior over time.

What seems to make sense as a parent, however, is not always so simple in the work environment!  But it should be.  As managers, we should be leading our employees through a cooperation approach to change their behavior or performance, rather than leading with compliance.

Monster.Com shared some insight on this issue in a recent article about Employee Discussions, stating “The [performance] conversation [often] results in the creation of two separate agendas — the manager’s and the employee’s. The manager’s agenda is to refocus the employee on productive behavior and finish the conversation quickly. The employee’s is to recover his or her sense of self-esteem and self-worth. Employees often become defensive and start to rationalize and make excuses for their lack of performance. This is exactly how discussions of performance issues go awry, with very little good coming out of them”.

The message is clear – forcing or even requesting compliance first will often promote defensiveness.  Just like your child, an employee when faced with his/her wrongdoing, will likely try to find a way to excuse or defend their wrongdoing.  And it’s a slippery slope to non-compliance if the employee’s initial reaction is one of defensiveness.

So what is a better way?  How do we get your employees to not only understand their deficiencies in either behavior or performance, but also be a part of the solution in addressing them?

First, lead with cooperation.  When you begin a conversation about poor performance or behavior, don’t ask the employee to admit there is a problem.  Rather, come up with a way to address the problem or behavior in an open and collaborative way with the employee.

For example, if you have an employee who is chronically late to meetings, start your discussion by asking them for feedback on how to ensure that all employees get to meetings on time.   Perhaps lead your discussion with “Do you agree that if an employee is often late to meetings, that impacts our ability to be productive and on time with our objectives for meeting?”  Then engage them in a solution to the issue you are struggling with and gain their cooperation in addressing it.  Action steps to address a change in performance can then be documented and agreed upon between you and the employee.

Thinking back to the child who doesn’t want to admit his or her guilt, how much better would it be to come up with a plan to ensure that the milk is put away each time it is used … leave a note on the refrigerator door?  Put a note on the milk?  Whatever the plan, the child then becomes a part of the solution rather than the cause of the problem.

Secondly, having gained cooperation from the employee about a solution, make sure you ask the employee if he or she has any concerns about the approach you have agreed to?  Asking for cooperation and following up to ensure agreement promotes behavior change.  Just like the errant child, the employee feels valued and heard rather than spoken at and told how to behave and perform.  And since your employee has already agreed to a solution to address the problem, there is no need to debate whether there is an issue in the first place.  You are both already in solution mode.

Wow … sounds like managing employees is as difficult as managing children some days.  But with a different approach, perhaps your work life can be more harmonious and collaborative rather than fraught with defense and excuses.  Lead with cooperation and finish with a plan!