I have a staff member (let’s call him Tom) who recently began reporting to me, and he has a history of having a bad attitude. I discussed my expectations with him at the onset of our relationship, and his behavior has improved. He even took some of my feedback to his wife, who echoed my sentiments. Since then he has made great strides in forming a positive attitude. He is more cautious with what he says to others, how he responds to issues, and he’s receiving positive feedback from customers. I would like to reward him for his improvements, but in order to do that my higher-ups have to be convinced as well. They still have a bad taste in their mouths due to a high-visibility project he and others didn’t attend to appropriately (this predated my management of him). I am afraid giving him more negative feedback will cause him to backslide. What should I do?
I applaud your willingness to advocate for your direct report, and for not shying away from a tough conversation with your management team. I am reminded of the importance of creating Mutual Purpose. Perhaps the CRIB skills could help you navigate this conversation? Or the STATE skills? I’ll outline below what these skills might look like as you attempt to reach agreement with those above you at work.
Share Your Facts, Tell Your Story
First, let your managers know where you are coming from by stating the facts and the story you’ve concluded from the facts. You might try something like this:
“As a manager, I consider it my job to establish clear expectations, give regular and balanced feedback, reward progress and continue to push my employees to high standards. My current goal for Tom is twofold: (1) He needs to attend to high-visibility projects appropriately. He understands this is a priority and we’ve been working through a learning plan to ensure the problems from before never happen again. And (2) it’s important for him to maintain a positive attitude at work. I discussed my expectations with him when I moved into this role, and, from my perspective, his behavior has started to improve. He was able to take some of my feedback to his wife, who echoed my sentiment regarding his previously poor attitude that gave others the perception that he would rather work elsewhere. Since then he has made great strides in forming a positive attitude. He is more cautious with what he is saying to others, how he chooses to respond to issues, and he is receiving a lot of positive feedback from customers.”
Commit to Seek Mutual Purpose
Next, make it clear you care about their interests and motives, too.
“I’d like to reward him for his improvements, but I sense you might not feel comfortable with that, given the lingering impact of what happened on last year’s project. I’d love to see if we can get creative here and come up with a plan that works for everyone.”
Recognize the Purpose Behind the Strategy
Invite your managers to share their ideas first, as that typically creates more safety. But you’ll also want to share where you’re coming from.
“Can you help me better understand what concerns you most about rewarding him for the progress he’s made?”
Perhaps they are concerned that others on the team who consistently perform up to standards might feel slighted by this choice? Or perhaps they worry that giving a quarter-end bonus to someone who has underperformed sends the message that the company rewards shoddy work and doesn’t hold people accountable?
When you clearly understand their motives and concerns, share yours.
“My fear is if I only ever provide negative feedback (without also recognizing and rewarding good behavior), he will start to feel demoralized. He might think we aren’t noticing the strides he’s making and it will be harder for him to maintain the good attitude he’s worked so hard to develop. I don’t wish to gloss over the problems. I want to keep him motivated so that he can continue to progress.”
Invent a Mutual Purpose
Sum up the challenge as you see it, propose a way to work together on a solution, and then see if they agree.
“I’m happy to get creative with you. I’m wondering if there’s a way for us to reward progress while still holding high standards for him and others on the team. If we can find a way to do both of those things, would that work for you?”
Brainstorm New Strategies
Get creative! See if you can find new strategies for recognition that don’t involve a public reward or that allow for a different kind of commitment (like a written thank you note from the V.P. of your department or an Amazon gift card or some extra paid time off instead of a yearly bonus).
Remember, the goal is to try to create a mutual purpose that everyone feels good about. When you can do that, it becomes easier to brainstorm solutions that move everyone in the same direction.