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Constructive Work Discussions

For a manager or supervisor to effectively verbally positively reinforce an employee, there must be a pre-existing positive relationship. A supervisor cannot approach an employee with whom they have had innumerable negative interactions and credibly say something positive about the employee’s performance; suspicion, distrust, and disassociation prevent a positive comment from having the desired effect.

Many supervisors have no experience saying positive things to their employees about job performance and training classes that attempt to encourage that behavior are modestly successful. I believe that the training solution is misdirected; managers and supervisors should first learn how to engage their direct reports in constructive work discussions.Effective work dialogs will naturally evolve into contexts in which employees hear positive statements about their performance—without the strained and uneasy feeling both the supervisor and the employee feel when positive statements spring from a planned agenda.

Most organizations are attempting to develop a “total rewards,” culture to ensure that employees perform at their peak. There are five elements of total rewards, each of which includes programs, practices, elements and dimensions that collectively define an organization's strategy to attract, motivate and retain employees. These elements are:

    • Compensation
    • Benefits
    • Work-Life
    • Performance and Recognition
    • Development and Career Opportunities

Interestingly, survey data from disparate sources confirms that the positive effect of these elements can be negated by a poor supervisor-employee relationship. Well paid employees who like the company and their job often leave because they do not like their supervisor. These research data have maintained in every business and industry over the last 50 years. Most companies believe that the training programs they have in place have solved this problem, or they have given up and incorporated the turnover and lost profitability to the category of “uncontrollable.”

Business and industry has found little success in improving supervisory skills through training, programs or books. Billions of dollars have been spent to change supervisory verbal behavior with little success. There are several realities about changing human behavior that provide some insights about why efforts to change supervisory behavior fail and point the way toward success.

    • You cannot change a supervisor’s personality, but you can change the things he or she says
    • Behavior cannot be changed in a class or workshop—it must be changed in the workplace—in a real work setting
    • New supervisory verbal behavior must be slowly shaped “in real time,” during interactions with employees; change take time
    • You must “set the stage,” for a supervisor to say the right things; it evolves out of context of work discussion; it cannot seem contrived
    • Supervisors will develop constructive work discussion skills over a period of months, not overnight
    • Each supervisor must be provided with a prescription for change that is constructed from an evaluation of their current skills
    • To effectively shape a leader, manager, or supervisors verbal behavior requires accurate feedback from his or her employees and/or a personal coach

What the Best Performing Supervisors Do

    1. The supervisors with the best records of motivating others to excel and perform make it a point to be where the work is happening; they walk among their employees. They amble and peruse and observe. Amongst the activities, they look and ask questions. They are casual; they don’t carry a clipboard or take notes. They monitor the work and find out how things are going. And, they make it a point not to look just for problems. They do not ask questions meant to trap employees in order to correct them for an infraction.

Monitoring employees while they are working is what you might call real-time supervision. It is a form of work-sampling—being there to watch the employee do their jobs—interact with the equipment, the product, and the customer. The best supervisors find a way to be there when their employees are doing the job.

    1. During daily visits, the highest performing supervisors have natural, casual conversations about the work, the equipment, resources, tools, schedules—anything that might influence the employee’s performance. And, most importantly, the supervisors make comments about what the employee has done—some positive, some neutral, and some corrective.

A positive comment might sound like, “That will work,” or “It’s a good start,” or “We got to try to do it that way every time,” or “OK,” or “That’s going to save us a bunch of time.” The point is, positive reinforcement does not have to be staged or artificial sounding; in fact, high-sounding praise may come across as less than sincere. To build a relationship with an employee to the point where he trusts your comments requires a history of interactions—interactions that have natural mix of positives, neutrals and corrective statements.

Questions or comments that encourage an effective work discussion:

    • Is there anything I can do to help you today?
    • Did maintenance recalibrate the gages for you?
    • Did the Tech Dept. come by and help you with your computer problem?
    • Do you want me to get the engineer out here to take a look?
    • Did you see any improvement after we changed the setting for you?
    • Did procurement locate the new parts for you?

Although most managers and supervisor have attended an “active listening,” or interaction skills workshop at some time in their career, classroom learning seldom elicits changes in participant’s words, phrases, and interaction skills. The ineffectiveness of interpersonal skills training is iconic in America. “Charm school,” “touch-me, feel-me,” and “love-ins,” are a few of the derogatory phrases used to describe the futility of these training models

America has adopted a “program” approach to dealing with employees; supervisors and managers are taught to use tactics to “get people to be more productive,” when honest discussion would work better.Behavioral discussions are the most productive—work discussions where the employee and the supervisor talk about what was “done or not done,” as opposed to personality-driven discussions about “the kind of person” the employee is, or their motivation, or attitude.