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Supervisory Development: How to Have a Productive, Positive Conversation with Employees

In the previous post, I attempted to draw a distinction between positive supervisory statements about employee actions and statements about the person. Sticking to action statements is safe territory if you want to avoid the long list of negative employee feelings attached to comments they think are aimed at their personality, character, value, attitude, and so on. Safety Observation Conversations (SOC) and Performance Observation Conversations (POC) correctly managed build Supervisor/Employee relations, increase employee engagement, increase general performance, and improve product quality.

There is a long history of evidence-based data to support the value of “talking with” frontline employees. Frontline employees expect supervisors to approach them if there is a problem. They do not expect a general discussion that begins with statements about what the supervisor has seen the employee has “done” that is of value to the product quality, or safety.

Supervisors have generally responded negatively to the idea that they should “Positively Reinforce” an employee for “doing something right.” They often whisper behind the curtains that doing things right is “what they get paid for.” I tend to agree. Frontline employees should know that the supervisor has observed them doing things right – using their PPE as required, following safety rules and regulations.

The question that subsequently follows is “how does mentioning something the employee does right constitute a positive (as in positive reinforcement)?” The answer is that most employees do a repetitive job whose self-perception and value to the organization is determined by the attention the supervisor gives to the employee’s job behavior. Also, a comment about an employee’s job can be presented as a question – like “are we running on schedule today,” or “did Phil recalibrate the belt variance for you?”

The word “attention,” should be uppermost in your mind as a supervisor of others; or as team leader of others. An employee’s value as a person is established by the attention management at all levels provide to the employee and his or her work. Unfortunately, the positive value of “attending” to employees work and to their presence in the workplace has been overlooked by the trainers and consultants who have glommed on to Positive Reinforcement as a two word phrase whose definition and value is understood by all – including senior management who has included the phrase into their Annual Report to investors.

So we have established that –

For supervisors and managers, initiating a discussion about an employees work and various job functions, materials, and critical-to-quality behaviors increases engagement and job performance.

We have thus refined the definition of “positive reinforcement” as it is used in business and industry to include attention and discussion as integral to providing positive reinforcement to employees. To add depth and dimension to the term positive reinforcement, we can add “mentioning something the employees has done that is not included in his or her job description. For instance helping a co-worker who has fallen behind or is new to the job and needs assistance; coming in early or staying late to ensure the job is done; voluntarily warning the supervisor that there is an equipment or material issue that needs to be addressed by maintenance; basically doing anything that is above and beyond what is necessary to get a “good performance evaluation,” or avoid discipline is worth mentioning within a supervisor conversation/dialog with an employee.

Frontline employees feel neglected when they do more, do another employees job, solve a problem that would slow down or stop production and the supervisor does not notice or does not know what to say about it. Just saying “I know that you helped us avoid a line shut-down when you reset the line speed,” will do nicely. This is another hint for supervisors; “Tell them you saw or heard about the employee doing ‘X’ – whatever ‘X’ is.” No praise; no compliment; no bribe; nothing that resembles an evaluation of the person’s value; just repeat to them “you saw or know about what they did.

So another performance, safety, quality conversation item is “tell them what they did.” Always stick to what “they did” in your comment. Words or phrases that are thinly veiled insinuations about an employee’s character, morals, ethics, personality, attitude, motivation – are to be avoided. As a supervisor you cannot imply a personal judgment about anyone on your team. The unavoidable truth is that employees dislike supervisors whose words or emotions imply anything about their value as a human being.

If you want to be disliked by your employees, just pitch an emotional fit about an error or off-quality or any kind of job behavior and the employees will begin to dislike you. Emotional supervisors are intimidating because they often go off like a firecracker. Their tantrum creates negative emotions in the employee – like fear which leads to avoidance; like anger which has historically led to employee misbehavior.Stay neutral; relax before you enter into a conversation with an employee. 

The final issue that I have addressed time and again with supervisors when discussing “how to have a positive conversation with an employee,” is “what should I say?”  I know that they are asking “how do I start the conversation off on the right foot?” The answer is simple; “ask them a question.” You can ask an employee anyone of a hundred potential questions. The context of your past relationship with that particular employee can help you decide what kind of question to ask. Anything short of “nasty weather we’re having ain’t it,” usually works. The question may be “do you have all the equipment (tools, machine functionality) you need? Do you need maintenance? Does the new employee have all his PPE?”

So in this discussion we concluded that to have a productive conversation with an employee you -

  • Stay neutral; relax before you enter into a conversation with an employee.
  • Ask a question to start a conversation (dialog, discussion, interaction)
  • Initiate a discussion about an employee’s work and various job functions, materials, and critical-to-quality behaviors.
  • Mention anything that is above and beyond what is necessary to get a “good performance evaluation,” or avoid discipline.
  • “Tell them what they did.” (That you liked, helped to produce, process, others)
  • Ask the employee (if they are an observer) have they learned anything from observing the safety of others
  • Ask the employee (if they are the observee) how they feel about being observed and how would they improve the observation process

In the next post, we will discuss non-verbal behavior while having a performance, safety, or quality discussion with an employee.