Monday, May 18, 2009

How Leaders Improve Employee Performance in Six Steps

Conflictbd06990jpeg I did not like having difficult conversations when I was the Chief Administrative Officer of an Institute at UCLA. I struggled every time I needed to fire someone, deal with conflict, or hold someone accountable who was underperforming. I often knew what to say, but not how to say it to produce the outcome desired. The desired outcome of these counseling sessions was to produce better results after the conversations.

The question for you is, how much improvement do you see after you have had a counseling session? Research tells us that there is good news and bad news.

The good news is that a meta-analysis, encompassing 23,663 observations, by professors Kluger and DeNisi demonstrated that there is an overall average gain in performance following feedback interventions. (1) The bad news is that over one-third of the feedback sessions actually decreased performance. If you conduct your sessions as I did at UCLA, some of your counseling sessions may in fact, hurt performance.

The eXpansive Leadership Method (XLM) can help you achieve desired results when you must counsel an employee. This systematic approach to managing these conversations is illustrated below:


1. Monitor closely

Have you ever had an employee challenge your "facts" early in a conversation? If so, you know how difficult it is to get them back on track. This is why the first key to having a successful difficult conversation is to prepare for that meeting. Employees often challenge our facts when they feel we didn't do our homework prior to the meeting.

2. Engage others

Begin your conversation by pointing out the value they bring to the organization. Identify specific instances when they met or exceeded the expectations of the job. Then, transition to the performance issue by asking them to help you understand the contrast between past acceptable performance and the recent drop in performance. Even if they start blaming others or presenting bogus excuses, continue building trust using excellent communication skills such as reflective and active listening.

3. Clarify expectations

After they agree that your summary of their explanation for their poor performance is accurate, show them their job description. Explain that all the employees in their position are required to perform up to a specific standard explained in their job description. As you talk, point to the specific performance standard in their job description that they have not met.

4. Inspire creativity and change

Invite them to help you. Increasing their involvement in the process increases their commitment the goal of the process. Tell them that together, "we must come up with several action steps to help you reach this specific performance standard." Ask them to brainstorm a number of possible actions that will serve as the beginning of a performance improvement plan. Remind them of the positive impact they have on the big picture.

5. Execute with passion and courage

You may need to access your courage as you tell them that they must be involved in creating an improvement plan. How firm you need to be at this point depends on how much responsibility they accept for their poor performance and your skill in applying the first four steps of this process. If they resist, let them know that you would rather have them follow a plan that you both created than one you dictated. Be firm and fair as you access your commanding skills. One executive calls it “the iron fist in a velvet glove."

6. Manage operations

Gain agreement to implement the detailed, step-by-step plan to improve their performance. This is a lot easier if they have participated in the creation of this plan. The seven elements of an effective plan include the following:

  • S.M.A.R.T. goals and objectives
  • Possible obstacles that must be overcome
  • Description of the value of achieving these goals and objectives
  • Method of instruction to improve specific performance, such as coaches, classes, educational material...
  • Dates to review specific milestones and progress
  • Signature line for you and your employee to agree to the plan

Finally, use your entire XLM to help the individual implement his or her performance improvement plan. Let me know which steps you use and how they work for you.

Keep eXpanding,


1. Kluger, Avraham and DeNisi, Angelo; Effects of feedback intervention on performance: A historical review, a meta-analysis, and a preliminary feedback intervention theory. Psychological Bulletin, 119 (2), 1996, 254-284.


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