This post is a reprint of an article first released in a newsletter I used to publish.
Some of my clients are already in leadership roles. They want to become better leaders or to improve their team environment. Some are not yet leaders. They want to develop leadership skills in preparation for advancement. A few weeks ago, one of the people I work with in this latter category had an experience that very nearly destroyed a good working relationship. All leaders and prospective leaders can learn from this person’s experience
The person I coach works hard, gives their energy, and devotes extra time to make a positive contribution in their organization. Like most people, they are imperfect. They contribute far more positive than negative to their team. Still, they found themselves on the receiving end of a disciplinary discussion. Every story has two sides, and this one is no exception. The supervisor had a valid point, but it became far more negative than necessary because of the way they handled it. I will share the employee’s side of the issue and how that perspective impacts team performance.
Aubrey Daniels, a highly respected behavioral analyst and author, states that high-level team and individual performance only comes as the result of positive reinforcement (praise, rewards, time-off, etc). Anything negative (punishment, penalty, criticism, correction, etc) will only create “minimal effort.” The reasoning and data to support this statement lies beyond the scope of this newsletter. You can read more on the topic in Bringing Out the Best in People by Aubrey Daniels or Whale Done by Ken Blanchard.
For the purposes of this article, I’ll focus on one issue. Aubrey Daniels calls it the 4:1 Rule. Simply put, the rule states that people need to receive at least four positive inputs on their behavior for every one negative input – if they are going to respond to the positive and give “maximal effort.” Previously, I have written on the dual need for leaders to both Confront Negative Behaviors and to Create Hope. My previous articles hit on both sides of this issue. With this article, I hope to tie the two sides together.
Few, if any, leaders will move through their careers without discussing negative performance issues with team members. Unfortunately, leaders often fail when they confront negative issues in a formal and threatening manner and then do nothing meaningful to recognize positive contributions. I understand how leaders fall into this trap. I see it in many places: parents with children, teachers with students, and supervisors with employees. The problem takes on different forms in different organizations. Regardless of the environment, though, it still comes down to the same root problem – most of us find it easier to notice what people do wrong than we do to notice what they do right.
Now, let’s get back to the person mentioned above. They are committed and dedicated. They work hard. They produce results. Still, they had one negative behavior trait – a trait they were already working to improve. The first time the supervisor mentioned the behavior, they chose to comment formally. When this supervisor mentions positive contributions, they do so casually, informally, and infrequently. The net effect is this: the employee feels devalued. As a result, the employee, a person who naturally enjoys contributing new ideas and looking for opportunities to help, acts more cautiously and reservedly in their work environment. In this case, the supervisor has “motivated” the employee to invest only enough effort to avoid trouble and confrontation. The employee’s desire to make a major positive contribution is, at least temporarily, softened and muted.
I recognize the necessity of formal disciplinary processes. However, I do not recommend, except in extreme situations, that leaders implement them at the first sign of a problem. I do recommend starting with performance coaching and informal discussion to help the employee see the problem in their behavior. If the behavior is extreme, or if coaching efforts fail to improve performance; then, leaders should apply more formal approaches (official verbal reprimand, written reprimand, etc.). Formal approaches tend to feel very negative. When leaders resort to formal approaches too soon, they have to work doubly hard to overcome these negative feelings to get back on a positive relationship basis.
Leaders must confront negative behaviors, and they must also create hope. They should confront negative behavior quickly But, they need to find ways to praise and reward positive behaviors as well. Ideally, they will offer at least four positive comments for every one that is negative. Highly effective leaders consciously work to provide at least four times as many positives as negatives.