Are we punished for doing a good job?

Traveling for work has proven to have some interesting advantages. Now that I mainly see my children on the weekends, I have noticed little changes. I swear, every time I am with them I notice they have learned something new. Since my time with them is limited, I try to spend it intentionally; I notice things I normally wouldn’t if I just saw them every day. It is sad how many small details we miss when we live out our daily lives in autopilot.

My son, Lennox, is about two and a half. Anyone with small kids knows that little boys are, quite frankly, a pain in the ass. They whine about everything, all the time. If he doesn’t have the right shade of blue cup he cries. While this is nothing new, my daughter, Harper, the eldest at about three and half, has started to do something I find fascinating.

When Lennox starts to whine, Harper will puff up her chest, turn to Emily or me, and say, “I’m a big girl” or “I am good girl!”

We look at her and reply, “Yes Harper, thank you for being a big girl”, and then we go back to attending to Lennox. At first, I assumed she was doing this just to bring the attention to herself. I figured since we were focused on her brother, she wanted to make sure we knew she was there. I now think I know what she was actually doing, and turns out she is not alone.

Earlier this month, I was working at a dealership and I saw my daughter’s behavior echoed. The service manager was talking to an advisor about what he was doing wrong. Another advisor came by, and he made sure the manager knew that he had done the job correctly.

Well, that was kind of a jerk move, I thought to myself. He’s clearly just trying to make the other guy look bad, and make himself look good.

I went down to the advisor’s office and simply asked him. “What was that?” I made it obvious I didn’t approve of his action.

“To be honest, that’s the only way I can ever get his approval. I didn’t want to make that other guy look bad, but damn, how about you tell me why I’m doing good every now and then.”

Do we treat our employees differently for doing a good job? Let’s think about that, if we are honest with ourselves, I think we do. It’s no different with my kids, or these two employees. The two that are doing what they are supposed to do are left with very little affirmation. The two that are doing the incorrect behavior are getting the attention and the coaching. Why can’t we coach employees that do well on how to improve themselves even further?

I had the opportunity to explore this concept a little later. I was talking to a manager about how she was struggling to get great performance out of her advisors. They do a good job, she told me, she said she never really must reprimand any of them. When she asks them to improve certain metrics, or provides them with the tools to succeed they always seem to stay the same; good, but not great.

I thought about her problem and asked, “When was the last time you told them they were doing a good job.”

“All the time,” was her response. She explained how she will say great job in passing or at the end of the day.

“Doesn’t sound like there is much depth there to me.” She pondered my response for a little bit.

I told her the story of my daughter’s new behavior and the story of the advisor from the earlier week. We talked about how it is more likely to get one-on-one coaching or performance training when you are not performing well. It would make sense to spend the same amount of time coaching with both under and over performing team members. In our society of participation trophies and good job stickers, a simple vague “good job” doesn’t carry the emotional weight it used to.

As managers and leaders, we tend to leave our better performing staff alone, we let them do their thing while we take care of what we are required to do. Is that fair? Are we punishing our employees for doing a good job? I believe we are.

The manager and I talked about how we can change this consistent narrative. I have found the best practice for coaching all your employees, is to set aside time to have a review with them about their performance. This does however, need to be done the correct way to have an effective impact. To have a productive review with your employee, you need to come up with an intentional agenda. I used to make a spreadsheet with metrics from sales numbers to customer satisfaction scores.

Ideally, you will sit with the employee at a scheduled time. This shows that you are setting time in your day devoted to them. It cannot be a spur of the moment decision to go over their performance. Chances are your employee takes a lot of pride in what they do and work hard to do a great job. Give them the respect they deserve with a devoted time.

Set specific goals for each staff member. You need to take time to study each employee and identify their struggles so you can help them improve, grow, and develop. Managers do this with lackluster employees all the time. Imagine the return on your efforts if you did this with your best employees.

The key is to keep the review sheet very simple, with one or two things to work on and two to three things to praise. You don’t want to overwhelm with too much information or it loses the intentional thought. The manager and I talked about how powerful it is for you to go over the review for them like it is a plan for both of you.  It is for both of you. As a manager, you need to be invested in the employee’s performance as their performance is a direct reflection of your ability to lead.

We walked away from that conversation with a great plan for her staff. I am excited to see the growth of the store. As I left I couldn’t help but think about my daughter. I have been trying to spend time with her playing and learning, but at three, is she ready for coaching and specific affirmation? Maybe not, but I know for sure that I need to slow down, and tell her why she is being a good.