Recognition and the Underperformer

“My manager only tells me when I do something wrong, never when I do something right.”

I’ve heard this complaint from many employees. Focusing on the negative is a major demotivator. Every employee should be receiving some recognition each month, even your underperformers. The proper mix of corrective feedback and praise usually produces the greatest improvement. Usually…

Recently, I’ve heard several versions of the same question asked in a number of manager training programs. “What do you do when an underperforming employee ignores corrective feedback and points to the praise you give as proof that he is performing sufficiently?” Or, even more simply, "Should you ever recognize someone who is underperforming?"

In cases where employees are (or appear to be) confused about their performance, it may be that the managers aren’t setting clear expectations and checking for understanding. But what if it is actually the positive feedback that has caused confusion?

Mixed Messages

In an era when companies are concerned about wrongful termination, managers worry about sending mixed messages to underperformers. Can a reasonable employee misinterpret positive feedback? I can think of at least one instance where the answer would be yes. You can probably come up with several more.

Scenario: A manager realizes that, for the past two years, she hasn’t been offering enough positive feedback to employees and resolves to make a change. In the course of a month she praises every employee several times, including the underperformer. At the end of the month, the manager and the underperforming employee meet to review overall performance. The employee is surprised to discover that the manager has observed only minor improvements.

The employee didn’t know that the manager had changed her behavior and was now offering more recognition for the same level of performance. The employee assumed his performance had improved. The manager could have handled this better by stating her intention at the beginning of the month to help the employee improve his performance by noting both improvements and declines.

Clearly, when an employee misunderstands the manager’s feedback it is important for the manager to look at his or her own behavior to see what how he or she has contributed to the situation.

But What If…

What if the manager seems to be doing everything right? What is the next step?

Occasionally a manager may encounter an employee who will still ignore corrective feedback and choose to see the positive feedback as proof that all is well. If you were the manager of such an employee, which of these options would you choose?

1)Stop offering any praise and focus only on the need for improvement?

2)Continue to praise improvement when you see it but always note how much work still needs to be done?

3)Have weekly one on ones rating performance and noting overall improvement and/or decline in writing, putting praise in context during the one on one?

Is the first option the best answer? Should you stop giving praise? If your intent is to terminate the employee as quickly as possible this is probably the best solution. If you think there is still hope for improvement it would be best to try a different approach.

How about option two? Immediate feedback is generally a good thing, but does pairing the positive with corrective feedback guarantee that the employee will remember both? Not necessarily. They can still choose to ignore the corrective feedback. There is another, equally undesirable, outcome. Imagine yourself as the employee receiving this feedback:

Manager: “You did an excellent job of resolving that customer’s problem in a timely fashion, but don’t think this means your ratings are good enough. They’re not. Your customer satisfaction scores are still too low.”

Feeling motivated to work harder? Probably not. Positive and corrective feedback paired together, with a big “but” in the middle all but eliminates the positive feedback. Option two can be as demotivating as the first while allowing for the possibility that the employee will once again interpret the manager’s intention.

Providing Clarity

Option three seems to provide the best chance for success.

Do the following in your initial meeting:

•Find out if anything, other than the misunderstanding is getting in the way of improved performance.

•Set a performance standard. Make performance goals measurable if at all possible. Objective standards are always better than the subjective.

•Agree on a plan for improvement. Think in terms of what the employee should start, stop, and continue doing. Be specific and leave as little room for misinterpretation as possible,

•Once you are in agreement, put everything in writing.

Hold a one-on-one meeting each week:

•Review the employee’s progress against the plan established in the initial meeting.

•Develop mutual understanding of the employee’s progress towards meeting minimum performance standards.

•Praise positive behaviors and progress in the context of the overall and weekly performance objectives.

•End each meeting with clear objectives for the coming week.

Outside of these meetings, offer immediate corrective feedback when it is needed. Save impromptu praise until the employee’s performance meets minimum standards or until you feel confident that it will be interpreted appropriately.

You can always offer positive feedback while correcting poor performance. In some situations that feedback may need to be in a controlled environment in order to ensure understanding. Take action to correct the problem. Develop processes that facilitate understanding.

Keep the positive feedback coming!

Copyright 2005 Cindy Ventrice


My name is Cindy Ventrice. I am the author of the best-selling book Make Their Day! Employee Recognition That Works and the companion guide Recognition Strategies That Work. My work has been quoted in The New York Times, Harvard Business Update, Workforce Magazine, and on CNBC. Visit my website today!

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