Behavior-based language primer for managers: Avoid using value judgments

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If you manage people, an important skill to have is the ability to consciously use of behavior-based language.  This is also known as performance-based language.

This is the second of a series of posts providing tips on how to increase use behavior-based language.  In the first post, I described how generalizations, in an effort to be efficient, tend to undermine the intent of changing the employee’s behaviors.  A similar mistake that managers tend to make is using value judgments.  Using value judgments is an effort to summarize the net impression that an employee is making, but the problem is that this summary completely clouds the behaviors that the employee is doing.   Instead, if the value judgment is a negative one, it comes across as a personal attack to the employee.  That’s because it is, in essence, a personal attack on an employee.

Here are some examples of value judgments a manager may make in regards to an employee:

You’re stupid

You’re not good enough

You don’t have what it takes

Your heart’s not into it

You’re not cutting it

You’re too wordy

Your work is shoddy

You’re magic!

You’re brilliant!

These examples are value judgments in that they provide an evaluative component to the person’s work, and, in some cases, the person’s essence.  They are summaries that paint a picture of the full person or the person’s output, and with the judgment component, they provide a critique at the same time.

From a compression of language standpoint, this is very effective – the manager making these statements has been every effective at saying a lot in a short period of time.  However, from a managerial effectiveness standpoint, it takes you in the exact opposite direction and will cause damage in your relationships with your employees (and peers, if you are using this language with your peers), and will never improve the behaviors and performance of your employees.

Another problem with value judgments is that they are inherently incorrect.  When a manager says that an employee is “stupid”, this implies that the employee is in this state all of the time.  Everything he does is stupid.   So if the employee does one thing that is not stupid, such as, say showing up for work on time, or effectively logging into their computer, then the manager is wrong.  As it is a very low bar for an employee to prove otherwise when a value judgment is pegged on them, and as such, you are asking for the employee to engage in an ongoing debate with you as to the accuracy of the value judgment.  Sometimes that ongoing debate goes on in the employee’s head, building resentment.  This will likely come back later in the form of an argument with you.

Because value judgments are inherently dangerous and untrue, beware of using them.  The good news is that you don’t have to use them.  Behind the value judgment is a series of actions and sets of evidence that made you come to the conclusion (“your heart’s not into it.”)  When you want to use a value judgment with your employee, you are basically arriving at the conclusion of your observations and the final assessment on the ultimate value of the employee.  Because your relationship with your employee is ongoing, and the ultimate value of the employee is never going to be identified, it is against your interest to make what amounts to a final judgment.

Instead, focus on the series of behaviors you have observed leading up to your assessment, and cite these.  Granted, this is not as compressed language as the fast-forward the final judgment provides, but it will save you time, energy, and it will result in improved relationships with your employees and improved performance.

As an example: “You’re not cutting it”.  What were the things that happened that lead you to this conclusion?  Talk about those things:  “When the deliverable was due, it wasn’t in my in-box.” “Your quality scores in the past month are below the minimum standard.”  “When you checked in your code, you did not perform a unit test first.”  “You have disrupted several meetings.” It may be a series of things, but make sure you know what it is that created this impression.

If you can’t name what it is that lead you to the conclusion that the value judgment is, then that is your clue to drop that value judgment from your thinking about the employee.

The same goes for positive thoughts:  Instead of ‘you’re brilliant’, try to identify the events and actions that lead you to this conclusion, “When you presented that business plan, the VP reacted very positively, and the proposal was adopted.”  “When you were asked to intervene, you looked at the situation, gathered the stakeholders, and obtained a consensus and recommendation that moved the project forward.”

In these examples, note how there isn’t a requirement for an evaluative summary.  Because the language focuses on the behaviors, the employees has the ability to identify which behaviors were considered good and should be continued, and which behaviors should be changed.  If an employee knows what they should continue doing, and what they should change, then you are on the road to successfully managing employees!

Now, value judgments do not have to be completely avoided, as they are such a natural part of language.  However, when giving the value judgment, you need to cite the evidence prior to your judgment, and then give it.   “After your presentation in which you showed a systemic strategic advantage that no one had noticed before, the VP adopted the strategy.  This was brilliant.”  Note that the assessment comes after the actions of the employee are cited, and it was the actions that were brilliant, not the entirety of the person.  This removes ambiguity about what it was that was brilliant.  By doing this, you reduce the risk that the employee thinks that everything they do is brilliant, or that your evaluation of their worth to the organization is final.

Are you a manager who is tempted to summarize your employees’ behaviors in value judgments? What are some “summaries” you’ve heard by managers that were off the mark?

Related posts:

Behavior-based language primer: Steps and Examples of replacing using adverbs

How to use behavior-based language to lead to evaluation and feedback

Behavior-based language primer for managers: How to tell if you are using behavior-based language

Behavior-based language primer for managers: Stop using generalizations

Why the annual performance review is often toxic

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About Walter Oelwein
Walter Oelwein, CMC, CPT, helps managers become better at managing. To do this, he founded Business Performance Consulting, LLC .


6 Responses to “Behavior-based language primer for managers: Avoid using value judgments”


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