Behavior-based language primer for managers: How to tell if you are using behavior-based language
The Manager by Design blog explores the core skills that managers need to be good at being managers. A key skill is the ongoing use of behavior-based language. In previous posts, I discussed the kind of language that is decidedly NOT behavior-based: Language that makes generalizations about an employee’s behavior, and language that that makes value-judgments. In these posts, I make the case that there is no use for this, even in the effort to be efficient. In today’s post, I attempt to describe what behavior-based language is.
By its nature, language is a slippery thing, so I don’t make the assumption that there is a clear distinction between what is and is not behavior-based. What I advocate is for managers to at least attempt to slide in the direction of behavior-based language in performance discussions with their employees.
This is the first of two parts identifying if you are using language that is behavior-based:
1. You describe the behaviors and actions of the employee—what the employee did.
As the term “behavior-based language” implies, this is the act of describing the observed behaviors of an employee. Here are some examples:
“You arrived late this morning.”
“Your report missed some elements.”
“You skipped a step in following the procedure.”
“You said, ‘I hate you’ to the customer.”
“You threw garbage into the hallway.”
“You smiled and used eye-contact with all in the room when you first started your presentation.”
This is not necessarily easy, because it is easy to forget what the behaviors were. The mind tends to want to speed past and gloss over the observation and generalize and evaluate the observed actions and behavior. At least make an attempt to identify what it was that the person did.
2. You have specifics about what the employee did and said and at what time.
Generally, the more specific you are about what the employee said or did, the better. If you have a date and time, the better. You should try to cite the specific incident you’re thinking of. Generally, this is easier the sooner it is after the incident you wish to discuss.
“At the meeting this afternoon, I saw you put your head down on the table.”
“I learned this that this morning you spoke in a forceful tone to a client.”
“I heard you say, ‘I don’t care what you think.’”
“You said that this was something that can be resolved.”
The closer you can come to quoting the employee, the better, although this is difficult too. If you don’t have the specific quote at hand, you can use, “You said that,” or “You said something to the effect of. . .” It isn’t as precise, but all I’m asking for here is the attempt to be more precise, not precision.
3. You attempt to quantify the frequency of the behaviors
The more you can quantify the frequency of the behaviors, the more likely it is tending to behavior-based language. Again, this is hard to do, but if you make the attempt, it starts to come together:
“On three occasions, we have reports of you yelling at customers.”
“Two times in the last week your code broke the build.”
“I’ve heard you say ‘I can’t help you’ three times in the last month.”
“You’ve had the presentation set up and ready to go in advance of the meeting for each pitch meeting this month.”
The reason quantification this helps you be more behavior-based is that this identifies whether the behaviors are actually repeated or one-time. If someone does something only once, then this isn’t necessarily indicative of their ongoing behavior. If you can cite a behavior that was observed multiple times, then it is more worthy of discussion.
4. You start the sentence with, “What I have observed is”, “Others have observed” and “What I heard”
Starting qualifiers of “what I observed” and “what you said” and “what I heard” will help guide you to language that is more behavior-based.
“I heard you say, ‘I plan to slack off work next week.’”
“I observed that you came in late in each of the past three days.”
“I saw that you were setting up the presentation in advance.”
“I observe that you code has not broken the build all month.”
If you can’t start the sentence with “What I heard was. . .” “What I observed was. . .“ “What others observed was. . .”, and have it still makes sense in your mind, then it is less likely to be behavior-based. For example, “What I observed was that you suck,” doesn’t work. It may get a laugh in a sitcom, but only as an example of bad management.
In the next post, I’ll provide the next steps on how behavior-based language can lead to more effective evaluations and corrective feedback.
Do you have examples of language that you have struggled to be more descriptive, observational, and behavior-based? I’d love to hear examples of these and discuss how to switch these to language that helps you be a more effective manager!