Behavior-based language primer: Steps and Examples of replacing using adverbs
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 need to avoid making generalizations and stop making value-judgments. I’ve also provided the markers for what good behavior-based language looks like. In today’s post, I provide another marker of behavior-based language: Refraining from using adverbs and superlatives.
Step #1: Remove adverbs when describing or discussing your employee’s performance
If you use the common words “very”, “really,” “totally” or “completely” to describe your employee’s performance, you are using adverbs. Adverbs such as these have no place in using behavior-based language and they should be removed. Removing the adverb from the sentence will elevate the objectivity of the statement without sacrificing the content:
|With Adverb||Without Adverb|
|Joe was very effective at closing the sale.||Joe was effective at closing the sale.|
|Mark totally addresses customer needs.||Mark addresses customer needs.|
|Janet really works at finding and resolving bugs.||Janet works at finding and resolving bugs.|
|Rene completely finished her work items.||Rene finished her work items.|
Practically any other adverb that provides emphasis (“effectively”, “delightfully”, “smartly”, “proudly”, “helpfully” etc.) should be removed from your behavior-based language as well. Sure there are exceptions, such as the adverbs “also” and “additionally”, since they tend to serve as transitions to the descriptive elements of an employee’s performance, rather than provide emphasis.
Step #2: Add back in a qualitative description or quantitative measure that the adverb used to perform
Now, you’ll notice in the examples that once you take out the adverb, it makes the sentence seem flat. So while the sentence is acceptable, it doesn’t drive at the performance assessment you likely wanted to convey. That’s because the adverb was serving as a short cut for quantifying or qualifying what it was that made the employee’s performance good or bad. Your new challenge is to replace the evaluative purpose that the adverb served with a description or metric that more objectively describes the performance. You may also find that it allows you to transition better to the results of the employee’s work:
|Without Adverb||With qualitative description and/or quantification|
|Joe was effective at closing the sale.||Joe was effective at closing the sale in that he overcame the client’s objections over price by emphasizing the long term benefits of the product in comparison to the competition.|
|Mark addresses customer needs.||Mark addresses customer needs by identifying up front their concerns and utilizing the approved responses. This has resulted in a 10% increase in his sales from the prior period.|
|Janet works at finding and resolving bugs.||Janet works at finding and resolving bugs. She identified and resolved 30 bugs in the prior period, versus the average of 18 bugs in the group. She resolved the highest percentage of bugs (70%) in her group. The next highest was 50%.|
|Renée finished her work items.||Renée finished the 17 work items assigned to her. This allowed her to take on additional work responsibilities.|
Note that adding the qualitative description or the quantitative assessment will be more wordy than the original sentence. In behavior-based language, you aren’t given short-cuts in the length of your documentation, but it will pay off in that you will avoid toxic annual reviews, the employee will be less likely to dispute the assessment, or, if there is a dispute, it will be over the details of the assessment or numbers, rather than the sentiment behind the assessment, allowing for a much more productive discussion.
For example, Joe, the employee who closed the sale, may cite further things that he did to close the sale. This will provide more insights to you on Joe’s performance, and you can consider adding those things to the documentation.
In the examples provided here, I’ve used examples of good employee performance to demonstrate improved behavior-based language. In my next post, I’ll work through some examples of behavior-based language used to provide corrective feedback and drive toward improved employee performance.
Tell me your experience in trying to reduce the number of adverbs you use in describing the employee’s performance! Which adverbs tend to sneak in the most?