When an employee does something wrong, it’s not always about the person. It’s about the system, too.

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The Manager by Design blog provides tips for how to be a great manager.  A task many managers neglect is that of providing performance feedback.  This task is an art, and Managers tend not to do it well or in a timely manner.

One reason for this is that it isn’t always clear that the employee’s behavior is incorrect, even if a situation goes badly, or is in the midst of an organization’s dysfunction.  Situations are often dynamic, complicated and difficult, and the larger forces that went into the employee’s behavior may be more at issue than the employee’s behavior itself.

In situations like this, there are two common paths that managers take:

1)     Try to correct the employee’s behavior to fit within the bad situation or dysfunction

2)     Ignore the employee’s behavior because it is a dysfunctional situation

In both of these paths, you’ll notice the issue of the difficult situation is not addressed.  Either the manager tries to make the employee more dysfunctional, or the manager passively lets the dysfunction get worse.  Neither works.

Let’s go through an example:  

One of your employees, Jacob, is trying to get his proposal in front of the vice president.  Jacob has contacted the vice president’s administrative assistant to find time on the calendar, but he has received no response.  Jacob decides to corner the vice president on her way out of a meeting to ask for time directly.  He’s tried this move before, and with success. “You’ve got moxie, Jacob!”  the VP once told him  However, this time when he gets in front of the VP, she says, “Go through my admin.”  Jacob then says, “Your admin is ignoring me, can we just meet right now?”  The VP says, “No” and then the VP tells you, Jacob’s manager, to reign in Jacob, because he’s out of control.

OK, that’s the situation.  Now what are you going to do about it?

When you analyze Jacob’s behavior, he’s clearly trying to get something positive done and move things forward.  The proposal is important to him, but it is not important to the administrative assistant or the vice president.  His high priority work is the VP’s low priority work.  That’s a systemic problem. Jacob tried to resolve this through individual heroics—getting in the face of the VP to increase the visibility of the proposal.  It backfired.  Now you are expected to provide “performance feedback” to Jacob, but Jacob was, in fact, really trying hard to do the right thing, and went down some obvious paths to get it done, and if he succeeded, it would have been brilliant.  But now you have to give feedback to Jacob on his poor behavior. Or you could ignore it, which would risk that he tries this again, and the situation boomerangs back at you.

Through this analysis and the results, Jacob’s behavior was incorrect – he shouldn’t have confronted the VP.  But the system was worse than Jacob’s behavior, as it pushed him into a situation where this was almost an expected move on Jacob’s part.  So Jacob was bad – only in retrospect – but the system is definitely worse.

Here are some things that could be bad about the system:

–The VP does not appear to have space for listening to ideas

–The administrative assistant is slow to respond and ignores people at Jacob’s level

–Jacob has the expectation to get the proposal to the VP in a certain time frame, when this is clearly impossible

–Jacob was rewarded for this behavior in the past, and now potentially punished for the same behavior

–The VP was not aware of Jacob’s proposal, so it seemed to come out of nowhere

When looking at these factors, it’s increasingly clear that Jacob acted exactly as he would be expected to.  His aggressiveness has worked before for him; he has been successful getting things done with VPs under time pressure; his proposal is good enough that he’s excited for it and can defend it, and if he were successful in his efforts, he would have made you look good.

So really, Jacob was behaving like a top performer, and now you have to correct his behavior.  If you sense that this may be happening, the first thing you need to do is analyze the forces, or system, that drove his behaviors in the first place.

Here are some questions to ask to determine if the system could be more at play rather than individual performance:

–Has the employee done this before. . . and been rewarded for it?

–Has the employee been given a task/role which puts pressure on overcoming hurdles outside his or her sphere of influence?

–Is there increasing time pressure to get it done that will create forced efforts?

–Are there things that will punish the employee if it is done right?

–Are there resistances and other factors in the environment that may undermine what the employee does? (i.e., proposing a new idea, instituting change, surfacing political turf wars, being reliant on executive buy-in).

If you can answer yes to any of these questions, then the system is as much a part of the employee’s performance – if not more so – than the employee’s individual decisions and actions.  This must be taken into account when giving performance feedback.

In my next post, I’ll discuss how to approach this conversation with your employee.

Have you ever given feedback on something that you felt was more symptomatic of your work environment and less about your individual performance?  I’d love to hear your stories!

Related Posts:

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

Behavior-based language primer for managers: Examples of how to improve employee corrective feedback and how to get rid of damaging 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: Avoid using value judgments

Behavior-based language primer for managers: Stop using generalizations

Providing corrective feedback: Trend toward tendencies instead of absolutes

Four more reasons giving public feedback backfires

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 .


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