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Reinforcement does an employee good

Inside Business

Posted: August 12, 2008 6:43 p.m.
Updated: October 14, 2008 5:02 a.m.

After 90 days or so on a new job, I pointedly asked my not-so-new boss, "I've been here for just about three months, how am I doing?"

My question caught him by surprise. It was well after 6 p.m. and we were both tired after a long day. He realized that I needed some feedback on what and how I was doing, so he set down his pen, got up and closed his office door and for the next half an hour, we had a conversation about what he liked, and didn't like, about my performance since coming on board - and, what he wanted me to do for the next quarter.

I left that short meeting feeling relieved and more comfortable about what was expected of me and how I was doing. I'd like to believe that my boss learned something as well: Providing feedback to your employees on a regular basis is essential for the well-being of both parties.

Since that January night more than 20 years ago, I have often wondered that if I hadn't displayed the initiative to start that conversation, whether the next discussion the boss and I might have had would have been a terse, unexpected display of anger or frustration at me over something that I was supposed to be doing that I hadn't done because I didn't know I was supposed to do it.

Or, that I was in some sort of trouble because I did something I wasn't supposed to.

Unfortunately, far too many conversations between manager and subordinate are handled in this manner because giving candid feedback is difficult. It is made more difficult because most managers don't feel the need to make expectations clear to those that report to them. And in many cases, no system of accountability exists to make certain things get done how and when they are supposed to.

Why is that? Most managers feel that when someone is hired, "They should know what to do because that is why I hired them."

I have heard stories about people who are employed in positions of trust and responsibility that have essentially "quit on the job" but failed to notify anyone. These individuals have not resigned, have not been terminated but continue to show up at work, collect a paycheck but fail to perform. Not just for a few days, a few weeks or even months; in some cases for years.

How is this possible? How can this happen? How much money is being wasted by keeping people on the payroll when they are not doing the job they are being paid to do?

What is the impact, morale-wise, on other employees who see that those that quit on the job are still being paid a salary and that this behavior is tolerated and hence, encouraged, because nothing is being done to address it?

Quitting on the job begins when the manager does not make expectations clear. It doesn't matter if it is a "small thing" like being on time to work, or a "big thing" like not completing a critical report when it is expected.

Solving this problem starts when managers make expectations clear. Every employee needs to know what is expected of and from them. This is doubly important if the employee is a manager of others.

If a manager is not well managed, you can bet that those that report to him or her will not be well managed. The organization killing virus of "hazy expectations" will cascade to every single person in the department. Some will escape from it by leaving the company, and some will fight it because of who they are, but many will stay because it is easier to be expected to do nothing and be paid for it than to buck the system and try to change it.

If expectations are clear and understood, those expectations have to be managed. If I am made clear as to what is expected of me, my manager has to make 100 percent certain that I have the needed tools, skills and other resources to complete the assignment.

Just because I have the tenure, seniority, age, education, background or you like me does not make me capable. Just because I told you I am capable does not make me so. The sooner you find out I am capable (or not) the better for you and the company.

When expectations are clear, and the task has been assigned to someone that is capable, the final step in the process is that the manager has to hold the individual accountable for getting things done to a certain quality level by a certain deadline.

This thing called accountability is not punishment nor is it micromanaging. Accountability is not yelling, screaming, pounding desks or making people feel bad. It is simply a process that an organization uses to make progress towards goals.

It is the responsibility and obligation of every manager and every level to hire the right people, make expectations clear and to hold people accountable. To do less than that is an insult to those who come to work to accomplish what was asked of them.

Kenneth W. Keller is president of Renaissance Executive Forums in Valencia, bringing business owners together in facilitated peer advisory boards. His column represents his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal.


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