We Want Employee Engagement – But… Engagement in What?

The benefits of “employee engagement” are said to include better customer satisfaction, higher productivity, increased staff retention, etc.  Articles on improving “employee engagement” talk about how leaders don’t “treat employees respectfully”, or “take good care of employees”. There are surveys to measure those things, of course.

But if what we really want is better behaviors and attitudes from employees, let’s be straight about that. Because if we want employees to be “engaged”, then we have to offer something for them to be engaged in.  The unanswered question is, “Employees engaged in what?” Really, there is only one good answer:

  1. Employees are engaged when working to accomplish a clearly stated goal or objective.

The problem, however, is like that of the long-married couple, where the wife says, “We have been married for 46 years. Why don’t you ever say you love me?”  And the husband says, “I told you on our wedding day – how often am I supposed to repeat it?”

A once-a-year presentation by the CEO or Department Director about the progress and optimistic future of the company just isn’t enough. What gets people “engaged” in their work is something that is tied to a sense of accomplishment.  (Note: the word “accomplish” is derived from the Latin for “to fulfill or complete together.)

There are several tactics for engaging employees, but first you need to be up to something. An organization change? A new project or program? A task that is an important part of a larger goal?  You need something to engage people in working toward something – something that makes a difference to the organization and to other people in that organization. Just “doing stuff” is not engaging, and doesn’t activate “employee engagement”. So, you need a goal or end-point to be accomplished.

Then, you need to talk about the value of accomplishing that “something” – preferably more than every 46 years, and more than just at the annual retreat or holiday party. Here are three ways I’ve seen “engagement” work in organizations, large and small. They are all about communication: dialogue and discussion.

  1. Q&A sessions. After you roll out your newest strategic plan, or your next goal or project for people, have a few smaller-group “breakout session” where people get to ask and answer questions. This could be done in a round-table or a conference room. It’s good to have a recorder there, taking notes on what questions are important to people, and which answers need more development. It also shows people you are paying attention to their input.
  2. Success sessions. Once people are clear about the goals and objectives, another kind of discussion is to capture ideas (again, take notes) on what success will look like. Ask for what people think will (and won’t) work well, how to measure and track success and progress, and which people or groups should take on specific sub-goals or tasks. This lets people see the “big picture” of the work plan while also clarifying their “role in the goal”.
  3. Status update sessions. These are reliably regular meetings – weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly, depending on the timing of jobs to be done. They are to review the status of success and progress toward the goal, and the status of assignments for various responsibilities. It is also an opportunity to identify and discuss problems or delays, revise assignments, and declare some items complete – with a tip of the hat to those who have completed their task or project on-time and/or on-budget.

People do want to be engaged in their work. They just don’t always know exactly what their job or assignment is, or understand the bigger game they are working in. When you don’t know your “role in the goal”, or, sometimes, don’t even know the goal itself, there is nothing for you to engage in.

You want employee engagement? Spend a little time on engaging them in something that would be an accomplishment for them – and for you.


P.S. I’ll be away the next 2 weeks – working on something that is really engaging. Back to the blogging board when I return.

Preventing Change Fatigue: Burnout is Expensive – Communication is Not

When I first met the Supervisors at WaterCo, maintaining water lines in a Midwestern city, I was a “change consultant” hired to help them adapt to new regulations and to improve productivity. Those Supervisors were not happy to meet me: I was a consultant, and female, and they didn’t want anybody to “fix” them. That’s sometimes called “resistance to change”.

But I brought food to our meetings (very helpful!) and used my network approach to understand their work. We made circles and arrows on the whiteboard, identifying all the individuals and groups they interacted with at least once a week. They soon saw their work in a whole new way and forgave me for being a “girl consultant”. We all decided which changes would be most useful, and we implemented them together.

But the most important lesson I learned was why they were so “resistant” at that first meeting. They had been doing change projects – what they called “Churn & Burn” – for three years. One man explained it to me.

“We’ve been doing changes for so long that nobody really knows what their job is anymore,” Hank said. “We used to have routines. Now and then we’d make some improvements or get new equipment we had to learn about. But these days we get a new thing to change all the time, like our work processes, our assignments, or who we can and can’t talk to.”  He rolled his eyes, and I could tell he wasn’t interested in improving productivity – or anything else.

“Let’s look back over the last year,” I said to the whole group at that meeting. “I have 3 questions for you. (1) What was the last big change you guys made? (2) What were the results of that change?  And, (3) What did you do when it was complete?”

They looked at me as if I was talking Martian. Hank finally spoke up, saying, “The biggest change was when our crews were downsized from five men to four,” Hank said. “The result was we started using only one truck for over half our jobs, instead of two. I guess that saved money for the company. I know it saved some time for us, since we could get to our jobs faster. Also, different crew trucks had different equipment, so we went to the jobs that needed only what we were carrying – we didn’t have to take everything to every job site.”

“But it was never complete, never over,” he said. “Or at least they never said anything about that. They just told us to change the crew size, gave us three equipment lists to stock our trucks for different jobs, and went on to the next thing. We do the “Churn & Burn” dance these days – I guess that’s our new job description.”  They explained that the “churn” part of the dance was the endless instruction to modify a process, start or stop doing something, and use new forms for job reports or equipment requests. The “burn” part was that more people were leaving for other jobs – the Supervisors were losing experienced people and spending more time training new hires.

Bottom line: I met with the COO and got the statistics on the results of the change – dollars saved, job backlogs reduced, customer satisfaction improved. Then I asked him to come tell the Supervisors about the value of that last big change, and to thank them for all they did to implement it successfully. Surprise! The men appreciated it, and were able to work with me on ways to improve their productivity. They had ideas for what might work and how to do it!

So, it looks like a genuine “thank you”, supported by a little data, can turn change-resistant people who are doing the “Churn & Burn dance” into a team with a recognized accomplishment: they had made a difference for their company. A closure conversation – reviewing the status of a project with the people involved – goes a long way to curing “change fatigue” and restoring people to action. That COO learned the lesson too. Now he has monthly “change debrief” meetings now, with lots of statistics and lots of thank-you’s.

Developing People & Managing Performance… With Meetings? 

Markus, manager of a security team in a manufacturing company, has little patience for the idea that “developing people” (the quote marks are his) is the path to performance management.

He told me, “I get people who are already developed. They went to school, they have experience, they got hired here – and we have a good HR department for the other stuff. So my job is to work with my team to spell out our goals, schedules, and assignments, then track their assignments and results. They don’t need me to be their best friend – they need someone who will help them earn a good reputation for being effective.”

Lately, people are saying some mean things about managers: managers are selfish, unfriendly, and don’t relate well to the “human side” of their people. (Leaders, of course, are wearing their halos as perfect role models, while being busy with inspiring and motivating people. Leaders, good. Managers, not so much.)

Markus says, “The only human development I do is to structure our team meetings so that people get a good look at what we mean by performance. I use a tracking board of everyone’s assignments for the past week, and each person says something about what they got done and what problems they had or lessons-learned they acquired. Everyone sees the whole set of tasks and assignments, and everyone hears all the results. They learn from each other and offer support where it’s needed. Then we decide – together – what we’ll take on to accomplish next week and who will do what. That’s how we learn how to improve our performance as a group. Team performance is what I want to develop.”

Another manager I know has 1-on-1 meetings with each of her staff members. “It helps me focus them on their behavior”, she says, “and that will reduce conflicts. Also, it keeps their performance confidential, which I feel is important. Group meetings are only for information updates about organizational changes. Performance is more personal.”

Probably both methods have their benefits, but I’d rather be in one of Markus’ meetings. Looking at the work to be done with my colleagues seems more interesting (and energizing) than talking about my behavior or workplace conflicts and politics. But that’s probably because I’m an engineer, don’t you think? I’d rather see the bigger picture and improve the whole group’s performance. Either way, it looks like “developing people” means different things to different managers.

Servant Leadership vs. Management

I found this image online that itemized the “7 pillars of servant leadership”. OMG. I am such a total failure!

  1. Person of Character. I suppose I have a character, or maybe I even AM a character, but I don’t think either of those interpretations will meet servant-leader standards.
  2. Puts People First. Flunk this one too. My focus is on action, results, and outcomes – and engaging people in putting their attention on that. I don’t focus on people first, but even so, some of my best friends are people.
  3. Skilled Communicator. Well, I’m not a terrible communicator, but not sure if I qualify as “skilled”. I don’t always use the best practices I’ve been taught, and sometimes make communication mistakes. Fortunately, I’m pretty good at cleaning those up afterward.
  4. Compassionate Collaborator. Huh? Who put those two words together? I suspect it’s an attempt to combine collaborating with others while also “developing” them. I’d get about a C+.
  5. Has Foresight. I might pass this one, since I’m often looking ahead to see what’s coming in different projects. But I’ve really been enjoying lots of surprises lately, so foresight only goes so far.
  6. Systems Thinker. Nailed this one! I’m so addicted to systems thinking that I got a PhD in it. I love looking at things in context and finding connections that can make solutions and breakthroughs easier.
  7. Leads with Moral Authority. Clueless here. I don’t even know what this means. Does it require certain religious beliefs, or ethics training? Flunked this one too.

So, thanks to #6, I am one seventh of a servant leader. I just wrote a paper on leadership vs. management, and will present it at a conference in March. Frankly, the state of leadership literature and training today is quite a mess.

Leadership is useful for creating mission, vision, and purpose (MVP) – and for communicating it regularly. But I can do much of that for myself, so I’m hooked on management. One comprehensive definition of that is: “the function that coordinates the efforts of people to accomplish goals and objectives using available resources efficiently and effectively.” Yeah! That’s what produces action, results, and outcomes!

Seems like it might be a good idea for me to cultivate some moral authority, or some compassionate collaboration skills.  LOL.  Just kidding.

Why Do Some Managers Ignore Poor Performance?

This is a really good question, asked by Jill Christensen – an employee engagement expert, best-selling author, and keynote speaker – on a LinkedIn Group post. Here are the top 4 answers (in order of popularity) and some of the comments made about each:

  1. HR & senior management failure – HR is not doing its job to get poor performance on the corporate agenda and get the message to middle and senior managers. Managers fear that termination is the only solution (and finding a replacement may be difficult), so HR needs to give them ways of improving performance. Senior managers allow Managers to ignore poor performance. There isn’t enough “authentic leadership” to create a “culture” of leadership skills (eyeroll here).
  2. They don’t know how – Managers are not equipped to handle workplace conflict resolution. Managers lack lack the skills, courage, or confidence to address the issue of poor performance, and do not know how to address it properly and completely.  Managers do not have experience in how to mentor people to improve performance.
  3. Fear – Managers, like other people, dread having difficult conversations. They fear conflict, damaging relationships, and exposing themselves to the judgment of others above and below. Managers, like many others, avoid conflict.
  4. It takes work to manage performance and follow through as necessary.

After 30+ years as a management consultant, I say that answer #4 nails it for me!

All Managers know a few basics about the costs of poor performance:

  • Every individual’s performance contributes to organizational performance.
  • Ignoring low performance is a disservice to the employees who must compensate for poor performers.
  • Not handling poor performance undermines your own role as a Manager.

Managers also know it takes work to manage performance, and not just poor performance. To manage performance, a Manager must:

  1. Specify what “performance” is, in every case, with every person and team. Work with your group to define and update statements of measures and results. Specify what needs to be delivered to in-house and external users, customers, and collaborators. Get specific. Then: Make all “performance” clear to all.
  2. Make clear assignments. WHAT are the results and deliverables each person will be accountable for completing? WHEN are those results and deliverables due? WHO will be accountable for fulfilling each assignment?  WHY does each assignment matter to the group, and to the organization?  Then: Make all assignments clear to all.
  3. Follow up on a regular schedule: Update the status of performance assignments, in terms of percent completion, for example, and discuss barriers, problems, and ideas for improvements. Then: Make all performance status clear to all.

What does it mean to make all of these 3 things – [A] Performance measures, results, and deliverables; [B] Assignments for those completions; and [C] Performance status “clear to all”?  It means: Make it public (gasp!).  This is easiest if you use two indispensable elements of good management.

One, an indispensable management tool: Use a visible scoreboard or display for tracking assignment information (What-When-Who-Why).

Two, an indispensable management practice: Hold regular group “performance-update” meetings with the whole team. Those meetings are where you clarify [A] What performance is, [B] What assignment specifics will get us there, and [C] What our follow-up meeting agenda and schedule will be. Note: One-on-one discussions are insufficient for managing performance.

So, why do some Managers ignore poor performance? Because doing A-B-C, plus maintaining visual displays and facilitating performance-update meetings, is work and it takes time. And we all know that Managers are Really Busy.

Organization Change: Leader & Manager Conversations May Be Different

I just finished writing a paper on organization change – it was about the difference between change leadership & change management communications. In the process, I could see how different conversations are so important in making an organization change work well for everyone.

Referring to The Four Conversations (www.usingthefourconversations.com), I saw that leaders mostly emphasize one of these conversations the most: Initiative conversations. Those are the ones that propose a new course of action or a new idea, and say something about what we can do, and why it will be good for us to do it. It doesn’t matter if the change is large or small, complex or simple. And it doesn’t matter if the person speaking is an executive or a manager or has some other nice title in the hierarchy. When you have an Initiative conversation, you’re stepping in to leadership communication by suggesting a new possibility and saying something about its value.

The ingredients of an Initiative conversation are simple: What do we want to do or make happen? When do we want to do it, or have it done? Why is it important or worthwhile to do it? These conversations are often used to inspire and motivate people, which is what we think of leaders as doing. Their communications give us a reason to get into action, and to keep us going when things look really challenging.

But once the Initiative has been spoken, the other three conversations are the ones required to get an organization change going, and a good manager needs to master them. They are best used – over and over again – in this sequence:

  • CLOSURE – use “the four A’s”, and work together with the Team Members to: Acknowledge the current status of a project or situation, stating how we are doing on key measures right now. Appreciate the people involved, recognizing their effort and results. Apologize for broken agreements or failures, and Amend those agreements by updating statements of goals, timelines, or assignments and other interactions.  (Refer to the Initiative conversation here, i.e., the What-When-Why of the overall project or goal we are working to accomplish. This reminds people of the context for their work, and the purpose they are out to fulfill. If the Closure conversation has changed any of those ingredients, be sure to include their updates in referring to the Initiataive.)
  • UNDERSTANDING – Have a dialogue to review Who all is involved in this project or situation, and their roles and responsibilities; Where the resources for this project are coming from, and Where the results and benefits will be going; and How the work needs to be done, including production, service delivery, and communications. Like any reference to the Initiative, this reminds people of the bigger picture, but it also includes updates from any changes made by the Closure conversation. The Who-Where-How may have changed as a result of that conversation. This whole conversation is a dialogue, to re-position where people are with respect to their roles and responsibilities, and collaborate on identifying what needs to be done to gain (or regain) momentum on the project.
  • PERFORMANCE – Look at what is next to accomplish the goals of the project, starting from this new, updated place. What needs to happen now? When will it happen? Why does it matter? Who will do it? Where will any necessary resources come from? How should it be done (any special requirements?). The result of these conversations is people making agreements to do and deliver certain products, services, and/or communications at certain times, and to certain people.

At the next meeting (managers have regular Team meetings, right?) the management communication cycle begins again. Close out the status of all Performance agreements – how did it go? Then have an Understanding dialogue about how to get back on track or gain momentum. And then have the Performance conversations to create agreements for what’s next.

Leadership and management communications are not the same. But, of course, the same people can be having all of those conversations. If you are a manager, you can create an Initiative and get other people on board to implement your ideas. That’s you being a Manager-Leader. And then, you can follow through with the Closure-Understanding-Performance cycle. That’s you being a Manager-Manager.

Most managers do wear both hats – management and leadership. But many people we call Leaders wear only the one. They say, “Here’s my idea. Go make it into a reality, please”. Nothing wrong with that, I guess. But sometimes I want to introduce those people to the complexity of the Real World. Or maybe they’re just good at delegating.  🙂

P.S. Happy Hanukah, Christmas, and New Year to you all! We’ll talk again in 2018.

Stop Managing People, Step 2. Reconsider Those 1:1 Meetings

My last post was about how to “stop managing people” by focusing on managing agreements with people instead of the people themselves. Two different worlds: people are human, and agreements are communications. You can manage the communications.

Then I talked to Markus, and he told me another way managers focus on people: One-to-One meetings, or 1:1 meetings. “Managers complain they don’t have good teamwork,” Markus said, “and then they focus on individuals by meeting with them alone, apart from their team members. Don’t they see what they’re emphasizing by doing that?”

Good point. The 1:1 meeting is necessary for hiring new people, or placing current employees into new positions within the organization. And 1:1 meetings are also useful for traditional “performance reviews”: the annual reflection on what happened and where things are going with an individual.

But 1:1 meetings are not for ongoing “performance management”. Here’s why. Hiring or re-positioning employee requires matching an organization’s skills and capabilities with the organization’s strategic and operational needs.  The 1:1 manager-to-individual meetings for hiring or re-positioning a person are likely to include discussion about the person’s skills, what kind of work they like, and where they want to go in their career and development. That’s fine: this conversation is about the person, which is personal.

But performance is a whole other idea: the root of the word “perform” is “to deliver thoroughly”. So, it’s applied to people who are already in position, who have agreements to deliver some product, service, and/or communication – and who are going about their job of delivering products, services, and communications that will satisfy those agreements. In that world, we measure performance by whether the agreement was fulfilled. It’s not about the person, it’s about delivering per agreements.

Let’s say that you’re my Manager and I have an agreement to give you a summary report every Friday morning, showing the status of my week’s sales calls: who I called on, and when; how long we talked; what results were produced in terms of dollars, service agreements, and product purchases; and what next steps we have agreed to take with a by-when for each one.

When I give you the report, you can see what I delivered this past week. Our agreement was that I would get at least 14 sales calls completed, bring in a certain dollar amount, and close three new service agreements. Did I do that?

  • If so, I delivered thoroughly – 100% performance to agreement.
  • If I did 80% of what I agreed to deliver, then my delivery-performance is 80%.
  • Or maybe it’s 150% on the dollars-produced agreement, but only 20% on product purchases.
  • Or, what if I don’t bring you that report at all? Or, what if you discover that I have misrepresented my actions and results on that report in some way?

Whatever the results, this view of performance is good information to have: where I’m a high-performer (sales dollars) and where I’m not (selling products), and whether I can be counted on to deliver on our agreed performance deliveries thoroughly. But it’s not just good for you to know, it’s good for the whole team to know. Those agreements aren’t private between you and me – they are part of our team’s work, and should be visible to all of us so we can support one another and learn how to do better.

I’ll let Markus weigh in here: “I have three teams to manage, and each one has between 6 and 10 people in it. My meetings are never 1:1, except when I have a Problem Child. I work with the group and we decide: what do we need to deliver, to whom, and when? Plus, what do we want out of doing that, and what do we need in order to make it happen? We decide as a team which of us will do what, and then we hear the results as a team. We all learn how to do better next week.”

I’m with Markus on this. Ultimately, the Manager’s job is to work with their team(s) to define the work to do next – preferably as “delivery” rather than “doing” – then ensure that good agreements are established to produce all intended results and that “delivery performance” is tracked for each of those agreements. This is more work than many managers do, but it also improves performance all around. Markus says it also saves him from costly performance “mistakes” and avoids the annoyance of his having to micro-manage things. Who doesn’t want that?

Stop Managing People, Step 1

Curtis, a successful manager of three Supervisors and their 25 team members, says, “Don’t use your judgmental mud pit as a basis for giving your people assignments – or for evaluating their performance either.”

You already have an opinion about each of your people, right? Come on, of course you do. As one former client told me, pointing to people in his work area, “That one does shoddy work, the guy over there is more interested in getting a promotion than in completing his assignments on time, and Miss Princess in the blue blouse thinks she is too good for this kind of work.”

This former client admitted to me that he assigned people tasks and projects based on those assessments. “I’m not going to try to fix them, so I don’t give the Princess anything that needs deep thinking, for example. But I do give them evaluations that show my opinions, because I want to avoid the conflict and personality stuff. I just give them a decent review and accept who they are.” Which means, of course, that his people do not get useful feedback on their actual performance.

You may not be quite that opinionated, or use your opinions to guide your delegation of work. But Curtis’s four rules for giving people assignments and evaluating their performance might be useful to you anyway. He focuses on making agreements with people for work assignments that each person or group agrees to do, complete, and deliver. It is the agreements he manages, not the personalities or personal opinions. Curtis’s rules, in short, are:

  1. Formulate the assignment. Get very clear about what you want each person or group to produce or deliver. Don’t rely on assumptions that “they know their job”, or your expectations that they will always use the right standards for each software application. Spell out your requirements and give people creative leeway where you can.
  2. Discuss the specifics. Delegation or assigning is not a one-way conversation. Review the specifics of the assignment in 2 phases with the individual or group involved. The first half, “what-when-why”, covers the assignment, due date, and importance of the work. The second half, “who-where-how”, covers the relevant players, the locations of resources (human and other), and ideas about ways the objective can be accomplished. Make sure it’s a two-way dialogue – you want both sides to learn something in this conversation.
  3. Ask and Agree. Giving an assignment can be as simple as asking for what you want – “Will you do this?” – and sets you up for the confirmation of an agreement. Don’t settle for a head-nod: get a Yes. Then summarize the terms of success so you – and they – have confidence that a performance agreement has been created. (Curtis reminds us we don’t need to be shy about using the term “performance agreement”.)
  4. Track and Follow Up. A regular schedule of group meetings is the perfect occasion for reviewing the status of those performance agreements. You’ll need a visible “tracking scoreboard” listing every project, who is accountable for it, and the due dates of key products or deliverables. Curtis confesses to using post-its in each meeting to note the status and updates for each assignment. “That way”, he says, “the lead person can keep things current for her team. And keeping the tracking scoreboard in our meeting room helps too, so everyone can see and update things.”

Curtis’s advice? “Bottom line, let go of the judgments and work with your people to create a game for accomplishment and accountability. The personalities are interesting, but they aren’t what gets the work done right, or done on time and on budget.”

This Middle Manager is Between a Rock and a Hard Place

A manager, Claire, told me that being a “middle manager” was the hardest job she has ever had. She explained it this way: “I’m supposed to balance the interests of the employees who report to me with the interests of my Big Cheese Boss. Which, in my case, means I am between a bunch of people who have job descriptions, projects, and responsibilities… and a woman who is focused on moving up the ladder to the C-Suite. She wants to celebrate the pinnacle of her career before she turns 50.”

Claire has weekly meetings with her staff to review the status of her department’s current and upcoming projects. “That part goes well,” she says. “But when we discuss where things stand, we like to make a list of people’s ideas for ways to improve their work and their results. The problem is they almost always ask for something that I cannot seem to pry out of my Boss: clear goals and success measures.”

She told me she knows using goals and measures would help her “group” become more like a “team”. Some other Middle Managers in her organization created scoreboards for their people to review and update every week. Claire envied them. “I don’t know why their Big Bosses helped them create clear goals and measures and mine won’t,” she said. “I wish my Boss would say what she wants from us, so I could make a scoreboard too. But she meets with me for 15 minutes every other week, and doesn’t want to work on anything with me. She says I need to decide for myself how to manage my people.”

Finally, Claire made up her mind to handle it herself. “I took two of those other Middle Managers out to lunch,” she said. “We talked about the work my department does, and what each of them wanted from us and from our projects. I took notes – right on the paper tablecloth cover – and then I spent the weekend reviewing all 6 of our current initiatives in light of that conversation. I came up with 2 goals and 4 measures of success.”

Still, Claire’s Big Boss didn’t want to review them with her, or even give her a nod of approval. Claire went ahead and presented them to her team anyway. She told the staff about talking with the other managers, then her group discussed the goals she had created for the department.

“They revised them a little,” she said, “and turned one sort of bulky goal into two separate goal statements. But they really liked the measures. My idea was that we could measure these 3 things”:

  1. Dollars saved;
  2. Other department personnel participating in our projects; and
  3. Survey results from external users on their level of satisfaction.

“They dove right in,” she said. “They all started playing with the measures and came up with this variation:

  1. Year-end savings;
  2. External participants in our projects; and
  3. Satisfaction of our users.

“It was funny. They wanted the first letters of the 3 goals to spell something, so now they had Y-E-S. Two people volunteered to make up the scoreboard for tracking the external participants and user satisfaction measures. I guess they really were hungry to see a way to track our accomplishments and get some bragging rights.”

Work without a scoreboard is just that – work. If we want accomplishment, we need to create a game. Good work, Claire. Hats off to the staff for playing full out. And thanks much to Landmark Worldwide for teaching me the difference between just doing things vs. creating an accomplishment.

Emotional Intelligence and Workplace Performance (Two Very Different Things)

Sheryl, a 30-something production manager in a small printing company, was telling me about a problem employee. “He’s disorganized,” she said, and he has no emotional intelligence at all.”

Huh? She explained it to me this way: “Kenny isn’t reliable about coming to work on time. He gets angry with me if I mention that to him, or if I point out that he made a mistake in a customer’s printing job and has to re-do part of it. He needs more emotional control so he can improve his performance.”

Sheryl had obviously done an Emotional Intelligence training program recently. We waded into a discussion about it, and she insisted that Kenny’s performance problems were due to a failure to manage his emotions.

Emotional intelligence has two sides: first, being able to read other people’s emotional responses, and second, knowing – and perhaps controlling – our own emotional responses. If we are good at those things, does it mean we will have higher workplace performance?

Perhaps, if I have a job that involves sales, or providing personal services such as counselling. Then it would be valuable to “read” how others are reacting and what they are feeling, and maybe steer the conversation in a way that would help the other person see some value in what I’m offering. (Note: this could be seen either as manipulation or as motivation.)  But if I’m a computer programmer or an air-conditioning technician, my work is applied more to things than to people. You want your AC to work efficiently, and I probably don’t have to be an expert at reading facial expressions or body language: just fix the thing.  Still, whatever kind of work we do, it surely helps to recognize our own emotional responses to people, things, and situations. When we experience fear, anger, or resentment, for example, we may not be acting rationally, but instead, reacting emotionally. That’s not usually a reliable way to interact with others.

Knowing ourselves allows us to be more in charge of our lives and our communications. Does Kenny know where his own emotional “hot buttons” are? Losing his temper, for example, could compromise his critical thinking and take a conversation – or, in this case, a relationship – in a negative direction.

But even if self-awareness and maintaining good manners makes workplace interactions more positive, it does not necessarily improve performance. Workplace performance is more about fulfilling agreements to produce and/or deliver something than it is about managing emotions. OK, being a jackass makes a workplace less pleasant, but Sheryl has said that Kenny’s performance issues are:

  • Being late to work; and
  • Making mistakes on customer printing jobs.

I questioned whether emotional intelligence was the only way to help with that. Sheryl said she would have a conversation with Kenny and explain what performance she wanted in those two areas. She was also going to ask him to come to her office and talk with her, instead of the fly-by, in-the-hallway conversations she’d had before. And she was going to start the meeting by telling him they needed to make a couple of agreements, and that she wanted his input on how to do that.

I saw Sheryl the next week, after she had talked with Kenny. “He was a different person in my office,” she said. “He seemed pleasant and interested in working with me. And we did find a way to phrase the agreements for being on time to work and making fewer mistakes on print jobs. It’s simple: if he’s going to be late, he will text me and let me know. And if he doesn’t understand the print job specifications, he’s going to ask me about what it means.”

Kenny had been afraid to tell her he was responsible for taking his little sister to school on the days his mother was working the early shift at the hospital. And he had been afraid to ask for help when the print job instructions were not clear to him.

Sheryl said, “Emotional intelligence training might have helped with the situation. But knowing how to make performance agreements with my staff has definitely helped me be a better manager.” Three cheers for that!