“A longstanding employee continues to exhibit abrasive, irritating behavior in his dealings with other employees. While he is technically skilled, his interactions with his colleagues consist of one awkward encounter after another. Conflict is inevitable when he is part of the mix. We’ve moved to a performance appraisal format that is more behavior-based, so I’ve been able to talk about how he carries out his work in addition to what (tasks) he does. The first couple of conversations along these lines haven’t gone well; the problem is everyone else, not him, at least from his perspective. He is quick to point out what everyone is doing wrong in a given situation and equally quick to exonerate himself. How do I get him to take ownership of his part in all of this unpleasantness?”
This is a very familiar scenario that you outline. In comparison with technical skills, interpersonal skills often lag behind in terms of development, perhaps because they have not been emphasized as a foundation for career success. But while technical skills get an employee into the elevator, how fast and high the elevator climbs is driven to a large extent by interpersonal acumen.
I would like to frame my response to the reader’s question by making reference to “accountability” within the context of performance management. The prevailing opinion seems to be that managers must hold their employees accountable regarding observed versus expected performance. Accordingly, when observed performance fails to meet expectations, managers must weigh in with punitive consequences. From where I sit, though, I would say that at the point where the manager needs to act along these lines, this is not accountability; it is punishment.
For performance management to truly be effective (i.e., promote adaptive, constructive behavior and performance), accountability must, indeed, be present. But, it absolutely must be present in the form of the foundational element of self-accountability driven by authentic, accurate self-assessment on the part of the employee.
From my vantage point, by the time it has become apparent the employee has not held himself or herself accountable by engaging in hard-hitting, honest self-assessment, what can the manager do but apply punitive consequences? Again, that is not performance management, it is punishment! Let me be very clear on this last point: punishment does not reinforce constructive performance, it extinguishes deleterious behavior.
So, the prescription here is to encourage the employee in the reader’s question to become much more proficient at self-assessment. I would encourage the manager to build a self-assessment component into each and every performance management exchange, including both formal (e.g., performance appraisal meetings) and informal (e.g., spontaneous conversations) exchanges. Clearly, at this point, the employee does not see his role in the unpleasant interpersonal interactions.
The goal, moving forward, is for the employee to recognize his role (i.e., the behaviors in which he engages that unsettle or upset others) and identify more adaptive modes of interacting. The manager, then, can reinforce the employee’s efforts by offering incremental reinforcement as incremental gains are made (i.e., a small step warrants a small dose of positive feedback, a big step warrants a larger dose of positive feedback, and so on).
To promote authentic, accurate self-assessment, here are some factors to encourage employees to explore:
What messages do I send? How do I offer them? What communication skills do I employ? To what extent do I seek and offer feedback during communications?
To what extent do my motives, values, interests, attitudes, past experiences, current expectations, etc. color or affect my behavior? How can I gain insights about these factors to behave differently?
What aspects of my role (e.g., tasks, responsibilities, boundaries, parameters, etc.) influence my behavior? What can I do manage these role expectations so that my behavior is more constructive?
Work area norms
What beliefs or assumptions exist within my work area or team that impact the way I behave? What latitude do I have, as an individual, in ways that reflect my unique perspective?
In what kind of organizational setting do I work? What does the organization (and its leaders) say about the vision, mission, and values we are to uphold and pursue? How does my behavior compare with these espoused elements?
Ultimately, both managers and employees need to realize the simple fact that people differ in the way they perceive the world. It is tempting to assume that human behavior is a response to objective reality, but as the comedienne Lily Tomlin has observed, “Reality is nothing more than a collective hunch.”
The same stimulus may be present in our environment, but what we do with that stimulus is affected by individual differences. Learning to own one’s role in interpersonal interactions at work is a key factor in determining the effectiveness of those interactions. And, accurate, authentic self-assessment is the keystone.
Daniel Schroeder, Ph.D., is the president and CEO of Brookfield-based Organization Development Consultants Inc. He can be reached at (262) 827-1901 or Dan.Schroeder@OD-Consultants.com.