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Don’t Shoot The Staff
Together you can achieve high performance
Sharon McGann


1. Do they set expectations so staff know what’s required?
2. Do they clarify why it’s required & the impacts?
3. Provide specific & respectful feedback
4. Reward good performance

A few years ago, Karen Pryor, an animal trainer turned learning consultant, wrote an intriguing book titled “Don’t Shoot the Dog!”  Karen recommends eight methods for getting rid of unwanted behaviour in pets and people.  Shooting the dog is the most drastic method and unfortunately, it’s permanent.

Sometimes it’s a bit the same with our staff when they just don’t seem to care about performance the way our managers want them to.  If, our managers are tired and overworked, their thoughts may turn briefly to the possibility of firing the staff and starting again.  Then we remind them of those unfair dismissal laws.  Managers can be caught between a rock and a hard place - too much effort to fire staff and a lot of effort to “retrain” them. 

But what if training was something managers did every day, not just organised events?  Most HR professionals know that the key to performance success is to make performance a focus of manager’s regular conversations, not just an awkward annual event, so here are some basic guidelines to help you coach your managers to performance success.

1. Do they set expectations so staff know what’s required?

Some managers tend to think that good staff should know what good performance is.  Great staff often have an uncanny knack of knowing exactly what’s required, but normal staff can’t read the boss’s mind and need to be told what’s expected.

We need to remind managers that it is their responsibility is to make sure that each person understands clearly what good performance looks, sounds and feels like.  To suit all learning styles encourage them to write, tell and show staff what’s required and keep repeating it, regularly.

One business owner I know tells people exactly how she wants them to operate, but nothing is written down.  Observing her for a few hours, the problem was obvious, not dumb staff, but information overload – she gave too many detailed instructions.  She loved talking and hated writing, so I coached her to ask new staff to write down her instructions and she learned to slow the pace and give instructions at a slower speed.  I also challenged her about her habit of criticising the person’s performance when there were parts of the process she hadn’t explained. She now accepts feedback from her staff about the instructions and realises that it is her responsibility to ensure that the instructions are comprehensive.

2. Do they clarify why it’s required & the impacts?

I ask managers I advise to make a list of their main expectations of employees.  Then I get them to work through each item on their list and ask “why is this necessary to the business?”  If it’s not necessary to the business it may be a personal value.

For example, if a manager expects employees to arrive on time every day, I ask “why is it necessary for staff to be in at a certain time?”  If the business advertises certain service hours, then requiring staff to work certain hours is a valid standard.  Their role as manager is then to help staff understand the impact on customer satisfaction and retention if they are regularly late.

If it’s more for the manager’s comfort, so they know staff are at work, or if it’s something the manager values personally as demonstrating commitment, I ask them to consider the potentially negative impact on staff who have family, study or sporting commitments.  Some people will do what a manager requires because they are their boss, others will only do it if there is a valid reason.

As an example, one manager I worked with realised he could be more flexible with start and finish times and started to use flexibility as a negotiating point.  This manager offered flexible work hours as a reward those who consistently met their promises and deadlines, but was stricter about time off for those who missed deadlines.  Within six months the team was receiving many positive comments about their ability to meet their promises and deadlines.

3. Provide specific & respectful feedback

Feedback is the food of champions.  Staff need regular, specific feedback if they are to improve their performance.  I work with managers to develop visual “scorecards” of the important metrics.  But one trap for managers is be wary of individual comparisons when team members are over 45.  They have often grown up in school environments where they were humiliated and visual results can harm rather than encourage their efforts.

I encourage managers to create a “Talk To” file (paper-based and email) for each of their employees with a brag section and an improvement section.  They are tasked with collecting specific examples of success or gaps on a regular basis and feeding them back as soon as possible.  Rather than say “the quality of your work isn’t up to scratch”, at an annual appraisal discussion, managers are encouraged to collect specific evidence to be able to say “Jim, over the last two weeks I’ve seen these three pieces of your work with spelling, grammatical or factual errors in them.  Let’s talk about how you can work towards producing work that has zero errors”.

Even better, I encourage the manager to speak to Jim the first time there is an error.

If specific is half the answer, respect is the other half.  People like to know what they can do to improve not be made to feel “wrong”.   Managers often give feedback like this:  “you are very enthusiastic but you don’t handle the details well”.  It usually makes the person feel that their enthusiasm doesn’t really count and it doesn’t necessarily help them with the details problem.

Instead I encourage them to start saying “your client manner is very enthusiastic and if you apply your enthusiasm to double checking the details on the reports before you send them off so that clients get a great result, your total performance will be excellent”.

It tells them how they can improve rather than where they went wrong.

4. Reward good performance

Finally, I encourage managers to make sure they are rewarding high performance - with positive comments, written emails, notes, cards and certificates and awards or practical rewards.  I also encourage them to make sure they are paying attention to their stars as well as their “problem children”.  And rather than try and read their minds, I advise them to find out what is and isn’t valuable to the staff, so staff don’t fire off angry salvos about being unappreciated.  Or worse, leave permanently.

The manager’s challenge

Start with their performance as a manager. 

Encourage them to rate themself on a scale of 1 = poor 5 = excellent in these four areas:

  1. Setting Expectations
  2. Clarifying Reasons and Impacts
  3. Providing Specific and Respectful Feedback
  4. Rewarding Good Performance.

Reward themself where they are doing well and use their areas of strength to work on the areas for improvement and make it a 3 month commitment, because realistically behavioural change doesn’t happen overnight – for manager or staff.  Rather than tackle everything at once, encourage them turn one area into a daily action and put it into practice for 21 days – until it starts to become a habit.  An example might be to find something they can compliment each staff member on daily, even if initially it is a non-work matter.  One manager had stunning success with a withdrawn team member by commenting on the pretty lemon cardigan she was wearing - it led to an improvement in the woman’s attitude and performance over a matter of weeks.

Encourage them to notice and feedback any changes in staff performance, then move on to put the next idea into action for a minimum 21 days, whilst maintaining the first action.  Within 3 months they can generate actions in all four areas and will most likely be looking at improved performance from their people.  There will be no need to come out firing – except with letters of commendation!

Sharon McGann is an organisational development consultant whose passion is working with business owners and managers to bring out the best in them and their employees.


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