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How good leaders improve staff performance

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Have you ever needed to deliver some correction to a team member, but been frustrated at their seeming inability to hear it? This can drain the momentum of any team and a surprising number of people wrongly mistake a correction about their work for a correction about their worth.

Sometimes, no correction is needed at all. Allow me to illustrate how this plays out in a symphony orchestra rehearsal:

When a professional musician makes a mistake, a good conductor will first give them the benefit of the doubt. After all, they are competent musicians or they wouldn’t be in the group to start with. They know they messed up, and everyone else knows they messed up so there is no need to draw attention to it. A good conductor knows the difference between something that needs time to self-correct and something that needs attention to be corrected. If the mistake was one of skill, like a difficult passage, there is no sense in drawing attention to it; because it is an error in skill, it can’t be instantly corrected.

Too many well-intentioned managers are disrupting the workflow by drawing attention to the wrong mistakes. This undermines the employee’s confidence and sense of contribution. They are effectively being told “you are probably too incompetent to realize that you screwed up here, so let me point out the obvious for you.” Sadly, the people pointing out the obvious frequently want recognition for their “keen” observation.

Where possible, give the benefit of the doubt, if you thought they were competent enough to hire, then trust them to know when they made a mistake. Giving the benefit of the doubt will increase teamwork by encouraging them to take more responsibility. After all, why should they be proactive when they have a manager to do it for them?

However, there are times when the musician is not aware and cannot be aware of how their individual actions relate to the whole group. When a conductor needs to address the mistake, they do so by instrument and not by player. A good conductor will say something like: “second trumpet, that was too slow, a bit faster next time.” Keep in mind, this is a critique in front of 80 peers. Also, notice the statement ends with a clear description of what the conductor wants to see next time. End your statements with the positive action you want because the brain focuses on the last thing said.

Even if the conductor and second trumpet player are on a first name basis, in rehearsal, a good conductor will still refer to the error by instrument and not by player. A bad conductor will say something like “Tony, you are too slow.” This creates unnecessary processing on Tony’s part and disrupts the flow of teamwork. Bringing “Tony” into it now makes it personal, “you are too slow” reinforces that this is a critique about the person and not the desired outcome, and of course the poor phrasing focuses the brain on the unwanted behavior. You can’t hit a target by focusing on the part you want to miss.

By correcting mistakes by job role, the conductor is moving the ball down the field and keeping the momentum. Good managers in the business world will do the same thing. Even if they are only referring to one person they will still say something like: “accounting, everything gets jammed up over here if we don’t have the forms collated.” A statement like this removes a host of conflicts by subtly reminding everyone that it is not personal. The funny thing, is that when it is not presented as personal, the personnel behind the error take more ownership of the problem. But when things are presented as personal like: “Barbara, you keep messing up the forms.” Then the people behind the breakdown tend to distance themselves from the issue by blaming, deflecting, or denying ownership.

On the flip side, when a player does something well, a good conductor will publicly reference it, but this time by name. “Tony, that was excellent.”

Critique by role, compliment by relationship.

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