The Simplest Way To Improve Employee Performance (That You Probably Aren’t Doing)

Welcome to the Innovative Leadership Newsletter brought to you by the Innovative Leadership Institute, where we bring you thought leaders and innovative ideas on leadership topics each week.

This week’s article is written by Benjamin Marcovitz, a leadership expert and the founder and CEO of the Rise Institute. It is a companion piece to his interview on Innovating Leadership, Co-creating Our Future titled The Power of Praise:  Making People’s Performance Positive which aired on October 5, 2022. 

Short clip from the interview:

 Link to the entire interview:

Typically, when an underperforming employee isn’t improving despite your best efforts, the next move is to transfer or terminate them. But what if you can’t?

For businesses today dealing with high turnover and struggling to fill job vacancies, firing poor performers in favor of more qualified candidates may simply not be an option. In fact, while quit rates have hit record highs, recent numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that people are being laid off or fired at significantly lower rates compared to the same time period in 2019 and 2020.

So, what do you do if you have employees who are struggling or checked out, but you need to make it work?

Traditional management tactics like constructive criticism or feedback often miss the mark, at best resulting in adequacy over excellence—or, at worst, causing a rift between manager and employee. Plus, one-on-one coaching can take a significant amount of bandwidth while delivering minimal results.

Alternatively, praise is an effective management tool used in many organizations for improving relationships, engagement and satisfaction. Receiving praise can make people feel good and improve morale, which we hope will somehow translate to better outcomes.

However, ordinary praise offers little value in terms of what actually matters here: improving day-to-day performance and changing employee behavior forever. To accomplish these objectives, it’s necessary to go beyond compliments to provide a different kind of recognition.

Reveal and Remark: The Secret to Lasting Performance Improvement

There’s a formula for offering praise that can radically transform behavior and performance permanently. It’s what I call “Reveal and Remark,” and all it takes is pointing out the connection between someone’s tiny, positive choices and better outcomes.

Not only does this simple act improve performance, but it will also increase your leadership influence and improve your relationships with team members. And the best part? It shouldn’t take you longer than 30 minutes per week, max. (Yes, really.)

How it Works

Let’s say you have one employee who always shows up late to your morning kickoff meeting. Maybe it’s the only thing he actually does consistently. But one week, he’s late every day but one. On that day, reveal his choice and remark on it.

Say something like, “I noticed you arrived at our morning meeting on time today. Because you did that, it allowed us to get started earlier and boosted the efficiency and productivity of the whole team.”

To those who are repulsed (Are you kidding? I’m giving props to someone for meeting expectations one time, when he otherwise ignores them?), I’ll say two things. First, don’t heap on the praise—just note the behavior and connect it to a positive outcome. You can do it right then, or later in an email.

Second: note how, with one simple comment, the employee begins thinking to himself:

  • “When I made even a tiny effort to do something better, it was important. Someone noticed. Maybe it’s worthwhile to do that more?”
  • “My boss is paying much closer attention to my contribution than I thought. When I try harder, it’s not a waste of time.”
  • “It felt good hearing that just now. I’d like that to happen again.”’
  • “Feeling like a success versus a failure is that easy? Maybe I should try that again.”

If you were in fact repulsed, that’s normal. It also probably means that this employee knows their behavior displeases you, which probably means they’ve already given up on pleasing you a long time ago. But when you make your approval widely accessible, even to poor performers, more people will start doing more things right. When you’re the boss, the only people not seeking your approval constantly are those who are pretty sure they can’t get it. My advice: prove them wrong.

Why it Works

There is nothing more effective for improving employee performance than the personal experience of doing something correctly. This is what we provide when we reveal someone’s positive choice to them. And there is nothing more lasting than an emotional memory, which is what happens when we remark on the tangible impact of that behavior.

Revealing exposes behavioral choices made in real time, making them easier to repeat.

✓ Remarking turns those behaviors into a positive memory, creating a desire to repeat them.

Doing both consistently and publicly seeds a new identity within strugglers, who begin to view themselves as high performers and strive to live up to the positive reputation they’re earning with their choices.

Adopting this approach isn’t difficult, but there are a few things to keep in mind to achieve the desired impact.

Five Steps to Reveal and Remark Like a Pro

 

  1. Praise behaviors, not people

The power of Reveal and Remark hinges on your ability to pinpoint and praise successful behaviors you’re trying to encourage, and then connect them to a positive outcome. “Good job” just isn’t enough.

 

  1. Recognize tiny choices

The tinier, the better. This makes them easier for you to identify more often and for employees to replicate. In addition, small behaviors are likely underappreciated, so recognizing them can be even more powerful.

 

  1. Be specific and authentic

When you’re specific in your recognition, people can tell it’s authentic. And when employees feel genuinely seen, heard and acknowledged by their boss, it builds trust and encourages them to repeat that behavior.

 

  1. Remark publicly when possible

Before you deliver a remark, ask yourself if there are any other employees who might benefit from seeing it, too, whether in person or by email. Positive peer pressure from seeing a colleague receive recognition creates momentum in others. It isn’t jealousy if they think they can achieve it also.

 

  1. Do it often

The number one most important factor is to Reveal and Remark whenever you can. But don’t worry—it’s not as big of a time commitment as you might think. A robust frequency for recognizing each person is only once every three weeks, and one comment should take you no more than two minutes total, from inception to delivery. The hard part is prioritizing it.

Here’s a simple system for getting it done consistently:

  • First, create a list of your direct reports and identify the behaviors each person needs to improve in order to succeed habitually.
  • Next, pick a weekly 30-minute calendar slot, and label it “R&R time – Do not skip!”
  • Once that 30-minute window comes around each week, take 30 seconds to two minutes to recognize tiny, positive choices and related outcomes for some or all of the individuals on your list. This can be an email, text or phone call, or a personal aside or even a quick public comment during a meeting.

That’s really it. If you can build the discipline to Reveal and Remark consistently, the rewards are worth the effort. In only a few moments each week, you will have created psychological momentum where none existed before, kicking off a virtuous growth cycle within your underperformers.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Benjamin Marcovitz is a champion for growth, a leadership expert and the founder and CEO of the Rise Institute, which advances the understanding that human beings can grow and develop beyond their estimations, and that expecting radical growth from those who struggle can and should be the norm. Using his expertise in consulting work, background in education and boots-on-the-ground research on human behavior, Marcovitz helps leaders accelerate their work and generate breakthrough performance in their employees. He believes the world will be transformed if people understand and recognize the possibilities for growth within everyone.

 

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Check out the companion interview and past episodes of Innovating Leadership, Co-creating Our Future via iTunesTuneInStitcherSpotify,  Amazon Music,  AudibleiHeartRADIO, and NPR One. Also, stay up-to-date on new shows airing by following the Innovative Leadership Institute on LinkedIn.

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