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Encouraging positive action in your team

Chances are good that as a manager, you have at some point noticed how a certain employee’s performance took a turn for the worst. Prior to this, you might never have had a problem with their skill. One day that person did something differently to how you wanted it – and since then they can’t do anything ‘right’ for you?

In this article, we look at what you as the manager can do to create an environment that encourages your employees to learn and grow.

From time to time, we hear managers say: “This employee is not getting anything right“or “that one is slow“, and “this one is not focusing on detail” and the list goes on… The temptation of making general negative statements about employees (rather than focussing on one specific aspect about the employee that the manager is not happy with) is big.

In the midst of all the challenges as a manager, having to produce results, report to your superiors as well as manage your team, it is easy to focus on an employee’s errors. Depending on your own stresses and challenges, you might ultimately stop noticing what the person is actually doing well or right. Finally, the frustration starts to builds to a point where you begin to feel that particular person is not cut out for the job at all.

The question is: How can you ensure that even when mistakes are made, they are followed by positive and courageous action?

The more your employees’ feel that they are doing something wrong, the more nervous they become and the more mistakes they make while actually trying to impress you. We have noticed that managers often concentrate strongly on managing employees’ actual performance, thus look at what’s NOT working. While this is highly crucial, there is another aspect that needs to be kept in mind: whilst giving feedback or looking at aspects that are not going well (and most managers get paid to do this!), it needs to be done in a way that encourages rather than intimidates. This means not only looking at mistakes, but tapping into qualities and positive aspects that will enable the employee to deal with their work better next time around.

A model and leadership tool which can assist managers in tapping into qualities is “Appreciative Inquiry” (AI). AI impacts employees positively, by focusing on the positive, on potential opportunities and on what the employee is doing right. It steers away from a typical critical perception to highlighting what is working well.

Focusing only on what employees do wrong creates an environment of uncertainty and is damaging to people’s confidence regarding their performance at work. As employees are encouraged and gain confidence in what they are doing well, they can start to imagine even bigger and better opportunities for themselves in the workplace – which will have a positive spin off effect on the organisation. It is about allowing people to see their ‘gold’, to see themselves in light of their potential rather than their shortcomings only.

Using questions in Appreciative Inquiry will allow the employee to understand their tasks better and reflect on it from a new perspective. At the same time, the employee will start to feel that you have not lost faith in him or her. This could create a new or refreshed motivation in their workplace.

Examples of appreciative questions can be:

  • What went well with this task?
  • What were you good at?
  • What can you acknowledge in what you did well?
  • Would you have done something differently?

After the employee has thought for themselves what they would have done differently, you and the employee can then decide together how to move forward. For you as the manager however it will be very important to be clear on where they can freely choose what to do differently, and where you want to direct them to change. Be careful not to “hide” directive behaviour in your appreciative inquiry questions. It is really to get employees to open up and think in a solution-focussed manner. Ultimately they will be less afraid of taking initiative or making mistakes. Rather they will become more willing to assume more responsibility for their actions.

When employees are involved in positive / motivating / developing performance discussions involving Appreciative Inquiry with the manager, it encourages positive behaviour and develops an environment conducive to learning, accountability and responsibility.

After all, motivation is far greater when we are aware of our successes, wins and achievements rather than fearful of failure – because on a solid basis of “I am a person of value, I have many strengths, there are many things I do well”, something highly beneficial can develop: a willingness of learning from mistakes, and seeing them as opportunities for growth.

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