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An “F” for Effort is More Motivating than Praise for Good Intentions

Even when they know the basic rules of performance feedback (see Car Talk: Lessons in Performance Feedback), many of my clients feel, well, squeamish when they have to give tough performance feedback, particularly to longstanding employees.

They don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, be perceived as heavy-handed, or trigger subsequent backlash in the form of either worse performance or the demotivation of other staff members.

Sometimes managers think that it’s not worth bothering to give feedback because they don’t believe (often with good reason) that the employee will improve anyway, and that it’s better not to start on an upsetting and ineffective chain of events, given how hard many organizations work to avoid terminating any — or particular — employees.

It’s actually possible to get ahead of this kind of performance problem, but it requires the rejection of a major fallacy to which managers sometimes fall prey, and which may, in fact, come out of the child development and self-esteem literature of the past 20 years: the misplaced focus on effort instead of results.

Are You Satisfied with the Impression of Improvement?

We all can be such suckers for effort because we want so much to be understood and for problems to disappear. As a result, we don’t check back quickly enough to see if the effort has been sustained or if it’s petered out, or whether some additional application of our attention or other resources was necessary. We mentally close the case — and then we are shocked and hurt when backsliding occurs.

If you really want an employee’s performance to improve, though, consider three perspectives on candid, realistic, dispassionate performance feedback, particularly with tough cases.

From a self-management perspective: Don’t try to protect Parsifal’s feelings if it means he won’t hear exactly and specifically what it is that you need him to improve. And don’t give him extra credit for “trying” unless it’s a clear, persistent, significant effort — done correctly — no matter how much you might like him and wish, hope, and worry to the point of anguish that he’ll succeed.

From a motivational perspective: The best thing for Parsifal is to achieve the desired result. The second best thing is for him to see that following your instructions is the best way to get the result you’ve asked for. In other words, Parsifal must believe that if he does what you ask, it will work. To get to this optimal state, you need to direct him to change things that are completely under his control. This is a sort of acid test, so you can tell whether he has actually done what you asked or not.

From a “corrective action” perspective: If you’ve been explicit and direct about things that are truly under Parsifal’s control, then you can praise both the specific actions and the accomplishments. If he’s been unsuccessful, you can still acknowledge the steps he took, the behaviors he demonstrated, the activities he pursued — instead of his effort or his good intent, which are not only harder to measure, but do not address the actual quality of his work.

Let the Rubber Meet the Road (of Requirements?)

This is a very difficult line to draw, because of course we want to show that we value employees and colleagues as people. But if we don’t emphasize the effectiveness of their work, then it’s very hard to take the necessary steps when the work happens to be inadequate. A wonderful person may be wonderful as a worker or a friend, but there is no room for a poor worker in anyone’s work environment.

And a note: Some organizations — perhaps family businesses or nonprofits, for example — may prize relationships over effectiveness as a cultural norm, so keeping people working may be a crucial requirement. In those cases, instead of just stepping up performance feedback, try to find roles and responsibilities that actually match the strengths and capabilities of the person in question as a way of preserving job security. That’s a completely different approach to engineering job success.

Onward and upward,


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