performance or behavior problem can be separated into one of three categories:
attendance, performance, and conduct.
Start by determining
which of the three types of problems is the primary concern. While an individual
may have a need for improvement in several areas (an unacceptable attendance record
may be combined with a failure to submit scheduled progress reports on time),
keeping unrelated issues separated increases the chances of getting each problem
solved. Moreover, if the discussion is a formal disciplinary transaction, the
procedural aspects of the discipline system will be easier to manage when every
disciplinary discussion focuses only on one of the three problem categories. In
other words: Got two problems? Hold two discussions.
stages, when the probability of correction and commitment are highest, there is
no absolute prohibition against talking about several performance concerns in
the course of an informal discussion about performance. But when concerns about
performance have grown to the point where the supervisor has decided to schedule
a specific meeting with the supervisee to discuss the need for change, restricting
the discussion to the top-priority issue will increase the odds that the supervisee
will agree to change and return to fully acceptable performance. Dumping a gunnysack
of problems will suggest to the individual that the real issue is not his own
poor performance but some personal failing on the supervisor's part. The supervisee
will discount all of the unconnected deficiencies about which the supervisor is
complaining as merely additional proof of the supervisor's tendency to nitpick
and relieve pressure by taking out his frustrations on his supervisees. Quick
and unconvincing agreement will probably be forthcoming, as the supervisee, eager
to get the meeting over with and get back to the job at hand, simply concurs and
harmonizes with whatever the boss puts forth.
can increase their effectiveness by starting a meeting with a multi-troubled
supervisee by saying, "Jack, there are probably a number of things that we
should be talking about. In the last few weeks I've expressed my concern at various
times about the number of customer contacts you're making, about your reluctance
to get involved with the trade association to make new contacts, even about your
being away from your desk too often to catch a smoke. But those things are really
secondary. Today I want to concentrate on talking about one key issue with you.
That is, your total sales have fallen by 16 percent in the last three months.
Now the supervisee knows that while all those other infractions
have not been forgotten, they are secondary. The supervisor can concentrate on
the most significant issue and then, once agreement to solve the critical problem
has been gained, can mention the need for a total commitment to acceptable performance
as the meeting is wrapping up.
It's usually a fairly easy matter to determine
the category into which a problem falls. Being specific about desired and actual
performance is much more difficult.
Determining Actual and
Instead of concentrating on the precise change needed
in the supervisee's performance, most supervisors tend to talk in vague and general
terms. Since the supervisor himself has not taken the time to determine exactly
what acceptable performance is-and what it is not-it is almost impossible for
the supervisee to know exactly what is expected.
Why is it so important to
be so specific? Consider what happens in a restaurant when we experience an evening
of enjoyable food but wretched service. To communicate our unhappiness with the
waiter's service, we leave a nickel tip.
When the waiter discovers our paltry
tip, our unhappiness will instantly be communicated. But in the absence of any
data about the cause of our unhappiness, the waiter's immediate assumption will
be that the problem resides, not with the service he provided, but with us as
Consider all the explanations the waiter is likely
to come up with to explain the insulting tip:
o The customer made a mistake-the
tiny tip was inadvertent.
o There was something wrong with the food.
was something wrong with the restaurant-too warm, too cold, too smoky.
customer had run out of money and left everything that he had.
each case, the waiter's explanation of the lousy tip acknowledged the fact that
a problem existed, but denied the possibility that he himself was the cause. The
waiter will tell himself that whatever the reason may have been for the meager
tip, it certainly had nothing to do with poor service.
same situation happens in organizations when supervisors fail to be specific about
the problem and the resolution required. If the supervisor only communicates a
general feeling of unhappiness, the supervisee will understand that the supervisor
is upset. But the supervisee will explain away the supervisor's unhappiness in
the same way the waiter did:
o He's picking on me because his boss chewed him
out this morning.
o She's disappointed she didn't get appointed to the steering
o He must have had a fight with his wife.
o It must be her time
of the month.
o She's one day away from vacation and she's just trying to get
us all to work hard while she's gone.
o He just doesn't like us elderly, black,
female, Spanish-surnamed, handicapped homosexuals.
problems effectively we must be able to describe what it is that we want and
what it is that we get in the individual's performance. It is the supervisee's
responsibility to close the gap between desired and actual performance. Our responsibility
is to specify exactly what the gap is.
For some problems, it's
easy. Problems that fall into the attendance category are the easiest to identify
specifically, because the gap between desired and actual performance is always
clear: "Between June 16 and July 23, Jane Edmondson was absent from work
on three occasions for a total of five days. In that same period she reported
to work late by more than ten minutes on two separate occasions."
that the problem statement says nothing about the cause of Jane's absence. It
does not say that Jane was ill or called in sick or abused her sick-leave privileges
or did anything other than simply fail to report to work every day on time. That
is all that the supervisor knows for sure. The cause of Jane's absences may be
considered at some other more appropriate time. But at this point, when our only
task is to identify the difference between desired and actual performance, we
restrict ourselves to writing down the answers to two straightforward questions:
What is the desired performance? (What do I want?)
2. What is the actual performance?
(What do I get?)
Here are some examples of various problems
stated in terms of actual and desired performance:
Desired Performance Employees are to smoke only in designated smoking areas or outside the building.
Actual Performance George Adamson was seen smoking in the cafeteria.
Performance Upon being given an instruction by any member of management, employees
are to perform the task assigned. If they believe that the supervisor giving the
instruction is in error, they are to complete the task assigned and then question
the appropriateness of the assignment.
Actual Performance Upon being told by the department supervisor to stop what she was doing and assist
two other employees finish a complicated customer order, Julie Sonnenberg stated,
"You're not my boss. You can't tell me to do." She continued to work
at the task she had been assigned by her immediate supervisor earlier.
Performance All drivers are expected to operate their vehicles courteously.
Performance On May 17 a woman called the 800 number posted on the back of
company trucks to complain about the erratic driving and speeding of a company
truck that was being driven at the time by Danny Di Sabatino.
Performance All nurses are expected to respond to any patient call within
three minutes on the 11 P.M. to 7 A.M. shift.
Actual Performance On the evening of March 16, patient Claudia Gonzales complained to the day nurse
that the night nurse hadn't responded to her call button the night before.
Performance All employees of the corporation are prohibited from engaging
in any unwanted or inappropriate behavior of a sexual nature, whether physical,
verbal, nonverbal, or any other type, expressed toward any employee, customer,
applicant, vendor, supplier, or other individual having a relationship with the
Actual Performance On September 5, Joe
McKenna approached Sharon Peterman at the copy machine and said, "You sure
make that sweater look good." When Peterman turned away without responding,
McKenna said, "The package sure is pretty . . . I'd sure like to get my hands
on the contents."
Conducting the Performance Improvement
Whether the discussion with the employee is a nondisciplinary
Performance Improvement Discussion or a formal step of the Discipline Without
Punishment system, the goal is the same: to get the employee to agree to solve
the problem and return to fully acceptable performance. By securing the supervisee's
agreement to correct the situation, the odds go up that an actual correction will
result. If the correction does not follow and the problem continues, the next
discussion will concentrate not only on the continuing problem but also on the
supervisee's failure to live up to the agreement that she has made.
initiating the discussion, it is important to prepare fully, anticipate any difficulties
that may arise, and create the conditions that will assure the highest probability
In order to be fully prepared for the discussion,
create a short written summary of the essential information that will be needed
in the meeting. This information is simply the data that the supervisor collected
in the previous step. The written summary should include brief statements of the
1. The Category the Problem Falls Into: Performance,
Attendance, or Conduct. Noting the category at the top of the page will help get
the conversation back on track if irrelevant issues take the discussion astray.
This will also help the supervisor communicate that there is one specific area
of performance that the supervisor is concerned with.
The Dates of Any Previous Conversations About This or Similar Problems.
Having the actual dates available is invaluable, should the employee claim that
this is the first time the issue has been raised.
What if the
previous conversations were informal and no written record was made of them? The
fact that no record was made does not negate the fact that they actually took
place. If the employee says that he doesn't recall the conversation, acknowledge
the fact that sometimes people do forget things and that's why you went to the
trouble of jotting down some notes about the discussion. Then suggest that the
supervisee make a note of the fact that the two of you are talking now, because
the situation has now become more serious.
What if you can't
recall the specific date? Again, just because you can't come up with the precise
date that the conversation occurred doesn't discount the fact that it did in fact
happen. Simply estimate the date as accurately as possible: "We talked about
this around three weeks ago, Walt, and at that time. . .
Specific Statements of Desired Performance and Actual Performance. This is
the most important part of the written summary. Here the supervisor writes, in
simple, clear, and unarguable terms, exactly what the performance expectation
is and precisely how the employee is failing to meet that expectation.
the attendance category both the expectation and the actual performance will be
quite easy to specify. The desired performance is for the employee to arrive at
work on time every day; the actual performance is that on May 5, 11, 22, and 26,
Sally Edwards reported for work more than twenty minutes late.
when the problem is in the conduct area, the difference between actual and desired
is usually very clear: The desired performance is that supervisors wait until
the Personnel Change Notice form is returned by the compensation department before
advising an employee that he has been granted a salary increase; the actual performance
is that Marilyn Longer told George Schmidt that he would be getting a raise before
the paperwork was processed.
In the performance area the difference
between what we want and what we get may be murky. It may be difficult to pinpoint
one specific behavior, or even a collection of specific shortcomings, that creates
the need for a formal discussion. In these cases, the supervisor should continually
ask herself: "For example . . . ?" as she attempts to move her generalizations
and judgments about the individual into accurate and defensible illustrations
of performance deficiencies.
4. A Summary of the Good Business
Reasons the Problem Needs to Be Solved. Compiling a list of the effects of
the problem helps the employee understand why what he is doing is a problem. It
also helps produce the employee's agreement to solve that problem.
generate a complete list, assume that the individual has said, "I don't really
think that what I am doing is a problem. What difference does it make?" How
would you respond?
Most supervisors find it fairly easy to
generate a list of a half dozen good business reasons why a problem must be solved,
particularly when they consider the impact of the situation on fellow employees,
customers (both internal and external), the culture of the organization, the perceptions
of others, and the effects on the supervisor himself.
A List of Likely Consequences if the Individual Chooses Not to Change and
Correct the Situation. One consequence that will always appear on the list will
be, "Further disciplinary action up to and including discharge."
supervisors usually view the potential for disciplinary action as a serious consequence
for misbehavior, employees frequently discount both the likelihood and severity
of the threat. Marginal employees may have heard supervisors thunder, "I'm
gonna write you up!" or "I'll fire you if you ever do that again!"
so many times that they consider this just one more manipulative game supervisors
play to enforce order and get more work out of the troops. Constantly threatened
with write-ups and sackings, they become deaf to the warning of further disciplinary
Unable to see past the threat of "further disciplinary action,"
supervisors often overlook responses that may have far more persuasive power with
difficult employees. If a person refuses to correct a deficiency once it has been
brought to his attention, the likely outcomes- being denied salary increases and
promotional opportunities, or being subjected to closer supervision and assigned
to less desirable tasks- may be far more persuasive in convincing the employee
of the need to change.
- Kernberg Grote, Dick, Discipline Without Punishment,
AMACOM: New York, 2006
Reflection Exercise #8
The preceding section contained information
about assessing and improving supervisee performance. Write three case study examples
regarding how you might use the content of this section in your practice.
According to Kernberg, to solve problems effectively you must be able
to describe what it is that you want and what it is that you get in the supervisee's
performance. What two main performance concepts are identified here? Record the
letter of the correct answer the