Managing a High Performer Who Has Some Bad Habits

Have you ever managed, or are you now managing, a stellar performer who has a couple of bad habits?

Giving feedback to high performers

Here’s how one leader described one of her direct reports to me in a conversation this week: “In terms of his knowledge base and the execution of his work, he’s a 10, but he’s been getting on the nerves of a couple of important peers, and it’s becoming a problem. If he does this again, he could blow apart the project our team is about to deliver on.”

This leader, a VP whom I’ll call Tanya, had just found out her high-performing direct report, Kai, a senior director, had recently irked an important peer — a peer who was integral to the execution of their current project. This information came in addition to two complaints about him she got from two of her own other direct reports within the past month.

If you’ve ever faced this kind of situation with someone you manage, or if you are right now, then the advice below is for you. 

What to Do

Because the issue at hand is Kai’s behavior, and not his performance, Tanya needs to have a behavior change conversation with her direct report.

As a leader, you want to ensure or increase the chances that your high performer will hear the feedback and make the necessary behavior change. In the Tanya example, what Tanya was hearing was that Kai frequently interrupts people with ideas or suggestions for what he thinks their next action should be.

And while many of his ideas are good, they may not fit the situation (he interrupts people before he hears the whole story). Tanya had never observed him using this behavior with her or with others above him. In fact, he seemed to listen quite carefully in conversations with senior leaders.

The problematic behavior seemed to be localized to peers, and it could be happening with Kai and his directs, although Tanya hasn’t heard this from anyone who reports to Kai.

Getting Ready for the Behavior Change Conversation

The behavior change conversation focuses on solution, and assumes the best about the direct report. Below is a step-by-step process for having that conversation in a way that ups the likelihood of a successful result. And before you have that conversation, there are three things I recommend:

  • Know your intended outcome for the conversation. The crucial preliminary step before having any conversation with a direct report is to know the outcome you want from the conversation. In the Tanya example, her intended outcome might be: “Kai is clear about his behaviors that are productive and those that aren’t and agrees to make the necessary changes.”
  • Don’t use the word “feedback” before or during the conversation. Even though I use the word “feedback” here, as I’ve mentioned in a previous post, it’s unwise to use the word “feedback” with direct reports because the word “feedback” tends to close down receptivity, not invite it.
  • Bring up the topic during your regular 1:1.  Unless there is a pressing need to have this conversation immediately – that is, if your direct did something that leadership is highly upset about and needs immediate attention – I recommend that you simply talk about behavior change informally as part of your usual catch-up meetings to eliminate as much defensiveness as possible. Because when you invite a direct to a “special” meeting, their flight or fight response often goes into high gear.

The Behavior Change Conversation in 5 Steps

1. State Your Observation: In the Kai example, here’s what Tanya might say: “There’s something I’d like to talk with you about that I believe will help you be as effective in your peer discussions as you are when you’re talking with leaders. I’ve noticed this some over the last few months that when you’re with your peers you tend to interrupt with suggestions. Yet I almost never see you do that with leaders above you.”

2. Acknowledge What’s Working: “In fact, I’ve seen you listen intently to those above you, and you’re quite good at picking up the important points they’re making. You add your comments only after they’ve finished.” Then pause in case Kai a has something he’d like to add.

3. Be Candid: “When your peers don’t get to finish their thoughts, you may be missing out on the whole story and the bigger picture. And as we both know, that strategic picture is often the invaluable information that you need as a leader.”

4. Involve: “What are your ideas on ways you can take your communication skills with leaders and bring them to your peer level?” The tendency for many managers here is to quickly make a suggestion about what Kai can do, such as, “I suggest you start using those good listening skills of yours with your peers.” That would be a mistake. The best way to effect behavioral change is not with a suggestion, but with involvement – drawing the fix from the person who needs to put it in play. This creates higher commitment from the individual making the change.

5. Clarify and Close: You finish up the behavior change discussion by reviewing what’s been decided on, next steps to be taken and by when, and what the report-back process will entail.

More Conversations With Direct Reports

Managers and leaders can use these steps not only for Behavior Change Conversations, but also for Performance Adjustment Conversations. These are just two of the six main types of conversations for managers to have with their direct reports. I’ll be covering more of them in future posts.

Question: Have you found this kind of approach to be useful when talking with direct reports about behavior change? Do you have any tips to share? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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