Improving Communication About People and Performance

Communication is the art of understanding and being understood. Simple as it sounds, we all know how challenging our efforts to communicate can really be, especially when we are dealing with descriptive attributes rather than tangible or quantifiable information.

Consider these examples: 

  • He’s a good team player…
  • She has good leadership potential…
  • He just can’t make decisions…
  • She’s good with people…
  • Dave’s a good manager…
  • Phillip is a poor communicator…
  • Carolyn is a natural closer…
  • He really sells himself in the interview…
  • Jennifer is a good coach…

Are they really typical of how managers communicate about behavior? Based upon my experience working with several thousand managers, I believe so. The problem, of course, is that as common as these phrases are, in some instances they don’t really say very much, and in others they leave the door wide open to the listener’s interpretation. What makes a good coach? What differentiates a team player from someone else who is not?

You can see for yourself by trying this simple test. Pick three of the above phrases and ask three people to tell you what they mean. Jot down on a piece of paper the first three things they say about each. Then compare the responses. You’ll likely find the answers to be quite varied.

Why do we run the risk of being misunderstood? Because communicating in this manner is simple, fast, and easy. Another reason is that people only know what they know. If a person is not able, for whatever reason, to see all the dimensions of leadership or understand all the variations of team play, then what is not known or understood cannot be articulated. Finally, rating a behavior or a competency as good or bad, strong or poor – passing judgment rather than describing – seems to be an accepted communication convention that often meets little resistance.

One of the most interesting, but least desirable, effects of over-simplified communication is stereotyping. Studies have provided evidence that once these types of judgments are made and passed along, regardless of their accuracy or appropriateness, they brand a person just like a product gets branded. In collecting performance data for studies, time and time again we have seen supervisors express judgments about people and their performance rankings without any supporting data and without being able to describe the actual behavioral differences that account for the different rankings. 

Compare this to other decisions we make. How many of us would select a stock to purchase based upon another’s unexplained claim that it provides a good return? Would we choose not to buy a car because someone tells us that particular model gets poor mileage, but doesn’t offer up further information? Would we select a school for our children because we hear only that the teachers are “good” or that the sports program is “excellent”? In these areas we don’t settle for vague judgments and we certainly shouldn’t in our assessments of people as well.

We all want to make accurate decisions about people and we want to treat them fairly. So, what can we do to be more articulate, more specific, and more accurate in our discussions about people, their behavior in the workplace, and their performance? Here are several suggestions.

Understand that behavior is relative and perceptions about behavior vary with individual personality filters and experiences. As our perceptions vary, so do our definitions and classifications of what we see. This means do not expect others to see exactly what you see either in an interview or when observing job behaviors, unless you do 2, 3, and 4.

You need to establish within your work culture and within the context of each job a clear definition of critical performance-related terms: team player, leadership, effective communication, effective coaching, and the like. Not doing this invites miscommunication.

If you use competencies to frame out a job, that can be very helpful, but only where those competency definitions incorporate behaviors that are observable and which will allow for differentiation of performance. Look at your competency statements and for each of them ask, “Is that a behavior I can actually observe?” If you can’t, redraft the statement until the behaviors are specific.

In discussions, when you hear dangling judgments (“good with people” or “good communicator” etc.) ask, “What do you mean by that?” or “Can you describe what you mean for me?” And don’t throw out dangling judgments yourself! 

Do the same thing in your candidate interviews – press for specifics and ask for examples. Don’t let candidates get away with vague generalizations. Wherever possible, use behavioral interviews that incorporate questions to look for specific behaviors in specific situations.

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