I talked with a colleague recently who is having some supervision challenges. Her employee is “good at what he’s doing, but not good at what I need him to do.” Ah, the dilemma.

It is so much easier to correct an employee who is not performing well at all. That conversation is often clear and to the point: Do X if you want to remain employed. But counseling an employee who is doing something well is often more challenging because, more likely than not, what they are not doing can be classified as an intangible.

Supervisors often have a difficult time describing their expectations for the “I’s”: instinct, initiative and integrity. They adopt an “I’ll-know-it-when-I-see-it” mentality which is unfair to the employee who has a very different perspective of what that looks like. Expecting people to lead, exhibit good judgment or be proactive in their work are inherently nebulous concepts but it is incumbent on the supervisor to provide clarity to them.

If you’re onboarding a new employee, spend disproportionate time in talking about your expectations for these intangibles. Give concrete examples of good and bad. Help the employee understand the importance of thinking as well as doing.

And if you have a continuing employee, be intentional in your feedback about the intangibles more than you are about their concrete output. Praise displays of initiative and instinct. Course correct on minor deviations from what you’d like to see. Model the behavior you expect.

If an employee is not doing what you as their supervisor need them to do, the responsibility is on you to clarify the expectations and hold them accountable. Anything less is a failure of your performance, not theirs.

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