This is the 4th Q&A of a 6 part series on employee motivation and engagement. You might prefer to start with reading the introduction here.
How can I tell my top performing employee that he is not ready to apply for a team leader position without totally demotivating him? I can’t tell him, “You are not good enough.” I’m thinking I should just encourage him to apply. It would be so much easier.
Here’s my 4-step “tough love” answer
Many leaders dread this part of their job. They don’t want to disappoint an employee who displays an interest in advancing within the company.
Sylvie, I couldn’t agree with you more on your first thought. I mean, no one likes to be told, “You are not good enough” or “You are not ready.” Especially if it is a top performer who has probably received monetary bonuses for his performance. Which is probably the reason why you might find yourself in a position of giving him the “wrong” message by encouraging him to apply for a next level position. Although you mean well by doing this, there are 2 things to think about.
- If he doesn’t get the job, this employee will be crushed.
- If he gets the job and FAILS, it will be so much more devastating if he gets demoted. I have seen employees go on sick leave when this happens. You are not doing him or yourself any favors. There is a way to go about it, don’t FREAK OUT!
1. Start Off On a Positive Note and Ask Lots of Questions
It is great to hear you have an interest in growing within the company.
Tell me more about why you are interested in this position?
What do you know about the role of a team leader?
How will you contribute to the role?
(It is amazing how many employees have no idea what they are getting themselves into and think that it will not be much different than their current role).
If there is one thing I learned, it’s the power of asking questions.
Keep digging in their thoughts with more questions. If you start by telling him or giving him information based on how you see the situation, he will most probably feel attacked or offended.
By asking a few QUALITY questions based on how he sees the situation, he will discover it for himself through his answers.
Asking questions, gets the other person to reflect on themselves, come up with their conclusions without you having to tell them.
2. Let him Auto-Evaluate Himself
Evaluate his skills in reference to the required skills and qualifications on the posting.
As you said,
“Never, do you tell him, “You are not good enough.”
- It is important that the employee feels like you are working together with him. So, from the responses he has given you, get involved in elaborating in detail exactly what will be expected from him.
- That’s right, dissect every qualifications on that post, describe it to him, tell a story (give him personal examples if you have to) and then ask him to evaluate himself on each one. What’s important here is that he is not general with his answers. Example: “I am a good coach” or “I have good people skills.” Ask him for specific examples.
- You could even try a humorous approach. Don’t make feel like you are putting him on the spot. So, example, “Mike, I will pretend to be really hard on you, it will be a good practice for an interview and prepare you for what it will be like to be a team leader. This kind of stuff is what the role entails.”
By describing each qualification to him and allowing him to evaluate himself, he will slowly come to the conclusion on his own.
3. Give Feedback
At this point, chances are that employee has come to his conclusion that he is probably not ready yet. If not, it is your turn to give him an evaluation regarding the skills he is lacking and give constructive feedback. I can’t stress the next point enough.
DO NOT list his weaknesses!!
This will only aggravate and demotivate him deeper. Furthermore, if his “weaknesses” have never been addressed, he will be very confused.
- Instead, refer to a particular skill you feel he needs to improve and give him a concrete example of how he handled a past situation and ask him something like, “what impact do you think it would have as a role of a team leader?” His answer will help you to understand better his model of the role of a team leader. You will be in a better position to communicate by using their answers as resources.
Employees sometimes don’t realize that certain behaviors have a bigger impact depending on their role and responsibilities. Before doing this, let me stress another danger zone to avoid.
- If you have not discussed the example with him before, STAY AWAY from it.
There should not be any surprises here.
Don’t despair. There is another path you go on.
- Use analogies, stories (a personal story will do). Let him feel, touch almost taste what the responsibility of this role would be for him at the point that he is now. I always enjoy this one. Telling a story is magically powerful in building someone’s trust. Whether it is a personal story or about someone else and even analogies, they create a more intimate, interactive, comfortable space. What’s important is to tell your story with emotion in your own unique style. Let your employee visualize it. Give him time to feel and reflect through your story. He needs to feel that you are actually investing this time in his best interest.
- Keep asking him quality questions in relation to the story you’re telling. Go beyond yourself. Step outside of your title. Make this about him. What’s really important here is the way you communicate this with him. If you take an authoritative approach, it will most likely not have any positive impact on him. Be yourself. Try to feel what he is feeling. Your thoughts should not be, “what is the professional thing to say?” or “How would so and so handle this?” Be present in the moment, the words are not as important as your actions, character and how you make him feel.
You will be a greater influence on him if you are real.
4. Support him in Getting There
At this point, the employee will come to his own conclusion that he is not ready now. It doesn’t mean that it’s over and things can go back to the way they were. Remember, this employee showed an interest in developing himself. He probably has no freakin’ idea how to get to where he wants to be. If he does not feel he is of value, nothing has been accomplished. So, you need to work with him in providing him tools, opportunities and support to improve to the next level.
It is important to mention and let him believe that you believe he can get there.
- More importantly tell him WHY you believe he can. Be specific. He will gain so much more trust in you if you give him a specific reason rather than saying, “I believe you can do it” (it really doesn’t mean much).
- Work out a plan together. Give him an opportunity where he can develop the skills he is lacking. If we stick to our example: Have him coach employees that are not meeting some of the company’s objectives. You must discuss this opportunity (or whatever else you give him) with him. Explain WHY you are offering this to him. Then to further evolve him, give him the responsibility in coming up with a plan, a structure on how and what he will do with it.
- Give him CLEAR, SIMPLE expectations of his responsibility. Let him decide and put together the whole thing (You may ask to review it before he actually begins).
- Make sure it is clear to him. Ask him how he would best think it should be set up. This will bring out his strengths and motivate him in meeting the expectations.
Setting up the schedule for each coaching, building a coaching file for each employee. Documenting the progress or difficulty of the employee. What’s important is that you guide him through it (Don’t tell him what to do), without giving him a task to comply to. This will only make him depend on you to make decisions. Meet with him once a month (with the option of coming and see you when he needs), review what was discussed in the previous meeting and set goals for the following month.
- Please, do not make any promises you can’t keep. Don’t promise him that by doing this, he will get the job the next time around. It will kill his creativity. Now, he will be doing something to get a reward in the end. It should be an opportunity for him with no prize at the end. His goal should be to progress, not to get promoted. Let me explain. You see, if he does this just to get that job, he will not have any control over the goal he has set (because it is not guaranteed). Furthermore, he will limit his creativity. In the example of coaching employees, if his goal is to improve his skills to help others, he will have control over his performance. Obviously, it’s ok that he feels it can improve his chances of getting the job later. It should not be his goal. If he ends up getting the job, it will be the result of his goal.
“Treat people as if they were what they ought to be, and you help them to become what they are capable of being.” — Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Please, share any suggestions that I have not mentioned that has had a positive outcome in your role as a leader. Even if your role is not within the workplace, we can all learn and grow from you.
The full Q&A series are: