Category Archives: Book

How to deal with Low Performance Employees

Since I wrote a post about modern management techniques, a friend of mine has been giving me some really good feedback. Part of the discussion I had with him recently was about the concept of providing more positive feedback to higher performers while spending lesser time working with and providing constructive feedback to the lower performers. The final goal is as always to get the most out of your employees without burning them out and making sure that they enjoy a decent work-life balance.

I had read about a theory by a researcher named Losada about a specific numerical figure that determines the ratio between positive and negative feedback for high performing teams. I had mentioned it in my past blog post and have also referred to it in conversations with friends and co-workers. My friend wanted to know more about this and I set about researching it last night. Well, it turns out that the numerical method of calculation was debunked last year (2014) in a scathing paper denouncing the practices. The original article appeared in the Harvard Business Review in 2009 and was called “The Ideal Praise-to-Criticism Ratio.” Since the work is under question, there is no point in discussing it here. Much has been said about it already. My only addition would be to say how disappointed I was in learning that studies such as this, ones that have been referred to in so many good publications and courses, are in fact low on fact and high on lies. False data and bogus conclusions really hurt Science. This has such a negative impact on the credibility of Science as a field that I feel a more pronounced reaction is necessary to prevent other scientists from wanting to falsify data.

That being said, I surmise that the basic premise is still true.

Managers are critical by nature. Their ability to be detail oriented and get results is what got them the job in the first place. So it should not come as a surprise that we tend to be hard on the people that work for us. Even in the most effective and efficient team, a manager will always be able to find things not done according to their own plan. How they deal with this is up to them and their management style. Depending on the makeup of the team, they might find it beneficial to let small irritations pass without pointing them out. They might let the team figure out their issues organically and encourage the team to hold each other accountable for their actions. They might even be afraid of their team and ignore problems to avoid being the bad guy.

I have been managing small teams for some time and in almost every team I have found problems that needed addressing. In dealing with issues, I force myself to have an inner monologue as a manager. I only do a few things that bears mentioning here in addition to the obvious. I tend to give everyone the benefit of the doubt. I do not mix positive and negative feedback. I keep negative feedback factual, succinct and directed at outcomes. I also record all the significant negative feedback that I have provided in a text file. I also try not make social friends out of the people that report to me.

When I run into chronic performance problems at work, I tend to fall back to my training. I write down my planned interactions for trouble employees. I like to keep these meetings short, to the point and have the goal of walking out of each with a plan of action for the employee. The employee and I agree on one or two simple metrics for me to track until the next meeting and we go back to work. The goal for me is to not turn low performers into high performers at that time. I simple plan on stopping loss. Once performance stabilizes for the employee, I start treating them with positive feedback for anything they do above and beyond the minimum detailed in the metrics. If there are other issues to be solved, I try to get them all to a state of stability before attempting the positive feedback technique so as not to confuse them. They quickly learn that withholding of positive feedback is actually unsatisfying to them, unsatisfying enough that they want do more than quid pro quo. Does this work every time? No. Does it work often enough to make me want to try this method every time? Yes.

Some of the wind in my sails about this method and the quantitative research that supported it has been shed as of yesterday and for that I am quite disappointed. My experience says that this works primarily in cases of mild to medium performance issues and does nothing for employees who are militant or downright malicious. I have sought HR help in every one of those cases and tried to follow their advice to the tee.

Do you have any advice for me and my readers?

The Practice of Practice

The topic is somewhat self explanatory but it was not clear to me till a few months ago. Let me explain.

My father is a stickler for a job done right. Most of my early childhood was spent on listening to him bitch at me about doing one thing or the other correctly. I remember him telling me, in Bengali, that whatever I did, I should do it well. It was said to me so many times, and I was so remiss at my studies, that the message was lost in me ignoring my father’s advice. I will not get into his relationship with me, but will focus on his message. I also remember him telling me about Swami Vivekananda and about his treatise, Karma Yoga. He told me how he had read it when was young and it had shaped his life. Dad is an ardent Vivekanada fan to say the least. I had myself picked up a copy of it while I was in school and browsed a few pages before my eyes had glazed over. Of course I had boasted to him that I had read the book and understood what it was trying to tell me. But far from it, while I tried to do the best I could with everything that was painful to me (read: studying for school and exercising), I had no idea how to make the activity more palatable to me. I was too naive. Now I think I understand better.

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My First Mandala

What you see above is my first embellishment of a Mandala drawing. Now don’t get excited, I did not draw it myself. I simply bought an adult coloring book from Amazon (Angie’s Extreme Stress Menders Volume 1 af.) and colored it at my leisure. Now I will tell you that I like coloring and art and I knew I would enjoy doing this. It took me a long time and I just listened to my favorite arias while coloring away at the dining table. I really like how it turned out. My reason for bringing it up is that the book forces you to step away from everything else and focus on just the coloring. It forces you to look at the intricate details and if you do not pay attention, you miss the lines and create a mess. So instead of thinking about everything else in your life, you spend a few minutes completely focused on what you are doing at that moment. I think it would be harder to do for someone who is not into coloring or art because it would seem tedious.

The Practice of Practicing is much like that. The following ideas are not completely mine but are brought over from the book The Practicing Mind. I love this book and have listened to it quite a few times and have made bookmarks all over to find the most interesting parts. The book and its premise boils down to the idea that we need to be present every moment of the day, in the moment that we are in. How do we focus when our mind wanders? We need to practice practicing. How do we do that? We train our minds to think of only what we are working with at that present moment and move all else out of our minds. When our minds start to wander, we need just remind ourselves that we are wandering and the mind is designed to refocus itself automatically. The book also states a couple of other interesting ideas. The first of which is that we need to remember that if we dream of the future or relish or despair the past, then we are not in the moment. Neither the future or the past are real and the only thing that is real is the moment we are in. As for our dreams and our aspirations, we need to set aside time to properly plan and think through those, without letting our minds wander to other things at that time. We are creatures of desire and ambition and it would suit us well to remember that beyond every promotion and every new trinket we buy for ourselves, there will always be another promotion or item waiting to be desired, There never will be an end to our desire for more and we can never be truly satisfied with our lot if all we do is run after the next big thing.

There are some wonderful examples in the book. I do them no justice here. I encourage you to read/listen to the book yourself as I am no author. I simply look to whet your appetite. Think about the time you spent commuting from work in your cars. Do you spend much of the time talking to others on the phone or listening to the radio? Even when you are listening to the radio, are you thinking about your day at work, dreaming about the weekend or planning your vacation? Try this the next time you are behind the wheel. Focus on your driving. Feel the steering wheel under your fingers and look at what the other cars are doing around you. Listen to the sound of your engine as it pitches and whines. Maybe play a game with yourself about driving. I like to see if I can make the whole commute without having to press on the brakes even once. I know that sounds absurd but it relaxes me and I have to pay very close attention to the traffic and to the car in front of me so that I can predict what it is going to do. It reminds me of the Mandala coloring book. Staying in the moment trains your mind. It also helps in making tedious or difficult tasks seem to go by quickly. Learning also takes place much quicker. To me this is very important. Practicing your golf swing or learning to play an instrument can be intimidating. Practicing a musical instrument, after the initial elation of learning something new, might become quickly tedious that you put it off until you stop learning completely. If we stay in the moment and focus on the now without worrying about the outcome of the task, the task itself gets easier to do and the outcome is reached without as much effort. When writing a program to accomplish a task, if the developer is too tied up in where the final version of their application will end up, or how far they have gotten, it will take longer to get the work done. As the Agile methodology explains, if the developer breaks the task down into smaller pieces, works on each piece with complete focus and feedback and only when complete, moves over to the next, work is completed at the most efficient speed. In my example above, if you focused on just the driving, you might find that the commute takes a lot less time in your mind and you will learn to look forward to the few minutes of special attention to pay to your driving.

The author suggests various methods to accomplish this goal of staying in the moment. If you have read about Demming’s cycle, the author suggests a simplified version in DO-OBSERVE-CORRECT. Rather than judging our outcome every step of the way, rather than looking at how much time is past or how well we did as compared to the expected final goal, we should take small steps towards the goal. We can then check back with the goal and correct our methods if we need to. An example that sticks with me is the task of throwing a basketball into a trash can from far away. If we throw the ball the first time and it is wildly off target, we might follow up each throw with growing despair at our inability to throw the ball into the basket and we may quickly tire of the goal. I am reminded of my son getting really frustrated when he is not able to make a basket in our backyard and walking away in a huff. We should instead see how far it landed from the can and without judging our ability to make it into the correctly at the first throw, make a small change to the direction/speed of the ball and throw it again. In this way we will soon get it into the basket. Rather than judging ourselves at every turn, we should keep making small corrections as we continue towards the goal and just keep a casual eye on the final goal to keep ourselves on track. DOC has become a mantra to me and I use it to re-focus myself once I stray. The author mentions various examples and methods of his own to make his point.

Karma Yoga is Yoga through Karma or Practice. The more we spend time focusing on what we are doing at that present moment, doing it well, noticing every nuance and maybe not appreciating it but noticing it nonetheless, we become better at it. Rather than worrying about whether we will succeed or fail, we should focus on how we are doing it. The last point that I want to make is the most important to me. The book states that we should not judge ourselves. Though quite a simple concept and well worn, this is far reaching. If we fail to keep our minds from wandering, without admonishing ourselves for failing or despairing at our failure, we should observe why we failed and then correct our action for the next moment. If we plan on exercising every morning, if and when we fail to exercise for a few days for whatever reason, we should not think about the fact that we did not exercise. Instead we should think to ourselves that what is done is over with and make plans for the next day to exercise. This can go on ad nauseum if needed. Failure to exercise will not be repeated too many times if no sense of despair creeps in. Focusing on a present detail, such as your heart rate, instead of constant comparison of a goal with the present, such as present weight compared to the weight goal, will only make us more prone to judging ourselves. Stop checking yourself against your goal and start paying attention to the activity, however painful or unwanted. Stop worrying about where you want to be and start working on where you are. Where you be will come soon enough, without you knowing that it came.

I enjoy writing on this blog. I have my headphones on, am listening to Turnadot and have spent the last hour completely focused on remembering the details of the book, how I practice and what I would like for others to read about and gleam from the book. I thoroughly enjoyed the last hour and it flew by. If you are looking for some respite from the rat race or are looking for more than just a paycheck everyday, I suggest you pick up this book. It might just help you enjoy your life quite a bit more and help you look forward to your every day. It might just make your life less boring and tedious and more of the journey that you enjoy.