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“A little learning is a dangerous thing.”

An employee is often missing deadlines, they are falling behind on their work and do not seem to be making an effort to try to change this.  What are your immediate thoughts?  Do you judge that they are lazy, unmotivated and incapable of dealing with their responsibilities and consider putting them on a performance monitoring scheme?  This approach does demonstrate your leadership in being perceptive and instinctive; however, there is a key problem with this approach…

Making decisions and judgements such as this is very limiting as it does not allow evaluation as to whether this is correct.  This process simply takes into account behaviours and does not delve into underlying intentions or reasons.  A recent article on Harvard Business Review Blog highlighted that this process is a much researched psychological topic known as ‘behaviour engulfing the field’, which is ‘how we infer that others’ actions reflect that person’s true “inner self,” belief system, and personality.’  In practical terms, this can be applied to the workplace in the way, for example, we may immediately consider someone ‘disorganised’ if they lose a document.  This aligns well with a famous quote by Alexander Pope; “A little learning is a dangerous thing”.  This explains how having only a small appreciation of something creates a disillusion of the overall situation and your ability to manage it productively.

Taking this into account, the best way to manage a situation when something is not right with someone’s actions is to remove the possibility of bias in your opinion and resulting decisions, and when discussing the issue with an employee follow these three tactics:

  1. Simplicity.  Outline your thoughts and what the issue is, e.g. the missing of deadlines, and ask the person straight “Is there something else going on?”
  2. Receptiveness.  Demonstrate caring and empathy towards them by getting onto a personal level.  If you take the approach of informing someone they have an issue that requires them to change, you will lose them straight away.  However, if you take a sensitive approach and say you notice that they have not been themselves, they will be more likely to open up.
  3. Vulnerability. Show that you know you do not know everything for certain and instead recognise the limits of your knowledge.  This will ensure that as Steven Berglas for Harvard Business Review Blog advises, you do not ‘let the little you know lead you into danger.’

Unfortunately, we may make uninformed, instinctive decisions and sometimes address behaviours with a bias.  However, following some simple steps and taking a different tact can easily resonate this and ensure you do not jump to the wrong conclusion and lose connection with your employees.

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